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Design and Desirability – the New Art of Collecting

The race to own beautiful objects is only a tiny fraction of modern aspiration.

Can you tell the difference between art and design? Is there a difference? Does it matter if there is, or if there isn’t? A great painting hung on a wall is art; a beautifully constructed table is design. That much can probably be agreed upon. When does the table become a work of art? If it’s a one-off piece, made by hand over a period of months by a designer who can tell you why and how the materials were used to make it, who can build a narrative of his or her own life, as well as the table… well, that’s art, isn’t it? When the emotional response to the object is equal to or greater than its function: that’s definitely art.

The debate will continue, among artists and designers and collectors, but there is increasingly a deciding factor helping to draw a clear(ish) line between contemporary and modern art and contemporary and modern design: desirability. Great art is bought at significant cost and immediately put into storage, where no one can see it, perhaps ever again. The only appreciation involved is the increase in its asset value. But design, even the most expensive and highly coveted, is never hidden in this way.

“It’s a problem where great pieces of art are bought and put into storage and never seen for 30 years,” said Tony Chambers, editor-in-chief of the design magazine Wallpaper*. “With design, there isn’t this idea in mind, and that’s a sensible thing. You don’t want to spend your hard-earned money on something that will devalue, of course, but the desire with design is for something that raises your spirits. It makes you happy, and what could be better than that.”

Look for things that will last forever. I recently attempted to give something we made a thousand-year guarantee, but I couldn’t find an underwriter.

Chambers was speaking on a panel at PAD London, the city’s leading 20th-century art, design and decorative arts fair. He and his fellow panellists – the designer Tom Dixon, the collector Tania Fares and the design gallerist Sam Pratt, of Gallery Fumi – spoke on a wide range of design-related topics, not least the idea of desirability. For Dixon, this modern aspiration comes in two ways.

“What’s interesting about the creation of design, as seen here at PAD,” Dixon said, “is that the intention is to create very expensive objects and create desirability through making things as extraordinary as possible. The other part of PAD, which I am slightly more interested in, is the desirability created through rarity, with things made a long time ago. Perhaps only one or two of them were made; they become dusty and rejected and then come back into the market – this year it’s very Brazilian, the stuff that’s being rediscovered – and then how that influences the contemporary designers. It’s nice to see the spread of desirability here.”

Designed by Tom Dixon

Designed by Tom Dixon

Sam Pratt, in tandem with Valerio Capo, his partner in Gallery Fumi, has made desirability a central element of a successful business plan. He turned his back on a 20-year career in finance to make a living in the world he was passionate about, and already involved in as a collector (Capo was along for the ride after making a similar leap, from a marketing consultancy). Gallery Fumi is one of a small but increasing number of London galleries that focuses only on design.

“We take designers who are very much not household names, and look for the emotional connections to the beautiful objects they make, as well as the objects’ function. We challenge our designers and they challenge us, to create the narrative. People come into the gallery, and see the things, and try to remember the names, but there are so many names. So if you have something else, about how and why the object is made, what technologies are used, it helps to fix these objects in people’s minds.”

As a collector of many years, Tania Fares, understands better than most the desire created by the stories inherent in design and the people who surround it. “You go to fairs and galleries to learn and see more things, and meet more collectors and curators,” she explained. “All the time you’re developing your eye and so you get to spot the pieces that you love and that you can live with. You should only buy what you love, and if you do well out of that financially, of course you’re not sad about that. But that should never be the reason you buy design.”

Lustrum Stool Sofie Lachaert & Luc d'Hanis (2016) at Gallery Fumi

Lustrum Stool Sofie Lachaert & Luc d’Hanis (2016) at Gallery Fumi

Out on the show floor of PAD London, in a temporary structure that fills the gardens of Berkeley Square, gallerists were showcasing both brand-new and rediscovered pieces to thousands of attendees. Sarah Myerscough, who founded her eponymous London gallery, sees a blurring of the line between design and art as a key driver of desirability.

“Hand-crafted design in unique or limited-edition pieces is very much the zeitgeist of what’s going on in contemporary art,” she said. “Collecting contemporary design is actually really new, and many people don’t see themselves as dedicated collectors in the old way, and see design more as part of their environment along with their contemporary art collection.

“The pieces in our gallery, as well as others throughout the fair, are very special pieces which belong in museums. They have a longevity and a relevance in contemporary art culture. There are only a few contemporary design galleries in London and so you can make a statement and reach out to people who will become the new collectors of the future.”

Tom Dixon has a piece of advice those new collectors should heed: “Look for things that will last forever,” he said. “I recently attempted to give something we made a thousand-year guarantee, but I couldn’t find an underwriter.”

Chambers was speaking on a panel hosted by Investec Private Banking at PAD London, the city’s leading 20th-century art, design and decorative arts fair. He and his fellow panellists – the designer Tom Dixon, the collector Tania Fares and the design gallerist Sam Pratt, of Gallery Fumi – spoke on a wide range of design-related topics, not least the idea of desirability. For Dixon, this modern aspiration comes in two ways. The photograph is of the Sarah Myerscough Gallery booth view, taken by Andy Barnham.