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Is design as good as gold? Experts share their tips for entering the market
Updated 30th November 2016
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Is design as good as gold? Experts share their tips for entering the market
Luther Vandross famously crooned "A chair is still a chair/Even when there's no one sittin' there."
But is a chair still just a chair when it sells for a cool £2.43 million ($3.74 million)?
When designer Marc Newson's Lockheed Lounge chair hit the block at Phillips in London in April 2015, it broke the world record for the most expensive work of contemporary design ever sold at auction and proved that the market is on fire.
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While vintage wares from late greats like Jean Prouvé, Jean Royère, Carlo Mollino and Gio Ponti have long fetched eye-popping sums at auction, the Lockheed sale -- though undoubtedly an anomaly -- hinted that contemporary designers working today are capable of being as hot a commodity as their predecessors.
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Marc Newson's Lockheed Lounge chair sold for £2.43 million ($3.74 million) at a Phillips auction in London in April 2015, setting a new record for the most expensive piece of contemporary design ever sold. Credit: courtesy Phillips/Phillips.com
The good news for budding design enthusiasts is that the majority of the contemporary design market still is much more accessible, and an exciting space for novice collectors to explore.
As Design Miami kicks off, offering up the best of both vintage and contemporary goods, CNN Style asked four design world insiders about the current state of the market and the best ways for first-time buyers to dive in. The consensus? While it's tempting to believe that design is a wise investment (and it very well may be), collecting should always come from the heart and be for the love of design, rather than future gains.

Rodman Primack: Chief Creative Officer of Design Miami

Why do you think there seems to be a growing interest in design globally?
The market is growing alongside -- and because of -- the contemporary art market, which has boomed over the last 10-15 years.
The art market has gotten so hot and the prices so high. It's a reality that, by comparison, you are able to enter the design market more easily, and you can spend not-too-much and get something great.
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With art, you're buying it and putting it on the wall or behind protection -- generally not touching or using it, per se. The exact opposite is true with design.
In most cases it has functionality, so you can buy something that is collectible and rare, but you can be sitting on it or using it on a daily basis. The sense of preciousness is very different, and I think that's appealing to people.
Where contemporary art sometimes feels like something that one needs to have a lot of education about to really connect with, design is much more direct.
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Tomás Alonso's Vaalbeek Project -- commissioned and presented by the Brussels-based gallery, Victor Hunt Designart Dealer -- is currently being previewed through a Contemporary Salon installation at Design Miami. Credit: Victor Hunt Designart Dealer
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What advice would you give to a novice collector?
It always makes sense to collect what you're interested in. Whether that's a particular designer or a particular kind of object, it's a really good strategy to focus on a specific area and try to collect it in depth.
Be attuned to what excites you. Connect with that emotional moment of "I love it." Your temperature might rise, your pulse might quicken, and those moments are important to be aware of as a collector.
Follow your instincts. There's no wrong way to start a collection, or get into the market, unless you're just looking to other people and copying what they're doing. You've got to try and connect with something that's exciting to you personally.
What are some of the trends you've noticed on the design market?
Something that we've seen over the last few years is a re-appreciation of craft and the handmade. There's less of a love for technology for the love of technology -- I think we're over the moment of being excited by the tech itself, and now it's about those things servicing the industry in the background.
There's no wrong way to start a collection or get into the market, unless you're just looking to other people and copying what they're doing.
Rodman Primack, Design Miami
Who are the designers we should be keeping an eye on?
There are many designers out there that I'm excited by, so I have to underline that there are a great deal more than the ones I mention here, who I admire, collect, and watch with enthusiasm. Max Lamb's practice I really like. The American designer Jonathan Muecke is great, as is the Spanish designer Tomás Alonso, and the British designer Bethan Laura Wood -- just to name a few!
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Which cities are emerging as new design hubs?
Mexico City. It's such an interesting place from an art, architecture and design perspective; it has been for a long time. There have been great things happening there for centuries, but there seems to be a real energy and shift around what's happening there right now.

Johanna Agerman Ross: Curator of 20th Century and Contemporary Furniture and 20th Century Product Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Why do you think there seems to be a growing interest in design globally?
You've definitely seen a rise over the past 10 years in design coverage in the media, from magazines to blogs, and there are more design exhibitions and fairs than ever, so I think a more general audience has come to understand and appreciate design. It has become more accessible, if you will.
Because it's more prominent and talked-about, it feels perhaps like there is a lower risk factor now for people to invest in modern or contemporary design.
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What advice would you give to a novice collector?
Figure out what interests you, and understand what designer or period or part of the world appeals to you most. If you are going to invest in building a collection, it's important to have passion and stamina, because otherwise you'll lose interest.
The strongest collections take time and persistence. Find the connection points that works for you, and then it becomes a meaningful journey and not some exercise in buying something and hoping you can sell it for a bit more a few years down the line.
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I also think it's also important not to move too quickly. Do your homework and understand the market; go see things and think for yourself and don't feel pressured to act. Watch and wait, and build a strategy for how you want to move ahead.
Who are the designers we should be keeping an eye on?
I think it's intriguing to contemplate the designers working in digital media today, like Random International or Simon Heijdens. Their work's physicality isn't necessarily as we perceive it.
It's really interesting to see how that sector continues to grow, with the Museum of Modern Art doing shows like "Design and the Elastic Mind," which really help to highlight a new approach that goes beyond design as just a product or object.
Designer Simon Heijdens creates compelling site-specific installations. The "Silent Room" (pictured here) took the shape of a fully soundproof matte black 40-foot space with one dramatic light source. Credit: Courtesy Simon Heijdens.
What are some of the trends you've noticed on the design market?
Material innovation and exploration are strong themes at the moment. I think it has to do with a certain anxiety around the design profession, amidst global warming and sustainability issues.
We are questioning how much and how frequently we consume, and a lot of designers are preoccupied with these issues, but not in a superficial "Let's make eco design" way. Rather, it's about looking at resources and considering whether they are renewable and making things that endure. It's an intellectual query through design that I think is really important.
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Which cities are emerging as new design hubs?
China is a burgeoning market in terms of both design consumption and practice. I'm excited to see Eastern Europe opening up more -- you have the Biennial of Design in Ljubljana, Slovenia getting a lot of attention, as merely one example. Mexico and Brazil also have so much going on, but perhaps haven't been in the spotlight as much as they should be.
I think it's interesting to see a shift away from London, Milan and so forth. Collectors and institutions alike definitely need to pay attention and make an effort to engage with less obvious places.

Alexander Payne: Deputy Chairman, Europe, and Worldwide Head of Design at Phillips

Dutch designer Joris Laarman's aluminium Bone chair sold for £344,500 ($430,100) in April 2016 at a Phillips auction in London. Credit: courtesy Phillips/Phillips.com
Why do you think there seems to be a growing interest in design globally?
Design continuously inspires people for their homes, their interiors, and I think it is a very personal and individual arena to collect in. It becomes a part of how you live and your expression of style and taste, and people are always interested in communicating that.
We have indeed seen a continuous growth on the design market with new buyers streaming in, with a particular focus on 20th- and 21st-century work.
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But people are also increasingly looking to great galleries to incorporate new, exciting, and cutting-edge contemporary works into their collection. In time we will see these younger names come to the auction market, once enough time has elapsed for us to see which designers endure and which works become truly iconic objects.
What advice would you give to a novice collector?
You should approach collecting with passion, great drive and determination. Stay true to your individual taste and style, but also consider provenance and exhibition history, and try to acquire works that are the best output by that particular designer.
Really, the passage of time and a great eye will yield all the wonderful joys and gratifications of being a savvy collector. There will always be confidence surrounding an honest piece with great integrity, and value will follow from it having what I like to think of as an essential quality that captures the designer's ethos.
The passage of time and a great eye will yield all the wonderful joys and gratifications of being a savvy collector.
Alexander Payne, Phillips
Who are the designers we should be keeping an eye on?
There is currently a kind of synergy between design, innovation, material experimentation and engineering, and a renaissance of craft, which is creating very stimulating works and makes it a very exciting moment to collect contemporary design.
Someone like Joris Laarman is a phenomenally important young designer, and his work is already in some of the most exciting design collections
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Which cities are emerging as new design hubs?
One place of many that I have a keen eye on at the moment is Seoul. There's a very exciting scene developing there.

Brent Dzekciorius: Founder of Dzek and design editor

Why do you think there seems to be a growing interest in design globally?
I think it's definitely related to approachability. The design marketplace is relatively small compared to the art market, and we forge relationships with these functional objects -- furniture, design products -- from birth. We interact with these things and we have, even if it's subconscious, a very intimate understanding of how they serve our lives. So I think people feel like they need less of a formal understanding of design, as it's all around us.
I also think that between Instagram, Pinterest, all the designs blogs and the glossy magazines, we have an increased awareness of an aesthetic lifestyle. We are inundated with potent images, and it's so easy to latch onto those things and think "Oh, that looks like a great way to live."
Max Lamb's "Exercises in Seating 2," photographed at the 2016 Design Parade Festival at Villa Noailles Hyéres. Credit: Courtesy Max Lamb
What advice would you give to a novice collector?
I would say the most important thing to know is that there is no rush. The fairs often create a sense of urgency, but there really isn't an urgency to buy anything, especially in the contemporary market.
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These designers are living and working today, which means the work will be available and you can potentially have an amazing discourse about their work, which is really gratifying. You're doing something to keep the creative cycle moving forward by buying their work. It's an act of patronage.
All contemporary design should be bought because you love it, and it's shouldn't be bought with speculation in mind because you're going to have to hold on to it for a long time before it starts attaining the same kind of value as the vintage market.
Chairs are an easy place to start. I think most great collections probably started with a chair. They're relatable and we all need them.
Who are the designers we should be keeping an eye on?
I'm kind of always stuck in my world of who I've worked in some capacity, so of course Max Lamb is on the list, as are Faye Toogood, Tomás Alonso, and Formafantasma.
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What are some of the trends you've noticed on the design market?
There is a realignment of values. Designers and clients want to make and purchase things that are made with someone's hands, or things that at least have a trace of human engagement.
Which cities are emerging as new design hubs?
Amsterdam has a quite nice little scene, Rotterdam as well. And LA -- it's not just on the art scene anymore, there's a real renaissance on the design front.
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