Historys Limits

Today’s art collectors pay as much attention to what sits in their rooms as to what hangs on their walls. And dealers have been quick to cash in on their new preoccupation. Art galleries like Gagosian and Sonnabend have begun mounting design exhibitions, while contemporary-design galleries have borrowed a page from their art world brethren: Recognizing that collectors favor uniqueness, they tout not only the sculptural qualities of the pieces they offer and the theories behind them but also their rarity. That is why the hottest term in design today is limited edition. Backed by galleries, designers like Marc Newson, Constantin Gric and Maarten Baas are producing work in extremely small numbers. This manufactured exclusivity may be a blatantly commercial attempt to meld the spheres of art and design, but it is by no means the first instance in recent history, as the following examples demonstrate.

The Wiener Werkstätte
At the turn of the 20th century, Vienna was a city in transition. A growing class of wealthy merchants craved a new way of living, one not modeled on that of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy. To satisfy this desire, the architect Josef Hoffmann and the artist Koloman Moser in 1903 founded the Wiener Werkstätte“Viennese Workshops”—a protomodernist design collective whose goal was to bring artistry to every component of domestic life, from furniture, ceramics and glassware to dinner utensils, jewelry and even clothing. The Werkstätte revered handcrafted pieces and, because of the amount of time devoted to each item—“Better to take 10 days to create one object than to make 10 objects in one day” was their credo—focused on the luxury market. The collective celebrated individualism and embraced many design styles. Although usually identified with sleek, geometric wares by Moser and Hoffman (the latter created numerous rounded, fluted metal serving pieces as well), it also produced many curvaceous, near-Baroque pieces by designers like Dagobert Peche. The Werkstätte was hugely successful for a time, opening showrooms in Berlin and New York, among other cities, but it foundered with the onset of the Great Depression and closed in 1932.

The Bauhaus
The German school founded in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius is generally considered the most influential design institution of the 20th century. The Bauhaus’s governing principles were as much political as aesthetic: the democratic notion that art, craftsmanship and technology could be integrated to create attractive, well-designed living environments that were accessible to all. Its legacy is most pronounced in architecture and furniture, through designs by such faculty members as Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Breuer. But it produced a diverse array of work—tableware, ceramics, wallpaper, bookbindings, typographical styles—and among the staff and students were an astonishing number of the century’s great artists, including Moholy-Nagy, Kandinsky, Klee and Anni and Josef Albers. Although Bauhaus design is often severe in appearance, many pieces evince a true elegance, such as the tea infusers created by Marianne Brandt, one of which sold at Sotheby’s New York for $361,000 in 2007, setting the auction record for a Bauhaus work. Conceived as an industrial prototype, it was handcrafted from brass, silver and ebony, luxe materials that ironically precluded mass production. The school’s progressive ideals did not sit well with the Nazi regime, and it closed in 1933.

American Studio
After World War II, a group of furniture makers emerged who were united by a distaste for industrial production, a reverence for wood and an appreciation of idiosyncratic forms. The Philadelphia-area artist Wharton Esherick, who in the 1930s began carving angular, chamfered furnishings inspired by German Expressionism, is considered the spiritual father of the movement. It flowered in the ’50s and ’60s with three great exponents: George Nakashima, who maintained his wood’s natural contours and burls to reveal what he called “the soul of a tree”; Sam Maloof, who brought organic modernism to traditional furniture forms, most famously rocking chairs; and the protean Wendell Castle, whose early pieces were often lushly biomorphic and who later helped pioneer limited furniture editions. Some of the most striking work was created by California artist-craftsmen such as Arthur Espenet Carpenter, whose furniture manages to be both muscular and graceful, and Jack Rogers Hopkins, whose wildly eccentric designs often combine two or more furniture forms—say, a chair, side table and lamp—in one piece. The movement continues today in the creations of such designers as Michael Coffey, David Ebner and Nakashima’s daughter Mira.

What’s not to love about a design collective that got its name from a Bob Dylan song? Nothing—except the look of the pieces. Memphis was not about beauty, or even good taste, and the group’s work, more than anything that emerged from other design movements of the past century, arguably deserves to be regarded as art. It all began in December of 1980, when Ettore Sottsass, an eminence of Italian design, met in Milan with a group of 20-something designers to discuss a new line of furniture. Everyone in attendance at the meeting—where Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again)” was played over and over—was exasperated by the staid state of contemporary design. Deciding to collaborate, the group agreed that the only rule was that there were no rules. The first Memphis show, the next year in Milan, was a sensation. Some of today’s best-known designers, such as Philippe Starck and Jasper Morrison, were shocked and inspired by what they saw: bursts of vivid color everywhere and piece after piece made of cheap fiberboard forms covered in goofily patterned plastic laminates and put together at odd angles. The overnight success of furnishings that were intended to outrage left Sottsass disenchanted. In 1985 he left the collective, which dissolved three years later.

Functional Art
In the ’80s, prompted in part by the success of Memphis but mainly out of frustration with the fine-art world’s indifference, avant-garde furniture makers declared themselves to be artists under the banner “functional art.” Their work was astonishingly various in both style and quality. Castle—who had moved on from organic wood to fiberglass and experiments with historicist forms—produced a hallucinatory series that included such pieces as a table decorated with hanging brass rings and supported by a forest of truncated cones. This period also saw the appearance of such provocateurs as the now-disbanded team of Garouste et Bonetti, with their neo-Baroque designs (pony-hide-covered tables, chair legs shaped like coral branches), and two of today’s most influential designers, Ron Arad and Tom Dixon. An art-school graduate and dropout, respectively, Arad and Dixon taught themselves welding and created furniture using parts culled from London junkyards. Many of their designs from this period have become classics. Arad got into limited editions early, and his work has an admirable track record as an investment. His 1989 Rolling Volume chair, produced in an edition of 20 with five artist’s proofs, originally cost about $25,000. The 19th issue recently fetched $77,000 at auction.

"History's Limits" originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's December 2008 Table of Contents.