Interview: with the Design Miami/Basel fair opening next week, new executive director Rodman Primack discusses the rise and fall of the collectible design market, from the "speculative craziness" of the noughties to the return to "traditionally luxurious" materials.
Launched in 2005, the Design Miami fair helped usher in a new market for limited-edition design, with galleries mirroring the art market by representing talented young designers, who produced experimental work that often sold for "crazy" prices.
"There was this moment when the prices at auction were crazy," said Primack, who helped build the "design art" market during his tenure as chairman of auctioneer Phillips in London.
However the financial crash prematurely punctured the design bubble and while the art market soon recovered, the collectible design market never recovered its mojo.
"It was a very healthy correction because there was a point where people were thinking it was like the contemporary art market and they should go out and buy all these things and put them into storage and be very speculative about it," Primack told Dezeen during an interview in London last week.
"Some people lost some money and that's very unfortunate, but I think the market returned to this place where it's much more real, where people are looking at objects for their value and their usability."
He added: "This market is not like the contemporary art market. These objects are different [to art]. We use them in different ways."
Galleries have correspondingly shifted their attention to less challenging types of design, such as mid-century French pieces or contemporary pieces made of "traditionally luxurious" materials.
"I think we've moved back to craft and materiality," said Primack. "Right now we're seeing a lot of marble and bronze and these traditional materials that have real values as opposed to, say, carbon fibre, where who knows what it’s worth?"
"I think part of that has to do with this post-recession idea of wanting to buy things that have value," he added. "I think it's a product of the post-recession idea. Somehow subconsciously it's better to be spending $50,000 on something that's bronze."
The Design Miami/Basel fair, the European sister of the Miami show that runs from 17-22 June in Basel, Switzerland, will be Primack's first fair since being appointed executive director earlier this year.
Here's an edited transcript of the interview:
Marcus Fairs: Tell me about yourself.
Rodman Primack: I'm Rodman Primack and I'm the new executive director of Design Miami. I'm a Pisces, I love the colour blue, I'm from LA. How deep do you want to go back?
I'm the first American to be running the fair. I've known Design Miami for its entire life because I've been involved in this market since the very start of this. In a previous life, I was the chairman of [auction house] Phillips in London. The Phillips design department has been one of the market makers for this market and I was very close to that department at Phillips. So I've been watching the way this market has been growing from the very start.
Marcus Fairs: Tell me about the market for collectable design. Why did collectors suddenly start taking an interest in design?
Rodman Primack: Collecting these things is not in itself young. If we look at it as decorative arts, people have been commissioning architecture and objects for centuries. But the way that the market has developed in the last 15 or 20 years, with designers creating limited edition pieces through the gallery system, this is a new process.
I think Design Miami came out of a very organic need of the galleries to come together and harness the energy of Art Basel [the art fair that Design Miami runs alongside in both Miami and Basel and which acquired 50% of Design Miami Basel and 10% of Design Miami in 2007].
Marcus Fairs: Design Miami and Design Miami Basel are among the few places where you get A-list celebrities looking at design. Kanye West and Pharrell Williams are regulars, for example. Why is that?
Rodman Primack: You can't underestimate the power of Art Basel. It’s the number one market for art right now and it generates its own incredible energy. We wouldn't have been able to do it on our own. It's definitely tied to that fact that the contemporary art market is about glamour and wealth and power and that attracts people. You get fashion people, music people, movie people. It's similar to South by South West but for mixing fashion and technology, movies and architecture. You get people from the top of these fields for four or five days.
Marcus Fairs: In the early days of Design Miami it was very exciting because young, talented designers were given new opportunities that didn't involve trying to get their products mass-produced by big manufacturers. That changed the mindset of a whole generation of designers.
Rodman Primack: I think part of our role as a fair is to nurture that talent in ways that other fairs don’t. What's interesting is to see these limited edition things reinterpreted down the road for the mass market; to be able to look at ideas you've seen before and then see them at the Salone del Mobile, being produced by one of the major manufacturers. That's when the model is working really well.
Marcus Fairs: I remember attending the second edition of Design Miami in 2006 and seeing wealthy collectors literally hammering on the door to get in on preview night. But then the financial crash happened. Where did that leave the design market?
Rodman Primack: There was this moment when the prices at auction were crazy. I think we've moved away from that moment of speculative craziness and now the market has become much more real and much more solid.
It was a very healthy correction because there was a point where people were thinking it was like the contemporary art market and they should go out and buy all these things and put them into storage and be very speculative about it.
Some people lost some money and that's very unfortunate, but I think the market returned to this place where it's much more real, where people are looking at objects for their value and their usability. This market is not like the contemporary art market. These objects are different [to art]. We use them in different ways.
Marcus Fairs: We use them.
Rodman Primack: Right. We use them. Problem solving and making objects for people to interact with is inherent in design. It's a different conversation. It's not about creating something that people can't touch; it's about creating things that people can touch and that gives it a whole different feeling.
Marcus Fairs: So a piece of design has less value than a piece of art because it has a function?
Rodman Primack: In using them, they lose something and deteriorate; they patina. There's a whole different way of interacting with design objects and art objects. And there's so many ways to make people feel confident about art that we don't really have that in the design world. I think it's part of our job to figure out how to make people confident about spending money and using [design pieces].
Marcus Fairs: The art market didn’t crash like the design market did. Why not?
Rodman Primack: There's more faith and confidence in the art market because it's been there for much longer. People have felt more comfortable spending large sums on paintings for their walls because a lot of museums have those paintings, there are many places telling them that that painting has value. There's fewer voices doing that in the design world. There's only a handful of museums collecting design and promoting it because it's this thing about using the objects.
Marcus Fairs: The stereotypical design collector is someone who already has an art collection and wants furniture to match. They want a sofa that goes with their Picasso. Is that cliché true?
Rodman Primack: Unfortunately a lot of people who have that Picasso do sometimes rely on not very great interior decoration talent to choose a sofa. I hope that that happens less and less and that people realise it's just as important. I'd much rather they were sitting on a [20th-century French designer Jean] Royère sofa looking at the Picasso.
Marcus Fairs: It struck me that a lot of pieces at Design Miami last year were vintage pieces. Even the stuff that was contemporary looked vintage. It was a different aesthetic to what you see in Milan or at the cutting-edge degree shows. Can you explain that?
Rodman Primack: That shows you what sells at these fairs. There is obviously more comfort for buyers to look at something that they recognise. Everyone who’s collecting contemporary art these days can probably recognise a Prouvé chair. That's because the gallerists working in the area have done such a good job of connecting mid-century French design with art. Collectors have seen it in magazines; they've seen it at their friend's house; they've seen it if they've been to Larry Gagosian's for dinner. It has become an aesthetic that people can connect with.
It's also that the avant-garde is not supposed to be understood immediately. Young work should be more challenging to place, otherwise it’s too recognisable for being so referential to something else.
I would like to see more exploration of new things and old things that are not just 40s or 50s French. I think that the fair would be more interesting if there was a mixture. But it's also a reflection of what tastes are like right now. I mean fundamentally, the fair is still a fair and it must reflect what people want to buy.
Marcus Fairs: So now you're in charge of Design Miami. What are you going to do to be more supportive of the avant-garde and to help the market mature?
Rodman Primack: I think looking at the fair, it's very beautiful and it's very wonderful and I really love it, but I would like to see more of that energy from Milan and [show] things that are a little bit closer to those innovations that are happening in production.
Marcus Fairs: You mean new manufacturing technologies?
Rodman Primack: New manufacturing technologies like the project that Max Lamb did with Marmoreal terrazzo. It's not like it's a new material but it was nice thing to see a young designer use an old material, thinking about it in a new way. I thought it was really beautiful and thoughtful and there isn't currently a place to showcase that in our fair. I think it would be interesting to see how we could show products like that.
Marcus Fairs: Limited-edition design tends to involve traditional materials and craft processes, rather than explorations of technology or new materials. Why is that?
Rodman Primack: I think we've moved back to craft and materiality. Right now we're seeing a lot of marble and bronze and these traditional materials that have real values as opposed to, say, carbon fibre, where who knows what it’s worth?
You see it in the fair over and over again, the use of these traditionally luxurious materials. I think part of that has to do with this post-recession idea of wanting to buy things that have value. I think it's a product of the post-recession idea. Somehow subconsciously it's better to be spending $50,000 on something that's bronze.
Rodman Primack: Also everything was bronze and copper in Milan. That indicates to me that there's something about buying something expensive that weighs a lot and is expensive to move, whereas something that's the same price but weighs very little is scary. I think people are gravitating towards these kinds of surfaces with a rich feel because it makes them feel comforted.
Marcus Fairs: So tell us what's on the agenda for Design Miami Basel this year?
Rodman Primack: We’ve given Jamie Zigelbaum, a former Designer of the Future, a very big commission for this enormous entry foyer. He's created this series of light fixtures based on this property in physics called entrainment, which is about independently mechanised systems that, when they're near each other, find the same rhythm.
So Jamie's created these lights that can read heartbeats as people come into the hall. The lights start entraining and move with this person's heartbeat. I love the human quality of that.
Marcus Fairs: What else will be different about Basel compared to previous years?
Rodman Primack: We have a new programme called Design at Large, which is somewhat modelled after the Unlimited programme at Art Basel. Art Basel allows its gallerists to provide special projects that would not necessarily be able to do in their booth: oversized projects, installations, historic things, probably not immediately commercial things. We looked at this model and decided to ask our gallerists to ask if they have similar work that they would want the public to see.
See all our stories about Design Miami 2013, including a series of a dozen pairs of 3D-printed shoes dedicated to former lovers of designer Sebastian Errazuriz.