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Rabih Hage on Design Collecting

Oct 19, 2017

The RIBA-chartered architect talks about the 2017 design market Detnk report —and advises future collectors where to look for sound investments in design collecting

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Text by Rab Messina

Rabih Hage is known for his work as an architect —he has a RIBA chartered practice— and a interior designer —that’s where his French title of Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite and the 2004 idFX BIDA Interior Designer of the Year award come from. But with his latest venture, Detnk, Hage is exercising the role of advisor: joined by a panel of researchers, he is pinning down the flows and trends in the collectible design market.

The biggest piece of news in the 2017 DeTnk Collectible Design Market Report is that the total value of the global market increased 36.35 percent in 2016, compared to the earlier year, with 72 percent of the lots on offer were sold —the American market cornering 56 percent of the total market value.

Then there’s the Top 100, the list of names that are behind those sales —with some expected, some unexpected and some surprisingly missing designers. The numbers are still small compared to the art world: the top name on the ranking, Diego Giacometti, brought in nearly £8 million with nearly total sales of the 37 lots on offer. But nevertheless, the numbers are encouraging for the visionary.

We discussed the insights and the index with Hage, and got his investment advice on where to look for the big, valuable names of the near future.

TLmag: I’m looking at Top 20 in the report, and there are only two women —Eileen Gray and Charlotte Perriand. How come?
Rabih Hage: And they were working for men! Charlotte Perriand, for example, was in the shadow of Jeanneret and Le Corbusier. Now it’s becoming more open: people understand that, in fact, women designers are very creative and they think in a completely different way. You had Robin and Lucienne Day and the Eames pair… a woman making it on her own is somehow recent. In a way, the auctioneers are now naming the designer by the right name. That’s an improvement.

TLmag: Which female names are promoting that change?
RH: There’s the Front Design Group, [headed] by young Swedish women designers who are extremely creative and intelligent. And, of course, you had Zaha Hadid, who was doing very well when she was living. She was one of the very first designers to kind of work on objects that are more sculptural, that became collectible.

TLmag: Have you seen any sort of change after her death?
RH: Not really. Even when she was alive, her pieces were selling as much as now. I don’t think there’s any effect for the moment, because there is a lot of production and there are many editions out there for Zaha Hadid. When someone creates a catalogue raisonné of her work, which I am sure will happen at some point, then her market will be more visible and more understandable.

Because, you see, you have architect-designers who expose themselves too much. Ron Arad, for example, has gone down in the sales ranking —he was close to the top three at some point, maybe six years ago. You have a constant like Marc Newson, who’s always been in the Top 10 —he was even in first place in 2014, I think. That’s because he’s purely an industrial designer. Around that year, contemporary design was high on the list but then it crashed, due to overexposure —the overrating, in a way, of contemporary designers who were trying to play artist. You cannot play the artist: you have to stick to design, to functional objects.

TLmag: But since the market for collectible design is growing, there is now the possibility to actually stick to design.
RH: Big design collectors collect and store and keep and use and live with the pieces —unlike in art, where some buy and store and speculate and sell again. Many design collectors are really passionate people who want to live with their objects. I’ve been saying for five years that design galleries should take the pieces and put them down on the floor, and let people touch them and use them and feel comfortable with them. They shouldn’t put them on a pedestal and elevate them into art pieces, because they will never be art pieces. They might fetch the prices of artwork, but they will never be artwork —they’re design work.

TLmag: Why is Carlo Mollino so high on the list, on position 21?
RH: I believe in the cycle of the double generation: you have people my age and older than me, who have the power to buy and collect. They remember the 60s and 70s with memories of their family mixed with the memories of the aesthetics of the time, so Carlo Mollino’s chairs are becoming part of memorabilia for people over 50, and that is why they collect them: it reminds them of their youth, their mothers, their grandmothers.

And then you have the younger generation, people in their thirties and forties, who now start being able to collect and they are looking for what appeals to them and they can connect to culturally. They go for new names that can start at a lower price range and hope that they will go up. Carlo Mollino is not doing bad: the nine pieces that came out on sale in 2016 are 89 percent sold, and they fetched nearly £800,000. He is now in the range of designers that are sellable. He is beyond discovery: you have people who bought him 10 years ago and are ready to sell them with an upside. He’s kind of becoming a confirmed, mature, collectible name. That’s encouraging and interesting.

TLmag: How does one ascertain the encouraging factors?
RH: Production is very important. The difference between design and art is that in design you always work with a third party —a producer or manufacturer. This is something that isn’t very controllable. Designers are thinking about how they can control the licenses that they give to manufacturers. There is a trend in galleries, where they’re trying to give visibility to the designers that they collect and sell, in order to justify their desirability. There is a lot of marketing work.

TLmag: Isn’t that the same thing that happens in the art market?

RH: They brought over many things from the art market. The first thing is greed. (Laughs) It backfired at the beginning: 10 years ago, they were straightforwardly copying the art-gallery way of working —loads of exhibitions, treating design like art. They found out it wasn’t going to work unless they went back to basics: they started doing catalogues raisonnés, looking at the producers and knowing how many of this chair is available out there. Ideally, the were controlling the reproductions. One feeds the other: Jean Prouvé is number three, even though there are companies like Vitra producing his pieces, is not killing the collectible market and the vintage pieces. One helps the other.

TLmag: Have you seen books like Earling Kagge’s A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art, which gives tips on how to invest in art when you’re young? Is there an equivalent type of strategy in the design world?
RH: The very simple first thing: follow your instinct. Second thing: look at the third party. Is the piece reproducible? How? How many times? By whom? You have to look at the design and think: ‘This is really strong and interesting.” But then you have to look at the production and understand how much will be available today and in the future.

There is a very simple tip for collecting design now: go for designers who are makers themselves. For example, in the Netherlands, I am one of the biggest collectors of Piet Hein Eek. He is a monument of 21st-century design, and he is completely undersold from the collectible point of view. He is very specific of an era between 2000 and 2010, when everybody was thinking about the environment and the movement that people today are calling upcycling. It is very much anchored into our psyche. He is very prolific and productive, but this is what’s really interesting about him: in 50 years’ time you’re going to look back at this era and think “This is very typical of the early 21st century.” It will become what Art Nouveau was: a complete revolution of the mind, of breaking with the way of the classic orders and styles into new shapes and forms.

TLmag: You’ve been somehow involved another upcycling of sorts, with your quiet architecture stance.

RH: I do believe that this is the way forward. Who are we to demolish and start again? Why don’t we respect the people that were there before us? You can still give personality and repurpose a building [by doing so]. In architecture, there is the possibility of creating a great aesthetic out of being good to the environment and being respectful to the existing stones.

TLmag: But going back to the report, I’m only seeing one Latin American name in the Top 100. There’s the Campanas, and that’s it.
RH: There’s work to be done in Latin America, from promotion and marketing to bringing the piece to auctions. You have very few Latin American design galleries that are doing a really good job —one of them is R&Company in New York.

But you have to start with your own backyard: Brazilian and Mexican collectors prefer buying Jean Prouvé —the same thing happens with the Chinese, who will follow the big auctions in New York and London but don’t think of Hong Kong as a place to buy masterpieces.

There are trends in the design market that are quite simple, because they follow a period or a country —the last 20 years people have been talking about the French, and now it’s very much all about the Italian designers. One day, and I’m sure it’s going to be very soon, collecting Brazilian 60s or 70s designers is going to be very trendy. It will probably start in New York first and trickle down to the rest of the market.

So that’s a third tip: if you want to start collecting at lower ticket prices, buy modern vintage design pieces from Latin American designers, but know the provenance.


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