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A rising market: contemporary decorative arts

Is it design, or art, or craft? Who cares. One thing is certain: the British are best at it

London

According to Newsweek and the Italian equivalent, Panorama, London is now the world’s coolest city. Our models, designers, artists and photographers are all riding a creative roller-coaster not seen here for decades (see pp.23-26). British designers John Galliano and Alexander McQueen have even been signed up for Dior and Givenchy.

Sotheby’s, never far behind in spotting a new market, are cashing in on the band waggon. Their first selling exhibition of works by contemporary British designers runs from 6 to 13 February. The idea was pioneered by Bonham’s, who had their first decorative arts exhibition in 1991. Since then work by established contemporary designers such as Philippe Starck, Danny Lane and Ron Arad has begun to appear in their twentieth-century design and furniture sales. With her New Designers in Business exhibitions and the foundation of the Design Trust, Peta Levi has done more than anyone to focus attention on young British design. By organising these annual exhibitions and getting the people that mattered to them she ensured that Britain’s most talented designers did not drop into a bottomless well of obscurity the moment they left college.

Contemporary design is often cheaper than buying reproductions, certainly cheaper than good quality antiques but the problem has always been the lack of outlets for designers. Commissioning new work also requires a lot of confidence and patience and the object you end up with may not always be exactly what you expected. According to Cheryl Wallis of 100% Design (the first-ever British trade fair for contemporary design launched in 1995 to rival those long established in Milan, Cologne and New York) the awakening of new interest began to materialise at a contract level with restaurants and hotels wanting a much more contemporary look. It has now percolated down to the individual who wants good contemporary design for his or her home.

In addition to Sotheby’s exhibition, this year Decorex, the fair for interior designers, is planning a contemporary design section, as is the Ideal Home Exhibition. At Dean Clough near Halifax, the first show-case outside London dedicated to contemporary designers will open on 1 March.

Janice Blackburn, formerly from the Saatchi Gallery, has organised the exhibition at Sotheby’s. She also thinks that we are seeing “An exceptionally creative and vibrant period in British art and design. Art colleges around the country are producing students who are real trend-setters and at long last the decorative arts in Britain are losing the craft and folksy image associated with them in the 60s and 70s”.

For the Sotheby’s exhibition, Janice Blackburn has chosen the work of about seventy designers in all media: wood, glass, ceramics, textiles, jewellery and silver. She has tried to make the show representative covering a whole range of styles, prices and techniques. There are international heavy weights like John Makepeace and Ron Arad down to her own protegés recently graduated from art college. Senior Carmichael a partnership formed by two of John Makepeace’s students are showing a “Sun Cabinet” which makes striking use of different coloured veneers. Its two delicate screen doors: laminated sycamore portray the sun’s rays bursting from its centre of burr yew wood which is itself a secret drawer. Mary Little uses sensuous sculptural shapes upholstered with luxurious fabrics in her furniture designs which contrast with the solidity of the wood. She has just been commissioned by English Heritage to produce furniture for the Drawing Room at Belsay Hall in Northumberland, ample proof that contemporary design can rest happily in historic interiors.

There are also pieces by young, cutting edge designers whose work may surprise visitors to Sotheby’s hallowed Bond Street premises. Julia Schrader’s work turns functional objects into ornaments and takes them out of their every day context. Her high heeled shoe is covered with spike-like porcelain units. Emily Bates uses human hair which she collects from hairdressers and then spins and knits. Her dresses have extraordinary proportions, tiny bodices which extend into skirts more than 1.5 metres in length.

Prices vary enormously. Handmade cards start at £5, textiles from £100, and the most expensive item in the exhibition is by the jewellers to Keith Richards, Courts & Hackett, whose silver riding whip handle decorated with two enormous abalone pearls is priced at £100,000. Whether or not work by some of these designers is a good investment remains to be seen. Sotheby’s, at any rate, see twentieth-century design as a developing market. Janice Blackburn is non-committal on the subject: “If you buy something you love and have years of pleasure from it, the investment angle should not matter”, she commented. “It certainly beats shopping at Habitat”.