Nº 270


Beyond the Briefing

Text: Julia Sommerfeld

Translation: Iain Reynolds

The issue of where, how, and by whom design is exhibited and sold tells us much about the discipline’s condition, its self-image, and its status in society.

In the past decade, we have seen a significant number of new galleries dedicated to contemporary design, a type of gallery whose development was spearheaded in the 1980s by the likes of Galerie Patrick Seguin, a Paris-based gallery dealing exclusively in established design classics, Berlin’s Galerie Ulrich Fiedler, and, from the late 1990s, by London and Paris’s Galerie Kreo, the latter two specialising in selling contemporary design pieces.



With regard to how they work and the way they exhibit, design galleries have much in common with art galleries of the type that developed during the 20th century. Their forms thus include centrally located shop premises, private apartments, and converted industrial spaces, though there are also nomadic examples – Martin Rinderknecht’s Helmrinderknecht Contemporary Design Gallery, for instance, is a pop-up gallery that opens in Zurich for a given period several times a year. The same goes for their internal aesthetic, with the individual elements – walls, plinths, pedestals, and information displays – generally dominated by the white cube paradigm. The below-mentioned galleries represent around 25 designers, though architects and artists also feature alongside them. Often they produce limited editions in conjunction with their designers; Sebastian Marbacher’s Partial Eclipse furniture range was thus developed alongside the exhibition “Hello Today – Contemporary Swiss Design” (from 10 to 20 November 2016) organised by Helmrinderknecht Contemporary Design Gallery in collaboration with Happen Projects. These galleries present up to four exhibitions per year and attend around two trade shows, such as Design Miami, the Biennale Interieur in Kortrijk or the Milan Furniture Fair. Another aspect of contemporary design galleries’ activities besides developing limited editions is their notable critical communications work, be it in form of a publication or via discursive public events such as “The Plinth Project” (from 18 November 2016 to 21 January 2017), an exhibition project in which Maria Foerlev’s gallery Etage Projects questions the conventions of museum presentation. [1: The Plinth Project, etageprojects.com/the-plinth-project/ (last checked on 30 December 2016).]



For all their structural similarities and their shared presentational focus on the aesthetic qualities of the pieces, a design gallery’s exhibits differ significantly from those of an art gallery. Whereas art is not subject to conventional notions of utility, the idea of use is inherent to design. [2: See Alexander García Düttmann, Tief oberflächlich, in: Jörg Huber, Burkhard Meltzer, Heike Munder, Tido von Oppeln (eds.), It’s Not a Garden Table. Kunst und Design im erweiterten Feld, Zurich: JRP Ringier Kunstverlag, 2011, p. 181.] Contemporary design therefore exists not only in the world of a museum and exhibitions, but first and foremost in the consumer goods market, in which it is subject to a rather different value creation model from that seen in galleries. These parallel existences mean galleries in the design world have a different status to those operating within the art trade. While art galleries play a crucial role in the livelihood and reputation of artists, turning something that is primarily of symbolic value into something of monetary value; for designers, galleries, with their specific value creation mechanisms, instead represent an additional means of presentation, distribution, and brand-building. Despite this apparent delineation between design and art, the objects exhibited in design galleries often don’t conform to established notions of utility and function, with many of them blurring the boundaries between design, art, and architecture. In fact, these one-offs, low-volume pieces, and limited editions are frequently critical, experimental, and playful in content and the focus of their creators – among them studios such as Formafantasma, Soft Baroque, and Mischer Traxler – is generally less on product form and more process-orientated and in some cases on post-industrial design.



Selected Galleries Established in the Past Ten Years


Gallery Libby Sellers, London (UK), 2007,



Victor Hunt Designart Dealer, Brussels (BE), 2008,



Helmrinderknecht Contemporary Design Gallery, Berlin (DE) and Zurich (CH), 2009,



Carwan Gallery, Beirut (LB), 2010,



Valerie Traan, Antwerp (BE), 2010,



Etage Projects, Copenhagen (DK), 2013,



Gallery Karena Schuessler Functional Art, Berlin (DE), 2013,



Camp Design Gallery, Milan (IT), 2015,



There are numerous reasons why these contemporary design pieces, which often get grouped under “collectibles” or “design art”, have become prestigious collector’s items with a market of their own, from trends in artistic content to intradisciplinary changes within design and structural changes on the art market. Key to this process were the presentation of design at the sixth Documenta (1977) and the convergence in terms of content, form, and methodology between art and design in the 1960s, 70s, and 90s [3: See Judith Welter, Interieur als narratives Format: Beispiele aus der Sammlung des migros museum für gegenwartskunst Zürich, in: Jörg Huber, Burkhard Meltzer, Heike Munder, Tido von Oppeln (eds.), It’s Not a Garden Table. Kunst und Design im erweiterten Feld, Zurich: JRP Ringier Kunstverlag, 2011, p. 250–260.], a convergence that, from a design perspective, is particularly apparent in the postmodern designs of the 1990s, when designers such as Philippe Starck, Ron Arad, and Marc Newson presented themselves as “virtuoso artist-designers”, their designs reflecting the postmodern tendency towards “a cult-like celebration of aesthetic artefacts”. [4: Ricarda Strobel, Die neue Republik stylt sich – Architektur, Design und Mode, in: Werner Faulstich (ed.), Die Kultur der 90er Jahre. Kulturgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts, Paderborn: Verlag Wilhelm Fink, 2010, p. 297.] The year 2005 played a particularly important role in the establishment of a market for design within the art market, being the first year in which auction spend on contemporary art exceeded that on classic modern art and impressionism. [5: See Piroschka Dossi, Hype! Kunst und Geld, 2nd edition, Munich: DTV, 2007, p. 9.] In addition, it was also the year in which the Art Basel fair established its Design Miami offshoot, a design fair that sees itself as an international marketplace for design galleries and an event with a keen interest in contemporary design.



“To me, the customary production of limited editions is rather boring if all you are doing is saying, I could do this concept in a run of ten. I have a bit of a problem with that, even if I do work with galleries and partly make a living by selling fairly exclusive pieces of furniture.” [6: Interview with Martino Gamper, Total Trattoria, in: Jörg Huber, Burkhard Meltzer, Heike Munder, Tido von Oppeln (eds.), It’s Not a Garden Table. Kunst und Design im erweiterten Feld, Zurich: JRP Ringier Kunstverlag, 2011, p. 68.] Galleries for contemporary design are places in which, as Martino Gamper’s criticism suggests, exclusivity is created via editions whose limited production run may not necessarily have any logical basis. They can thus be regarded as an extension of a commercial sector, an expression of the absorption of design into the art market. They participate in the creation of lifestyle worlds as well as in the commercial exploitation thereof. On the other hand, design galleries are also a new sphere in which contemporary developments in design can be critically assessed and new ideas supported without the constraints of narrow product briefs. “Design for galleries isn’t totally disconnected from our work for the industry […],” asserted Konstantin Grcic in an interview. “In fact, experiments and creative freedom also generate stimuli and ideas in industrial projects […].” [7: Interview with Konstantin Grcic, Design Real, at oncurating.org, Design Exhibited, Issue 17, 2013, p. 4, available at on-curating.org/issue-17.html (last checked on 5 January 2017).]


Regardless of the individual gallerist’s credo, the design gallery phenomenon reflects a change in design itself and in its social status as well as a concomitant need for new venues for design. With their extensive connections and ability to react rapidly, galleries can provide contemporary design with discursive spaces that fall between established design institutions – art and design museums, universities, design festivals – and commercial design producers. For the exhibited design, it’s not just the enhanced visibility that is of relevance but also the inherent commercial quality of these semi-public sales spaces. Being closer to everyday life gives galleries an advantage over museums, explains artist Andrea Zittel: “Their shop-like quality makes it easier for a relationship to be established with the viewer – people can at least imagine buying something or can actually afford to buy a piece and take it home […].” [8: Interview with Andrea Zittel, Einfach zu reinigende Oberflächen zeigen mehr Schmutz, in: Jörg Huber, Burkhard Meltzer, Heike Munder, Tido von Oppeln (eds.), It’s Not a Garden Table. Kunst und Design im erweiterten Feld, Zurich: JRP Ringier Kunstverlag, 2011, p. 192.] With their enduringly functional nature, design objects are better served by gallery showroom displays than by museum exhibition scenarios, in which exhibits are generally decontextualised, defunctionalised, and exalted. A gallery context, on the other hand, provides a more direct platform for today’s and tomorrow’s creatives to realise socially relevant contemporary designs. 

A graduate in cultural studies with a master degree in design studies, Julia Sommerfeld served as a curatorial assistant at the MAK in Vienna and now co-publishes Neuwerk – Magazin für Designwissenschaft (Form und Zweck, Berlin). She is also contributing to the publication “Atlas des Möbeldesigns” [Atlas for Furniture Design] of the Vitra Design Museum.

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Mar/Apr 2017

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