Don't tell my husband, but I'm in love with Konstantin Grcic. In 1998, he designed a lamp for Flos that looks like a ships lantern and has a chubby, soft black switch. When you turn the lamp on, it's like poking the Pillsbury Doughboy you almost expect it to giggle. And when your two-year-old mischievously knocks it onto the floor, saying Oops! as if it were an accident, it survives better than Gloria Gaynor. Did I mention the lamp is beautiful to look at? That its polypropylene feels luxurious? By the standards of Italian-made goods, it's even affordable.
I meant to gush like this when I saw Grcic last June at Design Miami/Basel, an adjunct of the international art fair that takes place in Switzerland every summer. But he had something much more dramatic to show me: a piece of sculpture about the size of a Volkswagen bus. Part of the new Vitra Editions collection of experimental prototypes, Grcics Landen is a steel outdoor seating unit that appears uncomfortable, if not dangerous. That's part of the point: The user must remain alert and take caution not to fall in the same way that people adapt to curbs, ledges, and steps when they sit and lean on them, the company's promotional materials warn.
Grcic was on a panel I moderated in Basel about limited-edition design. Held in a building filled with dealers of vintage and contemporary pieces, the panelists included a few other Vitra contributors. Ronan Bouroullec appeared on behalf of his gridded, fabric-covered Roc partitions. Greg Lynn was there, speaking about his shaggy wool- and angora-covered chairs called Duke and Duchess. Hella Jongerius fielded questions regarding Office Pets white leather creatures set on swiveling bases. Rounding out the group were Vitras chairman, Rolf Fehlbaum, and the design dealer Didier Krzentowski of Galerie Kreo in Paris.
So what's the difference between art and design? I asked after Jongerius explained that her Office Pets, which parody the task chair, represented a critique of the work environment.
Constraints, Grcic, my functionalist hero, replied.
I wondered aloud where the constraints lay in designing a piece of outdoor furniture that looks like a lunar module, requires a crane to be lifted, and wouldn't pass code even if you bribed the officials. Grcic replied that ones aesthetic standards narrowed the field of possibilities. I chose not to torture him, or anyone else, by pointing out that artists had those, too. Was the question worth belaboring?
Maybe it was. We were surrounded by art buyers who could no longer afford art. They were in Galerie Kreos booth eyeing work by Jongerius with a serenity they probably lacked looking at John Currin paintings. It was the quiet happiness of being able to buy what they wanted. Indeed, Design Miami/Basels two dozen exhibitors are reported to have sold 90 percent of their inventory over the course of the show. What's happening to design is like what happened to photography in the 80s, a shrewd PR friend had told me earlier. Something that began as a service has finally become accepted as a collectible.
Now that photography, too, is priced beyond many budgets, design is having its day. Even if we don't care what separates design from art, a frenzied collectors market does, and it's trying to close the gap. And yet, catering (or pandering, in the estimation of some) to this market through the production of limited editions seems to hold few dangers and has proven benefits. It's spurred the development of technologies like laser sintering. It has generated iconic furniture pieces like Frank Gehrys cardboard Wiggle chair (a result of Fehlbaums last big outing with edition design 20 years ago). It provided a business model for companies like the U.K.s Established & Sons, which boosts revenue by selling off prototypes, albeit with uncertain success. And it has given designers like Konstantin Grcic the time and space to be impractical. God knows, the man has earned it.