Aric Chen, portrait by Mark Cocksedge

Having helmed Beijing Design Week, curated the M+ museum in Hong Kong, extensively written as a critic, and held a number of other diverse roles within the industry, Aric Chen is no stranger to the complexity of design’s increasingly fluid scope of influence. However, In his new capacity as curatorial director of leading fair Design Miami,the culture-maker is hoping to bridge some of the critical gaps that have formed between the increasingly segmented collectible market and other areas of the discipline.  

Booth Presentation by Philippe Malouin 2019 at Salon 94 Design

'We are looking at ways to rethink the model of the fair while also expanding the definition of collectible design to include more speculative practice,’ Chen explains. ‘But in doing so, we want to emphasize why these designs are important and hence collectible; to draw in a new set of collectors who might have other interests or whose interests might not lie in traditional forms of collectible design. It's not hard to sell tables and chairs. It's hard to sell chairs and tables that actually push boundaries. We all have to work a little bit harder in finding new channels of support for that kind of work.’

Sideboard by Piero Portaluppi 1926-29 at Dimore Gallery

Mounted at this week’s Design Miami/Basel, Chen’s revamped Design at Large exhibit features a selection of projects that address the serious and timely topic of the Anthropocene. Each supported by an international gallery, nine exhibiting projects treat the urgent yet overwhelming subject of ‘post nature’ design from a different vantage point; whether it be the consideration of material, production, or use. Some propose potential solutions while others employ narrative to communicate and bring awareness to an issue.

Guise Planter by Odd Matter 2019 at Nilufar courtesy of Pim Top

Ahead of this year’s programme, entitled Elements: Earth, talents and supporting galleries were invited to submit recent projects ‘that question humanity's impact on the planet and its resources, [that] dissolve the distinctions between natural, and human-made; raw materials, and waste; and consumption, and production... [and that engage] this context with a sense of criticality, responsibility, and possibility.’

Abstract Composition by Andre Aleth-Masson 1972 at Lebreton Gallery

On view are some of the most, arguably, ground-breaking investigations and results the global design domain has put forward in the past few years. Though not as comprehensive in survey as some of the Nature triennials currently on view in European and American museums—treating a similar subject—this assemblage cleverly taps into a particular category of talents who are able to operate within the aesthetically-driven collectible design market while still exploring relevant topics; producing speculative objects and systems that could have a much wider impact.

Backed by Rotterdam-based Galerie Vivid, Eindhoven-based Isreali designer Shahar Livne is debuting new large-scale iterations—stools and a unique clock—of her ongoing Metamorphism investigation, that employs lithoplast: a material the designer developed as a composite of ocean plastic waste and natural sediment; the natural stone of the near future. Rome’s Giustini / Stagetti displays Formafantasma’s Ore Streams Cubicle 1—a furniture application of the Amsterdam-based Italian duo’s continuous Ore Stream upcycled e-waste initiative. These two particular projects standout as they strategically manoeuvre within this context. The former did not begin in the collectible design market but is probing its potential and room for growth.

Bench by Shahar Livne (2021) for Galerie Vivid, photograph by Alan Boom

Similarly, the latter is playing with the current conditions of the collectible design market as a way to bring awareness to the issue of a larger investigation that could have a systemic impact far beyond the collectible design market. By creating an aesthetically-pleasing, refined, and somewhat trendy, limited edition office furniture collection, that explicitly incorporates reused computer parts, Formafantasma is offering a way into a larger discussion that might not occur if initiated out of the consumer product or contract sectors.

Ore Streams Cubicle 1 by Formafantasma at Guistini Stagetti

Diverse in their treatment of the topic at hand, this crop of talents is a rare set amongst a growing roster of contemporary and historic designers that make up the current collectible design market. Though there are a few others that also break the mould and are able to foster an experimental yet meaningfully critical practice while still maintaining a collector-base, most designers in this sector create purely expressive, art-like works that remain just that. As much as certain platforms in this market promote craft-led experimentation—push the properties of ceramics, glass, wood, and other traditional materials—they rarely support projects that address social, cultural, political or environmental concerns.

Piano Guillermo Santomá, 2019 presented by Etage Projects Courtesy of Etage Projects

It wasn’t always this way. As Chen notes, Design Miami changed the game for the collectible market when it emerged in the early aughts. Arguably, the industry was similar to Renaissance Italy in this period, in that it provided time and space for designers to develop paradigm-shifting work without the traditional constraints of the product market. Galleries operated like commissioning patrons; a few still do. 

‘Right around when Design Miami first started, I think we really saw the beginnings of the landscapes that we know today,’ Chen reflects. ‘Obviously, there were people doing things in the area of collectible designing in other ways for a long time but in terms of the kind of constellation that we now think of this really started about 15 years ago,'

Animali Domestici Bench by Andrea Branzi 1985 at Friedman Benda

Nowadays, an increasing majority of platforms act as middlemen; providing a service rather than educating their clientele. As much as galleries employ terms like experimentation, research, and process as sales-pitch buzzwords, their wares are not always as cutting-edge as this terminology would suggest. The word ‘artist’ is also thrown around much more frequently than ‘designer’, almost as to avoid the complication that comes with justifying this role. Perhaps Chen’s mandate for Design Miami will help recalibrate and rectify this imbalance; certainly in the way that projects like Metamorphism and Ore Streams are given a new stage to shine.

'I think fundamentally we're seeing the continued growth of a phenomenon that has been in the works for a while. I think what we see change a little bit is in the balance between historical and contemporary collectible design, and that there's a lot more of the latter now proportionately than there used to be. Which I think is really just a sign of how things have grown and the maturation of an infrastructure to support living designers who are working in this realm.’ Chen reveals.

Paradise City by Lindsey Adelman 2019 at Lindsey Adelman Studio

‘When you ask about how you define collectible design it's like signing the toilet urinal with R. Mutt, right? To me, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Now within a certain market system, I think you will see an emphasis on things like rarity and demanding craftsmanship, and also potential historical significance, what a work says, what new ideas are a work contributing to a broader conversation. But obviously, I would expand the idea of a rarity even further to define rarity not necessarily in terms of the availability of physical items, but more in terms of the rarity of the strength of an idea of behind a piece.’

Wobbly Carpet - Regen Camouflage collection by Wendy Andreu 2019 at Nilufar courtesy of Pim Top

In DAMn’s upcoming summer issue, a longer article explores this complexity through a critique of New York’s crop of blue-chip collectible design galleries. It suggests that this particular scene, positioned as one of the most important, struggles to balance market appeasement—a growing desire for expressive and decorative pieces that cater to a collector’s emotional response or social ambition—versus critical practice—works that like those aforementioned, appeal to their cultural and or socio-political responsibility.

Rib Lamp, deep sea by Floris Wubben at The Future Perfect