Personal finance: The art of the chair man

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The Independent Online
Danny Lane has put aside for his son and daughter 20 of the edition of 100 Etruscan chairs he designed in 1984. The first of the glass and steel constructions - regarded by many collectors as his signature piece - sold for pounds 340. Now, with 30 of the edition yet to be made, his price is pounds 6,500.

Lane, a 43-year-old American who settled here in 1975 and stirred trend- setters with his sculptural furniture in the late Eighties, is an inspiration to collector-investors. He carefully husbands his limited editions. Only two or three Etruscans a year are allowed out of his London workshop.

Like studio ceramics, limited-edition contemporary furniture strives to be classified as fine art but, as yet, commands only a fraction of fine art prices. Although museums are snapping it up, it has yet to earn wholehearted trust as a private investment.

But Britain's three foremost designers of sculpturally designed chairs are growing in professional - and collectable - status.

Last year, Israeli-born Ron Arad, renowned for Rover car-seat fun furniture and massive, rugged steel armchairs (and a former collaborator of Lane's), became professor of furniture at the RCA. And the Tunisian-born Tom Dixon - a former night-club promoter best known for his rod-and-rush "S" chair - was appointed head of design at Habitat UK.

Arad and Dixon's early one-offs and limited editions are maintaining their value at auction and will acquire scarcity value now that both have turned to mass-production. (Ask the auctioneer whether that Dixon "S" chair is early studio or recent production-line.)

Lane, on the other hand, has shunned mass-production and continued to tread the path of the lone artist.

He has completed such public commissions as the stairs and balustrade of the V&A's new glass gallery and a two-ton, 3.5 metre high spiralling column of glass outside the Greycoats building in Bishopsgate.

He says: "I hold to my integrity as an artist, not a designer. I don't see any difference between furniture and sculpture, except that you have to flirt with the practicalities."

The Etruscan, he readily admits, is "a totally impractical chair: I wouldn't bother to sit on it. It's not about sitting". Instead, he revels in its dialogue between steel technology and raw slabs of glass.

The art world, he observes ruefully, is still suspicious of anything relating to furniture, and the design world is still suspicious of anything that calls itself art. "So you get this very interesting marketing dilemma."

His solution is to position himself as chief collector-investor of his own designs, patiently managing supply to collectors and setting aside pieces for his family as prices rise. His edition of 50 all-glass stacking chairs started at pounds 700-pounds 800 in 1984. Now, with 20 of the edition still unmade, he charges pounds 12,000.

"It's like investment in stocks," he says, "some people go for the short term, some the long term but, whatever you do, you've got to have faith in the artist or designer." That means faith in himself, of course.

By the time the last Etruscan or stacking chair leaves his workshop in 10 or 15 years time, their craftsmanship will have reached an apex of perfection. The artist in him demands that. He calls it "the easel approach". It is still Lane, rather than his craftsmen, who cuts the glass.

The Etruscan is hardly capable of further refinement. Its mild steel legs, for example, are now made from stainless steel. Before that improvement, Lane met the complaints of clients that the Etruscan's sharp-pointed legs made holes in their polished floors (could they have been actually sitting on them?) by fitting them with plastic caps designed for high-heeled shoes.

"It is only by constant fine tuning," he says, "that I am able to edition these things without getting bored."

His clientele still consists primarily of wealthy cognoscenti and museums. As for the auction houses, which launched design sales six years ago, they need him more than he needs them. They want his cutting-edge glass to add glamour to sales overstocked with mass-produced Eames and Jacobsen chairs, but their clientele is less clued-up than the enthusiasts who buy from his workshop.

A salutary example of dimwit bidding occurred last year at Christie's first sale devoted to "The Chair". Unsold at an estimated pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000 was an Etruscan unusual for having a carved marble seat instead of glass.

Cognoscenti should have known - and Lane would have told anybody who telephoned him - that he made only 15 marble-seats, early in the run. "I just felt like doing them. But they were fussy, not capable of an edition."

The auction catalogue lauded the chair as a "highly charged and poetic object" but offered no clue as to its rarity. Considering that Lane is now getting pounds 6,500 for standard glass-seat versions, it would have been a snip.

Similarly, in the same sale, his favourite one-off elm, steel and glass "Greenback" chair - was specially requested by the auctioneers but left unwanted at an estimated pounds 12,000-pounds 18,000. Lane's response was to up his workshop price for the chair to pounds 13,500 (plus VAT, of course).

"It's taken me about 15 years to get used to dealing with prices," he says, "but I've learned that integrity is important. If you cheapen what you make, you cheapen yourself." What is it that economists say is the basis of a strong market? Ah, yes: confidence.

Danny Lane, 19 Hythe Road, London NW10 6RT (0181-968 3399). Lane furniture is also available from Adrian Sassoon (0171-581 9888).