What we need is obvious, says the great German industrial designer Dieter Rams: "Less but Better" – less junk, less pollution, less waste, fewer "things" altogether and in their place, better, more refined, essential tools for living. And of course he is right. So why do we need new chairs that we can't sit on, conceptual artefacts that serve no obvious purpose and strange remixes and hybrids? In order to find new solutions designers need to experiment. Now, more than ever, they need to question every given, test every avenue and challenge all our preconceptions if they are to help find new ways of moving forward.
The realm of design, like many other disciplines, is now challenged to fulfil an increasing number of roles: to keep up with new materials; to facilitate our increasing technological dependence; to help make the world a better and more sustainable place, yet also balance all that out with the demand for the trophies of conspicuous consumption and an unquenchable desire for novelty.
Many designers think of themselves as explorers, testing the boundaries of materials, processes and mediums. They are committed to experimentation, and a growing band of gallerists, patrons and curators are nurturing these experiments in the form of one-offs, prototypes or limited editions. Thus the most fascinating innovations in design are now coming from an unexpected quarter: where it brushes against......... f the realm of art, and of conceptual art in particular. These pioneering individuals are asking some big questions. What is design? What does it mean to call oneself a designer? What are the roles of objects and products? If design is to provide so many solutions, where does it have to go to find new answers?
In the hedonistic days of the early 21st century when the economy was on a roll, art was booming and nobody had even heard of the term "subprime mortgage", the art market caught on to the idea that unique and small editions of design objects – especially those made by famous designers – could be collectable and desirable in their own right. Alexander Payne, director of design at Phillips de Pury & Company auction house, is generally credited with coining the contemporary use of the term "design art" back in 1999. "I used the terminology to create a provocative and interesting concept for people to discuss and debate," he says. The sentiment was valid, but with vast sums being paid for strange items somewhere between a chaise-longue and a sculpture (primarily because of the name on the label), there were many who were quick to condemn the blatant commercialism of the whole thing.
The term "limited edition" has also been marketed to death. Whereas a few years ago we were bombarded with "designer furniture", the latest fad has been for "limited edition" everything – from tea towels to watches. Nevertheless, if we step aside from the commercial bandwagon and go back to the designers who experiment within this field, they are surprisingly unanimous about what it means from their point of view: freedom.
"As an industrial designer," says Australian Marc Newson, "I work to briefs, but in the case of my limited- edition works I have no boudaries, so I can create my own parameters. I can let my imagination run free and express my enthusiasm for materials, processes and techniques – but on my terms." Tom Dixon, an equally experienced and established British designer, echoes his sentiments. "When I started off [in the 1980s]," he says, "I wasn't thinking of my work as limited edition. It was limited by the fact that it was made with found objects, so it was impossible to make the same piece twice. I was limited by circumstance, really." Dixon later went on to work very successfully in the realm of industrial design, but has also grasped the opportunity that this new interest in limited editions has created. "I've taken full advantage of the market changing to do exactly what I was before, but in a slightly more attractive way. I'm using it as somewhere I can experiment rather than trying to make everything work from a commerce view."
Designers talk not only about experiment, but about theory and research as well. Hella Jongerius calls her limited-edition pieces "study cases". For her they are new ideas that have no client in mind, no market and no industrial restrictions. "I have been making these self-initiated projects right from the start," she says, "partly because I didn't have any clients at the beginning and
also because with these study objects you build up a library of ideas that you can use later for real clients." Jongerius is at pains to point out that she is not interested in "just making stupid things for the money". She thought twice, for example, when the German office-furniture company Vitra asked her to make something for their 2007 collection entitled Vitra Edition. "I asked them: 'Why should I do limited editions for you when you are already my client and we make nice products together anyway?' " She resolved the issue by making a collection of strange objects on wheels called "office pets", a study of what the company is all about. "I'm trying to push the boundaries of my profession," concludes Jongerius, "and my profession is making functional pieces for a market. I'm trying to come up with new ideas for this machinery, to search for a new grammar in my field."
Like many autonomous designers, Newson, Dixon and Jongerius view limited-edition design as part of a much bigger picture. It represents ideas from the research departments of their studios – real prototype design – but it is never the be-all and end-all of their professions. Of course, there are designers, dealers and companies out there producing limited-edition objects with the exclusive aim of cashing in on a fashion. The idea of doing a gold-plated version of some well-known or innovative object and making just eight copies to sell directly at auction is widespread, and there are plenty of individuals with large wallets who are prepared to buy them. At worst they are destroying the market, at best they are encouraging the injection of capital into a phase of conceptual exploration in the design world. But with or without the bad-taste bling, there are enough designers involved in this exploration to be able to say that what we are witnessing is far more than just a trend. "It is not a fashion," says designer Philip Michael Wolfson, "but a more tactile awareness of how we operate in the space around us."
This attitude reflects the real value of limited-edition design. It means that as the design-art market bubble bursts and belts are tightened all round, those who are committed to exploring beyond the customers' brief are unlikely to stop just because they may no longer reach the reserve price at auction. The enormous range and variety of skills, abilities and technologies that these designers work in, from wood and plastics to pixels and programmes, also means that there is great scope for design that looks beyond products and manufacturing yet still, in its way, serves a social purpose.
In 20 or 30 years time, we may well look back and see limited-edition design as just a delayed, decadent, fin-de-siècle outburst, but it is far more likely that it will turn out to have marked the beginning of a new era.
'Limited Edition: Prototypes, One-Offs and Design Art Furniture' by Sophie Lovell is published by Birkhauser, £39.90. To order a copy at a special price, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897
How our 'design issue' chair was created
By Charlotte Philby
Brisbane's cutting-edge design world wasn't exactly thriving in the late Nineties. So when five like-minded graphics graduates found each other among the "tunic wearers, wine sippers and chin-strokers" who dominated the local scene, they were quick to form an alliance. Lucky for us, because without them – Steve Alexander, Rill Alexander, Adrian Clifford, Karl Maier and Craig Redman, collectively known as Rinzen – we wouldn't have their cover for this design special, inspired by the jacket of Sophie Lovell's book Limited Edition.
Rinzen was born as a result of its members' frustration with what 36-year-old Steve Alexander describes as an "old-school, corporate model of design". Since forming in 2000, some of its members have left their home town; they're now spread across Berlin, New York and Sydney. On their travels, the international collective has embraced the potential of the design industry, in all its diverse forms.
Their off-beat ideas have since been realised in print, embroidery, ceramics, painting, projection, photography; they've even had bikes, toys and shoes made from their designs. And so versatile is their work that two projects rarely look the same. Our chair might well become a future design classic, except that it would be difficult to perch your behind on. For it is not a real chair.
It is, in fact, a computer-generated image superimposed over the backdrop photograph of a Berlin car park. Steve explains that having sketched the words "The design issue" in a simple 2-D form, his drawing was transformed into a 3-D image. The exact visual outcome was governed by the words – there was no use trying to contrive a shape that didn't work properly. "The pattern of the letters dictated what final piece of furniture the logo would become," he explains. The result was a chair.
Its evolution from a simple word graphic to finished product had to be an organic process, and so having decided on a chair, the image was carefully manipulated. "We couldn't go into the project with too fixed an idea of what we wanted as an end-product," Steve explains. Just don't try to sit on it!