There was a time when architects designed furniture at the start of their careers while patiently waiting for their first buildings to be constructed. In 1972, some six years before Frank Gehry created a stir with his unorthodox house in Santa Monica, California, he was designing his beloved cardboard chairs. Earlier architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Josef Hoffmann attempted to create a complete work of art with each project by designing the building and everything in it. These days, young architects still try their hand at making tables, chairs, lighting, and the like, but world-renowned practitioners are increasingly setting aside their building designs just long enough to sketch a piece of furniture—even though chances are you may never sit on it or eat off of it.
In a show titled “Imperative Design,” opening tomorrow at Barbara Davis Gallery, in Houston, 15 limited edition and unique pieces, mostly furniture, blur the fast-fading lines between architecture, design, and art. It coincides with “Design Life Now: National Design Triennial,” an exhibition organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum that opens the same day at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.
“This is a fantastic time to do a show like this,” says Barbara Davis, asserting her city’s position as one of the country’s leading visual arts centers outside New York City and Los Angeles. “To be important, these pieces have to have all the same criteria as any great painting or sculpture. They stand on their own as objects and are becoming extremely collectible.”
The design components of art fairs including Art Basel/Basel Miami and London’s Frieze Art Fair, have been hugely successful, with furniture pieces selling at staggering, six-figure prices. A prototype of Zaha Hadid’s Aqua table, for instance, was sold at auction by New York’s Philips de Pury & Company in December 2005 for $296,000, a record at the time for a piece of contemporary furniture. “Powerful, mainstream art galleries are showing furniture pieces designed by architects, designers and artists, and there’s no longer a question of whether they are functional or not,” Davis explains. “Just as photography began to be accepted as fine art 15 or so years ago, the same is true now for design objects.”
“The world is hungry for design,” adds Lauren Rottet, FAIA, principal of DMJM Rottet and curator of the show at the Barbara Davis Gallery. “The title for the show came about because there are so many people who want something that others don’t have. The limiting factor is not money, but design.”
Rottet began her career designing high-rise buildings for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, but gradually shifted her focus to interiors, eventually creating furniture for her own projects as well as companies including Brayton International and Bernhardt. Her contributions to the Davis show represent her first limited-edition pieces and they include a long, linear coffee table with accompanying mirrors and light shelf.
Hadid has contributed a 10-foot-long chaise. “You could say that design objects are fragments of what could occur in architecture,” she explains. “The idea for a building or an object can come up just as quick, but there is a big difference in process. The satisfying thing about design is that the production process between idea and result is so much quicker and less complicated.”
Greg Lynn’s “Duchess” chair, a fancier and furrier version of his “Ravioli” chair for Vitra, is included in the Davis show as are several pieces by the industrial designer Ross Lovegrove, who was a professor at the Angewandte in Vienna at the same time as Lynn and Hadid.
“Our work is informed by intellectual rigor and cutting-edge digital process,” Lovegrove says of the designers. “The same collectors buy our works and follow our aesthetic progress in parallel. One must consider the broader influence of these [and other] designers and architects on global culture. That’s really at the core of their importance and what makes their personal conceptual works extremely valuable in the way they define new possibilities.”
David Mocarski, Arik Levy, and Mark Holmes round out the list of designers who contributed pieces to the Davis show. All participants, with the exception of Hadid, are expected to attend the opening.