‘Living in a Material World.’ It’s a brave title for an auction, perhaps. Yet for Sotheby’s design auction on 17 October, curated by our own brand and content director Tony Chambers, the title has a very literal intent: the 150-odd pieces included have been selected for their material expression. ‘It’s interesting how our perception of the word “material” has changed in the three decades since Madonna’s anthem,’ Chambers says. ‘It was a crass and fairly derogatory term not so long ago that spoke of greed, but today we think of the word as having more noble, fine and pure connotations.’ To be clear: this is an auction exploring materiality, not materialism.
Standing in Sotheby’s storage facility in the outer reaches of West London is a surreal experience. After wending one’s way through warehouses filled with canned drinks and mass-market furniture (a stark reminder that we do still live in Madonna’s material world), you find yourself surrounded by goods of a much higher order. Out of context, away from the workshop, gallery, hotel lobby or home, it’s curiously humbling to see these spectacular works of design for what they are. They were not intended to be lots or price tags, but ideas brought to life through craft and technology as functional objects. Jasper Morrison’s ‘Wing-Nut’ chair is in one corner, its expressive utility fitting right into the warehouse. A ‘Cake’ stool by the Campana brothers is being carried in a grey industrial laundry bag, while their ‘Broken Dreams’ chandelier for Venini sails past on a trolley. Everything feels off duty and all the more fascinating and spectacular for it.
‘Papel’ sofa in corrugated cardboard and chromium-plated stainless steel, designed 1993, executed 2001, by Fernando & Humberto Campana. Foreground, ‘SQN5-T’ table, 2012, by Zhang Zhoujie. Photography: Leon Chew
Cécile Verdier, senior director and coworldwide head of 20th century design at Sotheby’s, is leaning against Marc Newson’s ‘Extruded Table 3’, a seemingly impossible piece of furniture laser-cut from a single block of Striato Olimpico marble. You can’t help but touch it. It requires no small amount of willpower not to lick it. ‘A consignment arrived last year with a group of six pieces from a European private collector,’ Verdier explains. ‘They were an interesting mixture of contemporary pieces – Hadid, Newson, Arad – and we were struck by the collective narrative of material expression. Wallpaper* was the obvious partner to help us tell this story. Tony and his team have helped cross the boundaries of different industries, introducing us to the pioneering and the common elements in design that shape modern life.’
This was the seed from which the auction has grown. It is a collection that traces the evolution of how designers master and manipulate materials, from the politeness of post-war furniture to the use of the most advanced technologies to achieve something more akin to alchemy. As such, there’s an anthropological thread to the hoard. The collection tells the story of modern design through the lens of materials, encompassing the evolution not just of technology, but of skill, taste, trend and wider social values, too.
Materiality is more than just a handy hook for bringing the collection together. It’s also a response to where we find ourselves today, reflecting our growing appreciation of materials. As daily life is increasingly spent in virtual worlds or on digital desktops, we yearn for analogue, physical experiences to act as a counterbalance. Materials summon up primal urges – hence the desire to lick the marble. ‘Across contemporary life we are witnessing profound appreciation for experiences and sensations that ground us,’ Chambers explains. ‘We respond to things that engage our senses and make us feel human.’ Bearing testament to this, in the warehouse there’s a lot of stroking going on.
Laetitia Contat-Desfontaines, Sotheby’s 20th century design head of sale, elaborates, keeping one hand on Ron Arad’s ‘All Night Long’ table: ‘It’s almost like an antidote to our obsession with social media. We crave the materiality and texture that design offers. Craftsmanship is a tangible link to reality. It speaks of skill, tradition, quality and time – when we feel these qualities we build a relationship with the pieces.’
‘People buy design at auction because they love the piece,’ adds Verdier. ‘They don’t buy to sell, in the same way as they do with art. Generally, they live with the designs they buy, and use them, and so they have an intimate relationship with them – it’s a commitment.’
Surveying the diverse lots that will be up for auction in October, it’s a powerful concept. Taking materials as a starting point encourages a new appreciation of older, familiar pieces and a fuller interrogation of more contemporary designs. Joris Laarman’s extraordinary ‘Bone’ rocker, 3D-printed using powdered Belge Noir marble and resin, sits beside a mahogany bureau by Josef Frank for Svenskt Tenn, bedecked in botanicals. Both are exquisite examples of their period’s craftsmanship and material expression, six decades apart. Elsewhere, Pierre Jeanneret’s armchairs sit beside the Campana brothers’ ‘Cake’ stool; the elegant utility of wood and leather designed for civic duties in Chandigarh is juxtaposed with the synthetic fluffy toys found on São Paulo street stalls – kitsch commerce elevated into something valuable.
The breadth and depth of this collection makes clear how design has evolved over time in the minds and hands of different people. It is a positive story of progress. ‘Each piece is a story brought to life through materials,’ Chambers summarises. ‘Any new technology presents an opportunity for reinventing or developing a material into a new form. The story of design is effectively the combination of human ideas, material expression and technological development.’