The unexceptional economy of design

The economy of the art world, or of the design world – how things are valued and how the money flows – is not so different than how money works within the production and distribution systems of consumer goods, say purses or fast food.

From Dwell magazine, May 2016

From Dwell magazine, May 2016

However, the art+design world holds itself apart, perhaps because the people who work in these fields are not like you and me; they are more driven by and drawn to emotion, and to truth perhaps. Living a life chasing insight is a peculiar vocation, one without the proverbial bottom line of cost effectiveness.

Or perhaps the art+design worlds hold themselves apart because they are, and want to be, more like luxury goods. In the book The $12 Million Dollar Shark – The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, York University business professor Don Thomson shows that “the art market, and contemporary art in particular, is as much brand-driven as any other high-end luxury market, through case studies (the dealers Larry Gagosian or Jay Joplin, the artists Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons or Andy Warhol, the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the collectors Charles Saatchi or Ronald Lauder…) and broader considerations on the overall economics of art. (Reader review on Amazon.com, link above)

Another popular conception of the difference between the art+design fields and other “normal” economic activities holds that artists, and creative types generally, are “not good with money.” How many artists and designers hesitate to talk about money matters with their clients, galleries and dealers? And end up suffering, underpaid or unpaid altogether?

Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer

Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer

In this regard, this letter, from the office of architect Marcel Breuer (best known for his elegant tubular steel and leather chairs) to a prospective client, is refreshingly forthright about what it costs to hire the firm. Kudos to Dwell magazine for reproducing it. Both consumers and producers of good design need to see how it’s done.

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