Christies' Philippe Garner on what defines 'great design'

We ask Philippe Garner, the international head of photographs and 20th-century decorative art and design at Christie's, what constitutes great design and why the 20th century holds such appeal.

Phillippe Gardner is the international head of photographs and 20th-century decorative art and design at Christie's. Courtesy Design Days Dubai
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Philippe Garner describes his interest in 20th-century art and design as a "long-standing curiosity". He's not exaggerating - it's a passion that can be traced at least as far back as 1970, when he first joined the auction business.

A naturally curious child, Garner's half-English, half-French parentage and his experiences of both countries allowed him to recognise from an early age that there were "multiple views" of the world. "That translated into a great curiosity about visual culture, which translated itself into a career," he says.

These days, Garner is the international head of photographs and 20th-century decorative art and design at Christie's, and a leading authority on the subject. He was in Dubai recently to host a lecture titled Design: From the City to the Spoon, as part of Design Days Dubai's Design Stories series. We caught up with him to find out more about the art of investing and what actually constitutes as great design.

Why the 20th century?

It's because it was my century and I was living it and observing it and making sense of the present by trying to understand the relatively recent past.

In the end, what is so interesting to me is the way we build our world, in the broader sense.

What constitutes great design?

At its most basic, an object is created to fulfil a function. When it fulfils its function perfectly and also manages to be aesthetically pleasing and, potentially, intellectually stimulating - in that it provokes reaction and thought - then you've certainly got good design. And great design, I suppose, is good design taken a step further, probably by an exceptional designer who manages to turn the process into an expressive language.

The 20th century is pretty broad. Do you have a favourite period?

Paris around the First World War I think represents such a pinnacle of quality and creativity and a real synthesis between the worlds of the fine and the applied arts. I find it fascinating when that becomes a very porous border.

Is there a difference between art and design?

I am wary of the phrase "design art" or of suggesting that design can be art with a capital "A". If something is a design object of any kind, it should, presumably, have a function. It is designed for a purpose and art isn't. Art exists as a consequence of the need to express and communicate ideas and emotions, and in some cases not even to communicate, but simply because the artist just feels the need to make things.

I gather you're a believer in function over form?

The function must always be there and fulfilled, but one of the functions is always, surely, to delight the eye, to raise the spirit. The aspect of design which is to do with symbol and metaphor is certainly important. I'm certainly not someone who favours dry function.

When it comes to investing in design, what advice would you give to the less-experienced buyer?

If somebody is going to approach the subject of design today, I would encourage them to get familiar with the back story. See what it means for a piece to be representative of its time. See what it means for a work to be representative of an artist at their absolute peak. And if you have a bit of an understanding and reference points from history, it makes it so much easier. You've got some critical tools to make sense of the things you are seeing today.

If you are buying present-day design, you are taking more of a chance than if you are betting on works that have achieved a consensus of appreciation. I think time sorts things out. If you're buying contemporary design, as with contemporary art, you don't have quite the distance to necessarily be able to make the most informed judgements.

Equally, I think that it's a very exciting prospect to be buying something of your time. Perhaps the route into it is to get more closely involved with the creation. Rather than buying things off the shelf, one of the joys of working with the present is you can hopefully get to meet some of the artists and hear them talk about their work.

The reality is that savvy collectors are ready to hold onto things for a certain amount of time, because works of art are not like stocks and shares that can be flipped a season later. The great friend of any collector is time.

What we tend to see as the pattern is, if you focus on quality, put together something that has logic and that you believe in, given time, not only will you have the pleasure of living with it, but there is every likelihood that it will provide you with a healthy return. The great collectors are buying today and will, maybe, sell in a generation's time. These are things bought out of absolute faith in the work itself, not with an eye to longer-term return.

If you are interested, do ask questions of dealers, curators and other collectors, but in the end you must come to your own conclusions.

If you had to pick one item that epitomises great design, what would it be?

I would be reluctant to limit it to one category. The easiest suggestion would be to find an incredibly beautiful and timeless piece of furniture. But design isn't just about furniture. The Concorde was a pretty impressive piece of design and so was the first pocket calculator. I still have my little Sinclair calculator from whenever they were launched - the most beautiful, matt-aluminium thing on which you could do your maths. And now we take that for granted. So, on one end of the scale, the Concorde for sheer symbolic beauty while performing its function, and on the other, the Sinclair calculator, which was a stunningly beautiful first-generation pocket calculator.


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