By  on February 25, 2005

PARIS — Design is looking a lot less industrial, with limited editions — especially in furniture — becoming a growing and lucrative niche.

Of course, rarity in the design world is hardly new. As Alice Rawsthorn, director of the Design Museum in London, pointed out, “Many of the most famous ‘mass manufactured’ 20th-century designs were originally produced as limited editions.”

Landmark pieces like Eileen Gray’s Bibendum Chair and her E1027 Table, which were made individually, are examples.

“Even by the 1960s, a piece as sleek and futuristic as the Panton Chair had to be made by hand for years, as Verner Panton and Vitra struggled to resolve technical problems for producing it in volume,” said Rawsthorn. More recently, sculptor Donald Judd has blurred the lines between art and design with his furniture.

Nonetheless, the last few years have seen a veritable explosion in limited editions. Industry bellwethers from Marc Newson and Hella Jongerius to France’s Bouroullec brothers and Maarten van Severen are making more of them. Contemporary art galleries are dedicating shows to the idea, and prices are shooting through the stratosphere.

Didier Krzentowski, owner of Kreo gallery in Paris, calls the trend a “reaction against the Conran and Ikea generation.”

“It’s a natural revolt against an increasingly mass market,” added Laurence Vayosn who, with her husband, runs Tools gallery in Paris. “People are craving more personalized products.”

Krzentowski is probably the first dealer to have zeroed in on the exceptional potential of limited-edition design. His four-year-old Kreo gallery commissions the world’s leading designers to make limited editions, with Azzedine Alaïa, Karl Lagerfeld and Hedi Slimane among his tastemaking clients.

“As a collector, which I was before opening Kreo, I always wanted things that I couldn’t find elsewhere,” he said, adding that most serious design collectors are also aficionados of contemporary art. “It’s a similar story of passion.”

Evolving trends of taste can’t be ignored. The market for 20th-century big shots — Jean Prouve, Gio Ponti, Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier — is maturing at auction. A pair of Jean Prouve steel and Plexiglas porthole doors, for example, recently sold for $680,000 at Sotheby’s. The golden $100,000 mark is often broken, and more collectors are crossing over from other fields of collecting.

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