Antonia Williams looks at the international craze for design in limited edition and asks, what does
it all mean?

Manipulating scarcity has been around forever, since biblical times no doubt. With the intensely competitive modern art and design markets, it’s all about how many more ways to skin a cat. Season after season, less is more and ideas of special editions, of luxury in limitation, can appear limitless. Understand ‘masstige’, that clunky American hybrid proposal of prestige for the masses. The idea of rarity floating lightly downmarket to meet new aspirants. Paradox? It may appear so. But whether it is the faint suggestion of iconography glazing a cheaper product as in the Japanese Poketo illustrated melamine plates found in editions of 200 at $55 the pair. Or the futuristic pieces from the gods of a new dynamic, such as Zaha Hadid and Ross Lovegrove, or the individualised sparkle of certain Barovier & Toso emoting chandeliers, or a piece of Le Corbusier’s Modernist industrial design re-editioned for the Zeitgeist – there’s always more elastic in that cat. It’s a cunningly inventive business.

As for history, it happened in the print media. Editions subscribed before a voyage set forth into the great unknown, helping pay for the fruits of Cook’s or de Freycinet’s explorations. It happened in the past two centuries, the 19th with extraordinary publishing feats of controlled multiplicity, with etchings, engravings, aquatints and lithographs. Gustave Dore knew what it was about. So did Picasso.

It happens in photography, when the medium is separated from contemporary art, now so often assisted by cloning technologies. The ethical deal between photographer, dealer and collector is most considered. How many, what size and materials is a finite decision made at the start of a printrun. And the early bird gets the best price, a reward for presience and probably cash flow.

Art multiples spun into the market mid-last century, and have rewarded buyers over time, although the latest art toys, even if limited, have less weight as objects of future profit. But there are plenty of art angels balanced on the head of a spin. Andy Warhol, of course. Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

Poised on the smartest peaks of design, Ross Lovegrove has engineered a metallic liquidity in the Endurance limited edition he showed this year in the galleries of art auction houses such as Philipps de Pury in New York. The Swedish/British Fredrikson Stallard launched their first small edition collection in Milan then at London’s David Gill Galleries this year. They engage with ideas of art but produce design. Think of the pink and steel bergere, the mix of new plastics and metal. Editions are small, and prices climb from around 3,000GBP.

So on and on the limited edition takes on greater powers in the market. Murray Moss, the curatorial/entrepreneurial being who created the exciting design gallery Moss in New York, and now Moss in LA, has just launched Moss Limited Ltd, where he will manufacture more hot exclusivity. Others to watch are those architects who design for the interior, the double whammy, delivered by Zaha Hadid, Ron Arad and Amanda Levete of Future Systems for Established & Sons, and Alessandro Dubini for Zanotta.

Limiting the numbers keeps the market on its toes. Magazines are limited. Think of über forecaster Li Edelkoort’s Visionaire, subscribed to the hilt, but with the branded name out there making fashionable commerce. And so are books. The new range of limited edition photographic books includes work on Peter Beard (one of 100 allowed into Australia is at Space), David Lachapelle (three ordered, only one allowed). And the Helmut Newton book Sumo, launched in 2000 with its very own Philippe Starck stand. The first edition of 10,000, all numbered and signed by the photographer, sold out fast with edition 00001 reaching 36 million yen at auction.

Marc Newson’s intense neon green champagne ice bucket for Dom Perignon was launched late 2006, and is on slow release, too. It’s not only smart because it’s Newson but smart because a competition has been devised, and there are so many seekers after the ultimate objets du jour.
So here’s your choice. Limited design is the new sport. Get your dander up and dive in. Cat got your wallet?