Design and Style #3, cover by Seymour Chwast
Many of us have bought design objects for pleasure or
scholarship. We’ve paid big bucks or a pittance. But what determines the value? Is it simply supply and
demand or some abstract idea of worth? I recently discovered that a respected antiquarian book dealer received $1200 for a complete set (seven
issues) of Design and Style,
a paper promotion Seymour Chwast and I created for Mohawk Paper
Mills between 1986 and 1992. Granted, the project was expensive to produce, and it was a limited run to begin with, but how was this price determined?
Monetizing fine art is a fairly logical process.
Artists who have reputations command more money than those who do not.
Gallery shows create baselines for value, and museum
exhibitions substantially raise them. Collectors increase
worth by amassing the works of particular
artists or movements, and they are known to do the opposite, too, sending prices into the cellar when their enthusiasms flag. Posters, which are designed to be displayed and lend themselves to collecting, are
among the few commercial graphic forms that follow this model; those produced by acknowledged masters of the craft, such as Lucian Bernhard or Jules Chéret, have greater resale value than posters designed by those judged to be lesser talents. Add to that the poster's condition and rarity, and the price is established.
Design and Style #2, Streamline typography
But what about “lesser” objects that were produced in large quantities by vintage designers who are not so prized? And what about the work of active practitioners or those who recently passed away? What determines, for instance, how much a Paul Rand El Producto cigar box
(the one with the photogram on the top) is worth (I paid $95 ten years ago) compared to Milton Glaser’s Dylan poster
(I paid $95 for a first printing). And what about original sketches, comps or final artwork compared to the reproductions? How are those items priced?
“Real value for ephemeral productions is ostensibly determined by the notoriety of the designer of the piece (be it catalogue, brochure, mailer, point-of-purchase design), the relative scarcity (if it can be determined — how many were printed based on how often they turn up on the market, etc.) and condition (point-of-purchase displays, for instance, tend to have been banged up or thrown away, so one in pristine shape will often command a premium,” explains John McWhinnie, a partner at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller
in New York. “I bought a number of examples that Sutnar created for Roneo [Duplicators] and Vera [scarves] at auction years ago and paid handsomely for them because they had never been unwrapped.”
Sometimes, valuable objects fall between the cracks. More than ten years ago, Steven Guarnaccia, the chair of the BFA illustration department at Parsons, breathlessly called me to say he had just found nine mint copies of Sutnar’s Catalog Design Progress
, the Czech designer’s seminal book, for $10 each at a secondhand bookstore in Manhattan. I had purchased a copy for $100 a year before from a rare-book dealer, and six months later I saw one for sale at $500. I suggested Guarnaccia keep two, sell one to me, sell one to a friend of mine for $250, and sell the remaining five to a dealer for $200 each. I learned later the dealer resold each copy for between $300 and $450. And I bet the buyers were happy to have them.
Not all Sutnar materials are this expensive, but his place in design history generally translates into high prices.
Catalog Design Progress by Ladislav Sutnar
In the 1990s, libraries were paying top dollar for avant-garde graphics, and selling them to collectors became a high-stakes game. “There has been a market for these sorts of ephemeral productions going back into the early ’80s,” says McWhinnie. He cites Arthur A. Cohen and Elaine Lustig Cohen, proprietors of the New York bookstore and gallery Ex Libris, as pioneers who helped establish a market for this type of graphic design. To a degree, their ambitious pricing set the tone for the '80s and '90s. Other dealers followed suit. European avant-garde movements such as de Stijl commanded the highest prices (and monographs about those movements helped push the prices upward). Then a flood of books on American and European emigre designers helped raise their public profile, and collectors began paying attention to their work.
There are other considerations besides the designer's name or affiliation. James Fraser, former librarian of the Friendship Library at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, follows these quirky principles when appraising graphic design: “1. Skilled die-cutting with a design concept that begs for the technique and is perfectly conceived for the product, etc. Not just a die cut for the sake of it. 2. Ephemera style that is so much of the period in color, typography, image, text that it 'dates itself.’ 3. Ephemera producer's position as 'design leader' in a field in a given period, e.g. Knoll
, I. Miller, PKZ, DTV, PTT, etc. And 4. Ephemera that is by — or carries the mark of influence by — a coterie of ‘agenda designers,’ e.g. Peter Alma, August Tschinkel
, Otto Neurath
, Gerd Arntz
, Seiwert, Hoerle, etc.” If you don’t recognize these names, that’s in large part why they are valuable. Their work represents the roots of modern graphic design but is known only to a rarefied few.
Design and Style #5
Design and Style #6
Because ephemera by definition usually has a short life, rarity keeps prices high. “Ebay, however, has shifted the field a bit as many dealers have sold work in that forum and collectors have discovered that what they thought was rare was often scarce merely because they didn't have an international sales forum they could routinely search,” notes McWhinnie. “Now they do, and I've found that American postwar graphic design has flattened in value because Ebay has demonstrated that it isn't as scarce as it seemed to be 15 years ago.”
Books are a different story. The book market has clear guidelines and some intangible ones, too. If a book is important and
rare, the price predictably will be high, but what’s important and rare is subjective. Often it takes a mediator — historian, critic or dealer — to convince others of such value. I once had the opportunity to buy Alfred Tolmer’s Mise En Page: The Theory and Practice of Lay-Out
for $25 Five years later, it was $350 In the meantime, it had been written up in a few design histories.
What about setting a value on contemporary designs (i.e., from the past 20 years)? If I were pricing Design and Style, would I have gone so high? Probably not, but then again, valuing one’s own work is difficult (and I have a few complete sets). Given that many designers control their inventories, they can price according to what the market will accept and withhold whatever doesn’t bring the price they want. I will only expend large sums under one circumstance: I can’t live without the artifact. Regrettably for my pocketbook, that covers a lot.