Many of us have bought design objects for pleasure and/or scholarship. We’ve paid varying amounts—high and low. But what or who determines the value of a design artifact. Is it simply supply and demand or some curiously abstract idea of worth? I recently found reference on the web to something I edited many years ago for sale through a highly respected antiquarian book dealer. A complete set (seven issues) of Design and Style, a paper promotion created by Seymour Chwast and me for Mohawk Paper Mills, was sold for $1200 or $150 per copy. Granted, it was expensive to originally produce back when we began the series in 1986 (ending in 1992), and it was a limited run to begin with, but how was this dollar amount determined?
Monetizing fine art is a fairly logical process. Artists who have reputations command more money than those who do not. Gallery shows usually create the baselines for value, while museum exhibitions exponentially raise that line. Collectors often inflate worth by virtue of buying into and amassing collections of certain artists or movements, and from there value is further determined through sales, auctions, and forms of cultural barter. Posters are among the few graphic design forms that follow this essential model. Since a poster is a displayable object, often marketed to a broader audience than just designers or design scholars, it commands a higher price. Since various poster artists are known as masters of the craft, their respective works also have greater resale value. The most well known of these “affichistes,” despite the fact that the item might be printed in a large print run, are also intrinsically more desirable. Add to that the condition of the poster and the price is established.
But what about those objects produced in medium or large quantities, by historically less significant designers? What about the more contemporary work produced by significant current designers 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 the price of original sketches, comps, or final artwork compared to the reproductions? How are these items prized?
“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 of Glenn Horowtiz Bookseller in New York. “I bought a number of examples that Sutnar created for Roneo and Vera at auction years ago and paid handsomely for them because they had never been unwrapped.”
But sometimes, valuable objects fall between the cracks. Over ten years ago Steven Guarnaccia, the chair of the BFA Illustration Dept. at Parsons, breathlessly called me to say he just found nine mint copies of Sutnar’s Catalog Design Progress, the Czech designer’s seminal book on the subject for $10 each at the Strand. I had purchase a copy a year before from a rare book dealer for $100 and six months later I saw one for sale at $500. I suggested he keep two, sell one to me, sell one to a friend for $250 and the rest to a dealer for $200 each. I learned later the dealer sold them each for between $300 and $450. And I bet the buyers were happy to have them.
Not all Sutnar materials are this expensive, but most have high price-tags because they are historically valued (in other words in all the history books). In the 90s libraries were paying high prices for avant garde materials, so selling them to individual collectors became a high stakes game. “There has been a market for these sorts of ephemeral productions going back into the early eighties,” continues McWhinnie. He cites Ex Libris and proprietors Arthur A. Cohen and Elaine Lustig Cohen as one of the pioneer booksellers that promoted and sold this type of graphic design and helped establish a market. To a certain degree their ambitious pricing set the tone for the 80s and 90s. Other dealers followed suit. European avant-garde movements commanded the highest prices (and monographs about those movements helped push the prices upwards). Then a flood of monographs 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 most obvious names or initials of designers. James Fraser, former librarian of the Friendship Library at Fairleigh Dickenson University, Madison, New Jersey follows these 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 curiously why they are valuable. Their work represents the roots of modern graphic design but known only by a rarefied few.
Because ephemera is of the moment—and usually destroyed rather than preserved after use—most of these fleeting objects are rare, which has always kept the price relatively 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 post-war graphic design has flattened in value because Ebay has demonstrated that it isn’t as scarce as it seemed to be fifteen years ago.”
Books are a different story. Some are worth much less than when they were sold retail. Others, owing to scarcity are priced much higher. The book market has clear guidelines and some intangible ones too. If a book is important and rare the price will be predictably 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 A. Tolmer’s Mise en Page for $25. Five years later it was $350. In the meantime, it was written up in a few design histories.
What about setting a value on contemporary designs (i.e. the past twenty years)? If I were pricing Design & Style would I have given it such a high tag? Probably not, but then again valuing one’s own work is incredibly 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 what doesn’t bring the price they want. I will only expend large sums based on one key factor: I can’t live without the document. Regrettably for my pocketbook, that covers a lot of design artifacts.