Can You Collect a House? Design Miami/ Basel Says Yes
In 2009, Brad Pitt, hard-pressed to secure a building permit to drop a folly on his private seafront in Santa Monica, purchased a prefab modular home by Atelier Van Lieshout from Carpenters Workshop Gallery—thus finding a loophole by way of a house that doubles as an artwork.
But selling moveable houses as contemporary art objects follows on from a fairly long history of selling homes at auction. In 1989, Sotheby’s sold a Philip Johnson-designed townhouse built circa 1949—which traditionally would have been sold through a real estate broker—for $3.5 million, marking the first-ever sale of real estate by the auction house. This venture was a wise one; historic and architecturally significant homes, which can be challenging to sell because of size or restoration, proved better-suited for the design crowd than the real estate market.
Skipping ahead to 2003, a ’51 Mies van der Rohe steel-and-glass weekender made headlines when it sold for $7.5 million at Sotheby’s. And in 2007, Jean Prouvé’s La Maison Tropicale prefab home sold for $4.97 million at auction at Christie’s New York to hotelier Andre Balazs—who has curated a sector at Design Miami/ Basel this year, dedicated to prefabricated gems of the last century. These seven large-scale dwellings, ranging from a Prouvé filling station to a tea house made of paper tubes, prompt the question: Can you really collect a house?
For the past several years, Parisian gallerist Patrick Seguin—who since 1989 has been the undisputed champion of pioneering midcentury designer Prouvé’s architecture—has brought a prefab home to Design Miami/, assembling the houses right under design-world noses. They’ve been welcomed. This year, Prouvé’s 1969 mammoth filling station marks the entryway of the fair and is the centerpiece of the Design at Large sector. As expected from Prouvé—and from all good design—the filling station was conceived to answer a problem, designed as an innovative way to mass-produce prefab gas stations post-WWII.
Similarly, humanitarian concerns can be a motive for collecting architecture. “We bought the first demountable house in 1990, a ‘6x6 meters’ created in 1944 for war victims in Eastern France,” Seguin told me of his first interest in Prouvé’s housing. (He collects with his wife Laurence; the pair have amassed arguably the world’s most important collection of the designer’s demountable architecture, 20 pieces in total.)
Like followers of Prouvé, those who covet the houses made by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban—whose Paper Tea House is currently mounted in Design at Large—are often drawn to the benevolent motives behind his structures. “The houses are made as a refugee housing solution for disaster zones in Japan, Rwanda, India,” explains Nina Yashar, founder of Milan’s Nilufar Gallery. “I expect that the person who will buy this house will understand the purpose of this project.”
And then there are those who collect and market houses as art objects. Seguin, who has shown Prouvé with Gagosian for years, helms an operation much like that of a gallery selling artwork—as hands off and white glove as possible, from finding to restoring to installing the home, with none of the headache attributed to buying a house in the real estate market. Of today’s home collectors, Seguin said, “[They are] fully aware that they are acquiring historically important pieces of 20th-century architecture. Many are also art collectors. There is a real synergy between Prouvé’s furniture and contemporary art.” This fact has been evidenced in recent years in collaborative exhibitions between Seguin and Gagosian, where the architect’s iconic homes have been propped up, paired with the likes of John Chamberlain and Alexander Calder.
For some, the allure of additional space and the flexibility of being able to move a home from place to place, or finding creative solutions for challenging sites, is the primary draw. The home becomes a pied-à-terre on the lawn, a guest house, a meditation space, a bathhouse. This was the case with Pitt; though he’s well known as a devout collector of design, his purchase of the Mini Capsule Hotel prefab home by Atelier Van Lieshout initially fulfilled a need for more space. And he’s not the only one. Seguin reported a collector plopping a Prouvé home into his Paris loft to sleep in; a “Tea House” used for meditation inside a home in Korea; and a guest house placed in the garden of a house in the South of France.
Surely of interest to such folk would be Edouard François’s titanium Flower House with a golden sheen, presented by Galerie Philippe Gravier at the fair, which is a nomadic home that can be quickly disassembled and easily relocated. Loic Le Gaillard, co-founder of Paris’s Carpenters Workshop Gallery (showing Atelier Van Lieshout’s 10 x 17-meter prefab submarine-like pool house, complete with a bar and outdoor shower, in Design at Large) said: “If we’re talking about collectibility, most of the time, in a garden of any space, in order to build a house you would have to have some sort of permission. Here, you’re just putting a house in the middle of a garden and you look at it as an artwork. But at the same time, it’s a house, which a lot of people see as an opportunity to create more square meters within their gardens and environments.”
So where will the market, and interest, for homes go from here? Largely fueled by an extension of collectible design (think architect Zaha Hadid’s furniture, currently on view at Design Miami/ Basel) the trajectory of interest that was sparked by Prouvé is finding footing in the contemporary market. Perhaps more contemporary architects will find ways for mid-century architecture to become livable—as did Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the architecture firm who updated Prouve’s 6 x 6 Demountable House to become more independent and mobile (such as introducing a water system and solar-powered electricity). Furthermore, this way of thinking about design also considers solutions for mass-produced and quick builds in the face of disasters. In a time where collectors are constantly looking for the next best thing, keeping up with the trend could well mean coming full circle and updating homes to suit our 21st-century needs.