Are NFTs the Future of Art Collecting? Here’s How the Design Industry Is Embracing the Cutting-Edge Technology


Photo credit: Nickolas Sargent (Sargent Photography)

Photo credit: Nickolas Sargent (Sargent Photography)

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You’ve seen them in headlines, watched auction houses praise their innovation, and even heard whispers about them in own social circles. NFTs are the hottest commodity in the design sphere these days, although many folks are still baffled by their existence.

An NFT, also known as a non fungible token, refers to a unique digital asset that represents ownership of real-world collectible items such as art, music, and videos. More leaders in the art and design community are dabbling in the metaverse with their own iterations of the digital artwork. Just this week, French silverware brand Christofle announced their first NFT drop, called “925 Genesis mood,” whereas 1stdibs gave previews into their spring NFT exhibition featuring digital art from Ignasi Monreal.

In many ways, it seems the rise of interest in digital art came out of thin air. However, Matt Rubinger, the chief commercial officer at 1stDibs, points out that early forms of NFTs began popping up online over 20 years ago as early adopters of the blockchain began experimenting with digital-first art.

“What we are seeing now is people becoming more accepting of NFTs as an innovative and important medium in the art world,” says Rubinger. “The digital art sphere, for years, has been a tight-knit community of artists who were supporting each other and learning from each other. It’s a community-based market that has grown with the age of technology that people are finally ready to drive into more.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of 1stdibs

Photo credit: Courtesy of 1stdibs

What Are NFTs, or Non Fungible Tokens?

At its most basic level, an NFT is a certificate of authenticity for a digital item; the token verifies the ownership history and verity of each work. “Non fungible” means that each item has its own unique properties, establishing the work can’t be replaced or replicated at the same value. NFTs can have only one owner at a time, but their blockchain technology makes it easy for the tokens to be traded.

Any form of digital creation can be tokenized, but the art industry is drumming up the most excitement and advancement. In the context of traditional art buying, NFTs serve as the digital art historians or experts you rely on to learn about the provenance of a work. Rubinger explains that “genesis pieces” tend to be the most sought after, as they are the first-ever tokenized work by an artist on a platform. Owning a genesis work would be comparable to being the first to own an original Andy Warhol painting.

Here’s where it gets a bit more complex: Almost all NFTs are part of the Ethereum blockchain. Ethereum is a form of cryptocurrency similar to Bitcoin, but it’s able to hold more storage and information for these tokens. In order to place a bid on an NFT, one would have to buy Ethereum (or any cryptocurrency able to hold NFTs) to establish a cryptocurrency wallet from a site like Coinbase or Moonpay.

Photo credit: Nickolas Sargent (Sargent Photography)

Photo credit: Nickolas Sargent (Sargent Photography)

So, Can You Decorate with NFTs?

There are essentially two different parts to an NFT. First is the token side living on the blockchain that easily verifies and traces the ownership and origins of the digital work. Then, there’s the actual file of the purchased artwork that the owner is free to do with as they see fit. It’s important to note that artwork doesn’t actually live on the blockchain like the token; it’s instead a downloadable file of the artwork one’s purchased.

There’s fluidity as to how someone could display their digital art, but Rubinger explains that the thrill of owning an NFT for many people is the notion of becoming a collector and starting their own portfolio of works. “The passion for NFTs centers around the connoisseurship, collecting, and ownership,” Rubinger says. “Most buyers come from a place of wanting to be the first to own an incredible work of art rather than whether or not it would look good projected on their living room wall.”

With that being said, there are ways for owners of NFTs to display their pieces in ways as one would with traditional art. Designer Kelly Finley of Joy Street Design is leading the charge in showing people how various mediums of art can live together in one space. In the guest bedroom at the Kips Bay Decorator Show House Palm Beach, Finely installed a gallery wall that featured framed screens displaying NFTs by Black artists from Melanated Studios alongside printed art and photography. The addition of the NFTs allowed for a much more immersive experience than a traditional gallery wall by creating movement and drawing guests into the room.

Photo credit: 1stDibs

Photo credit: 1stDibs

Who’s Making NFTs?

Anyone with an understanding of the blockchain can technically start making NFTs, but as with traditional forms of art, artists who are passionate about the craft and bring something new to the table tend to be the ones garnering the most attention. Rubinger notes the metaverse allows for artists of all backgrounds to sell their works to a wider audience. For 1stDibs’s own curated platform, the online marketplace tends to focus on lesser-known artists starting to make waves within the community.

“We’re focused on sort of early-career digital artists who have momentum,” says Rubinger. “We want to help them build their platform, and create the reputation that they want to create. It’s a fun area to be in because it’s people who really are growing and interested in being a part of this platform.”

In theory, the openness of the NFT world allows a diverse group of voices to showcase work and even start their own collection. However, there’s still an immense learning curve when it comes to understanding the basics of the blockchain or creating tokens. Jonathan Winbush, an award-winning motion graphic artist and VR pioneer, has been working with 1stDibs to educate BIPOC artists and collectors on how they can get involved in the metaverse.

“The NFT space has been growing rapidly, and in the beginning, it seemed like an equal playing field. However, as more money came into play, things started to change. Now, the artists being named at the top of the field are not very diverse,” says Winbush. “One of the biggest barriers to entry for artists to create NFTs is learning how the blockchain works—getting set up on Metamask, Coinbase, etc. My mission is to provide resources and education for BIPOC artists to learn about the technology and give them the confidence to enter the space.”

What About the Drama?

With any new technology, there are usually some concerns as more people become familiar with the platform. NFTs are no exception. One of the major criticisms of NFTs is the fact that people can easily screenshot or save a copy of the art included in the NFT. However, it’s important to remember the token or certificate of ownership for the work can not be copied and lives safely on the blockchain. Again, in the context of traditional art, anyone could buy a print of a well-known artwork or use it as a screensaver on a phone, but only one person owns the original work.

Many people also claim NFTs are only for the elite, as a number of the collections have gone for millions of dollars. However, Rubinger and Winbush agree there are a number of luxury collectibles for individuals with a smaller budget, but it is an investment as with any major artwork. “There’s a really deep intellectual side of it that is quite attainable for a lot of people,” explains Rubinger. “At 1stDibs, the price point that we’re looking around $2,000 per NFT. That is a lot of money for a lot of people, but compared to the headlines we all read about NFTs going for millions, it’s a really nice place to start for those looking to invest.”

And while the market grows and people start investing more, environmentalists warn of the impact NFTs and the blockchain have on the climate. The computing power required to mine, buy, and sell the tokens and cryptocurrency produces tons of carbon dioxide emissions. While NFTs make up only a small portion of those emissions, they still contribute to a much larger and potentially catastrophic problem. The folks behind Ethereum recognized this and have started looking for ways to cut the amount of computing power it requires to validate cryptocurrency. In a blog post by the Ethereum Foundation, the shift to a “proof-of-stake” process will result in the company reducing their energy usage by 99.95 percent. In the meantime, platforms such as 1stDibs are putting the pressure on all blockchains to reevaluate their processes to lessen the environmental impact NFTs have on the planet.

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