Is furniture art? What difference does it make if a bench is made of fibreglass or marble? What goes on in a Bangkok luxury hotel? All the answers are here

You may remember back in November, I filed my column from a fantastic spa hotel in Thailand (24 November, page 30). Well, as a result of that trip, we have a great commission to design a department store and 25-storey luxury hotel.

So I returned to Bangkok a couple of weeks ago for the kick-off meeting and a whistlestop tour of every department store, shopping mall and luxury hotel in the city.

In the West, hotels and department stores have fairly contained functions serving a particular clientele. In Bangkok these buildings take on a different significance – they are the heartbeat of the city. Much of the business takes place in hotels, as well as a large percentage of the socialising. And shopping is a national pastime to which you dedicate not just hours but entire weekends.

Our challenge is to find a better way to sell, to create a better place to stay and to invest the building with architectural ambition – all in an extremely compressed timeframe and to a budget that bears little relation to what we are used to. Construction and production technologies are far behind those in the West, but what you do have is a cheap and available labour market. I want to use that difference in emphasis between labour and technology to suggest strategies and materials that I hope will result in a building that expresses modernity in a new way.

Talking of materials, the central project of the London Design Festival (which finished earlier this week) was the two installations outside the Royal Festival Hall titled Size + Matter. The idea was to take a material – we had Corian and Zaha had concrete – and use it in a way that explores technical and aesthetic boundaries, so suggesting ways in which the material might be used and perceived differently in the future.

There was deliberately no brief in terms of functionality to allow us to take a more abstract perspective. Size was suggested – that of a family car – but we didn’t take much notice because, as we all know, size matters.

With this kind of project, there is never time for research but Corian, Aggregate Industries and the contractors who installed the pieces were pushed to their limits. They responded with a level of commitment, energy and enthusiasm that gives me a renewed faith in the construction industry’s willingness to experiment and take risks.

Another key show in the festival was about materials: Established & Sons’ installation Elevating Design. The venue was a cavernous space below the University of Westminster.

There is a big debate about whether or not design is art. It isn’t. But I have no problem with the high prices commanded by limited-edition furniture

A number of pieces from Established’s furniture range were literally elevated 8m in the air on massive black pedestals. Each piece was produced as a one-off in Carrara marble. It was a simple but brilliant idea.

The show was visually breathtaking and intellectually provocative. It posed two questions of the moment: how does using a material for which the piece was not designed change your perception of form? In the case of our Drift benches, which in fibreglass express the essence of modernity, suddenly you had a piece of antiquity.

The second question was: how does using an expensive and rarefied material change the perceived value of a piece? Without question it does – a simple wooden crate designed by Jasper Morrison became an instant collectable.

The exhibition title was clever too. There is a big debate at the moment about whether or not design is art. Of course it isn’t art – it’s design. But the reason for the debate is the increasingly high prices commanded by limited-edition furniture. I have no problem with this. Why shouldn’t a beautiful and experimental 3D form that also functions as a piece of furniture be expensive?

Limited-edition pieces are expensive to make, expensive to design and consolidate years of thought and experiment.

The cynical argument is that prices for art are now so inflated they are affordable only to the super-rich. We live in a market-driven economy, so what do you expect? The danger is there are some who will seek short-term gain, flooding the market with quickly conceived pieces that will not stand the test of time. But it is up to the intelligence of the collector to avoid being duped. My hot tip is to buy while prices are still relatively low.

And to those who are regular Building readers, you may remember that my first column in April 2006 began with the words “I’ve got a sexy new boyfriend”. Well, next week I’m going to marry him.