With the scope of art continually expanding to include everything from film to fashion wear, the design world is finding itself on the up and up. More art collectors are including works by iconic designers into their collections, and many major art institutions—MoMA for instance—either have departments dedicated to architecture and design, or they’ve presented major exhibitions of prominent design figures and movements (David Adjaye, for example, is currently having a huge retrospective at Haus der Kunst in Munich). And yet, in the grand scheme of things, design is generally undervalued—in art scholarship, in the press, and in the market—compared to what we traditionally consider art: paintings and sculptures. We talked to Zesty Meyers of R & Company, the Tribeca-based design gallery known for their innovative exhibition programming, about why we should be taking a sustained, more focused look at design, and why we should be collecting it.
Lina Bo Bardi + Roberto Burle Marx, Installation view at R & Company
Natalie Hegert: I’d like to talk a bit about your current exhibitions, Grains of Paradise, an exhibition of contemporary African design, and Lina Bo Bardi + Roberto Burle Marx, an exhibition showcasing two of Brazil’s most significant modern designers.
Zesty Meyers: We currently have a historic show of works by Lina Bo Bardi and Roberto Burle Marx, two exceptional leaders of architecture, design, and landscape architecture of the 20th century. They were masters at what they did. Roberto Burle Marx’s work has been internationally recognized and exhibited for many years. But Lina—one of the many great women in design and architecture whose works were somewhat forgotten until about 15 years ago—is just now having a major renaissance with exhibitions taking place all over the world.
Upstairs, concurrently, we have a show about contemporary African design, where three of the designers are from South Africa and one, Babacar Niang, is from Senegal.
The juxtaposition of these two major exhibitions embodies R & Company’s mission—to discover new and exciting contemporary design while remaining devoted to the promotion and preservation of the historic.
NH: What’s striking to me about these two shows is the focus that R & Company places on locating these works in their respective historical and geographic contexts. How did this approach to exhibition-making evolve with the gallery?
ZM: Africa and Brazil are actually very connected. Just as the work of Burle Marx and Bo Bardi draws from the indigenous native cultures of Brazil, the contemporary African designers are similarly taking inspiration from their indigenous tribal cultures. Both Lina Bo Bardi + Roberto Burle Marx and Grains of Paradise take on a social message about how to bring better things to people. The works on view by the younger Africans come from simpler or basic ideas, with many looking at the past or to animal behavior. Take Porky Hefer’s nests, which are inspired by questions like how does a bird make its nests, and how could it protect me, or how could I use it? Dokter and Misses are very influenced by the Kassena tribe, who create beautiful symbolic paintings on their homes, but they’ve made it more contemporary.
Dokter and Misses, Grains of Paradise, Installation view at R & Company
NH: When you generally go to a design gallery, most of the time you’ll find a showroom, but R & Company is unique in that you’re putting together these focused exhibitions. What prompted the idea to show design in an exhibition format, in the way you’d experience contemporary or modern art?
ZM: We think design deserves to be shown in a focused exhibition format. I would start there. We believe perception and presentation are everything. It’s great that I have chairs made by Lina Bo Bardi 50 or so years ago, but it’s more important that I share them with the public through a curated, thoughtful, gallery presentation. Plenty of chairs from the 1950s are cool or trendy, but that’s really not R & Company’s interest. We are interested in masterworks from their time. The people that we show are historical leaders of their generations or countries, designers who exerted global influence even back then. Often we look for designers who may not yet be globally recognized, compared to the super famous names—Charles Eames, Jean Prouve or Charlotte Perriand. There are many designers that are just as good, if not better, just for different reasons.
R & Company wants to show the works of the world together as a global format. We demonstrate that the design world was already global starting after WWII, as our collection dates from about 1940 to the present. Young designers need to observe the past, so they can grow into the future. There are some amazing stories that are being forgotten, either unwritten stories or archives that are being thrown away. We are working to preserve these histories, and to present them in a meaningful way as part of thoughtful exhibitions.
We could have just had a shop, you’re right, and we did have a shop when we opened in 1997 in Williamsburg. It was easy and fun. But the real pleasure comes from presenting the passion and knowledge that we’ve acquired, not focusing on making money. Through R & Company’s exhibitions, we become storytellers, representing the gallery’s idea of what is good design, something that is continually changing and growing.
The more that R & Company grows, the more I learn personally and that pushes me forward in how to showcase global perspectives of design. Why shouldn’t our exhibitions be as good as anything in the best museum in the world? Why should I lessen myself if we have this power of presentation?
Ardmore, Nighttime Owl Tureen in White, Designed and made by Ardmore, South Africa, 2013. 12.6" L x 12.6" W x 22.44" H / 32cm L x 32cm W x 57cm H.
Photo Joe Kramm, Courtesy R & Company
NH: Yes, I think it’s important that audiences are challenged with the information, history, and what you’re engaging with at the gallery. This is sort of a related but more general question—you kind of talked about it a little bit before—I’m curious about how geography relates to design. We often talk about Scandinavian design, Japanese design, and now you’re working on a book about Brazilian design. What do you think contributes to geographical grouping and design sensibilities? What is it about place that makes us think about design?
ZM: It depends. The most interesting thing about Scandinavian design today is that it’s in danger of being forgotten, considering what the younger designers are doing today. Their national governments are sponsoring projects outside of the country and not helping the people on the interior. It’s puzzling that they built reputations on this national pride and now it’s pretty much disappearing for the future. Unless you’re going to buy into the “classic” Scandinavia.
Finland, being a very young country, still not even a hundred years old, decided to base its reputation on design. You can see this in things like the ’39 World’s Fair from them. We are interested in why these design movements happen. We go and seek what else happened, and why, in these countries. In Finland, there couldn’t have just been Alvar Aalto, for instance, and there couldn’t have just been Arne Jacobsen or Hans Wegner in Denmark. There would have had to be more. In Brazil, they wouldn’t have imported all the design to sit on if the architecture wasn’t already so radical on the interior.
NH: Let’s shift gears and talk about how to build a design collection. What is the difference between collecting art and collecting design? Do you think there is a difference?
ZM: No I don’t. When you look at the 20th century design sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, etc, and compare it to their contemporary art sales, and how many hundreds of millions of dollars those sales are doing, why wouldn’t one of those art collectors try to buy the entire 20th century design sale for 5 million dollars? And buy 150 lots of the most amazing design works out there in the world?
NH: I don’t know, why?
ZM: Good question, right? For collectors, we’re like the penny candy store. Here’s the thing: institutions doing two different sales, in the same week sometimes, one does hundreds of millions and the other, if we’re lucky, does 5 to 7 million. It’s not even a 1 percent ratio.
I think most people don’t look at design as being something conceptual, they look at design as something you can sit on. But there’s so much more to it: why a chair works for different heights, sizes and shapes of people; why these things are aesthetically pleasing to some and grossly ugly to others. It’s the same thing as looking at a painting or a sculpture. You get the same basic reaction that starts a discourse. It is no different with design, it’s just the way that we present it to get people to try to start thinking and talking about it. All of the designers that we represent had ideas. They didn’t make a chair because they needed something to sit on. They made a chair because they wanted to make it better for some reason.
Chairs by Lina Bo Bardi, Photo: Joe Kramm, Courtesy R & Company
NH: Sometimes people collect works of art because of how historically important the artist is, rather than how they feel about that particular work of art. Is there an equivalent to this in collecting design? Like, do you find collectors that feel they’re collecting the designer rather than the object?
ZM: Both. There are certain icons already, the same way there’s certain blue chip art. And that could lead to some people bidding on something that they normally wouldn’t, if it’s an icon or blue chip, in either market. Sometimes these markets are really sustainable. Sometimes they’re not.
NH: What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to someone interested in building a design collection?
ZM: Create something that has a definition. Don’t collect just what’s popular, but rather create something that will give you the most pleasure. Historically, if you look at art collections that are sold at auction, the blue chip collections don’t do as well once they come back out on the secondary market as the ones from people who collected with an idea. It would be no different for a design collection.
David Wiseman's Studio, L.A. Photo: Joe Kramm, Courtesy R & Company. Upcoming exhibition David Wiseman: Wilderness and Ornament at R & Company
NH: What would you suggest for collectors with smaller budgets? In other words, how do you get the most bang for your buck when it comes to design?
ZM: Just keep searching. R & Company has amazing offerings that any level collector can afford to buy from us. From time to time, we release editions for a couple thousand dollars that sell quite quickly, although those can become more expensive towards the end of selling out. Be aware and be involved with us as a gallery. Figure out what we do and what our programming is and which designers you really like. Get on the mailing list so you’re notified when something new comes, particularly from the younger designers that we take on whose works are often less expensive compared to the masters that we have.
NH: You’re based in New York, but do you have any suggestions for our readers who are not in New York looking for other galleries doing similar things in other parts of the world?
ZM: A good place to get references or resources is the website of DesignMiami/. Look at the fair’s current list of exhibitors. Go to the major fairs in New York like the Collective Design Fair, which has 30 or so galleries from 5 different countries, or The Salon: Art + Design. You can also look at websites with great design sections, like Artsy.
Unique Collage fireplace screen in bronze and porcelain. Designed and made by David Wiseman, USA, 2014. 58.5" L x 18" W x 33.5" H / 148.6cm L x 45.7cm W x 85.1cm H. From the upcoming exhibition David Wiseman: Wilderness and Ornament at R & Company
NH: How do you feel about what’s happening in the field of design today? Any emerging trends or proclivities we should be watching out for?
ZM: I think it’s bigger than a trend now, I think it’s actually a movement. And I think it’s just picking up steam.
If you took the timeline of Design Miami/, which is now ten years old, or Design Miami/Basel, which will be in its 10th year this June, today’s sales are off the charts. But the public doesn’t realize this yet. This is not something that’s going away, this is something that's growing into a huge, sustainable marketplace.
While I don’t want the design world to be the art world, it’s the only template that I can look at. But I think there is a lot of crossover between design and art happening in the 21st century given the access of young people now entering the creative design and art markets, who don’t feel confined to just one or two mediums. There are works shown at R & Company that could easily be shown in a fine arts gallery as fine art, and there are some designers that we represent that purely want to be the best decorative artists in the world.
I think the design market is just going to grow insanely—by volume, by dollar amounts, and by the interest of people. When Evan and I first opened the gallery here in Tribeca, I thought people from Tribeca and Soho would come in occasionally, and maybe people from Uptown would come Downtown. Now there seems to be a different language spoken in my gallery at any day. We’re a destination. It has nothing to do with trends. I don’t pay attention to trends. We build markets, and I want to be here in another 30 years telling you the same story of why we kept growing. That’s my goal.
NH: Anything else you’d like to add about collecting?
ZM: Buy now. Prices that are here today will be gone in five or ten years. If you compare what stuff was selling for at auction ten years ago versus today, the price difference is amazing.
ArtSlant would like to thank Zesty Meyers, Jennifer Isakowitz, and Helen Cowdrey for their assistance in making this interview possible.
(Image at top: Porky Hefer, Grains of Paradise, Installation view at R & Company; All images courtesy of R & Company)