Art+Auction September / October 2001: The New Tastemakers

Art+Auction September October 2001 Cover
Art+Auction September October 2001: The New Tastemakers

Portraits by John Patrick Naughton

Symbolist painting is of course familiar, but have you heard about Symbolist pottery? And Art Deco, certainly, but how about Japanese Deco? Elegant modern silver that isn’t by Georg Jensen? Or, for that matter, high-style midcentury design that doesn’t come from Scandinavia, France or the U.S.? The new generation of decorative arts dealers is passionate about bringing fresh inspiration to collectors for whom the beaten path is too well-trodden. Leading the charge away from overexposed fields, they are ferreting out the unusual and the rarely seen and quietly transforming the decorative arts market.

Midcentury Milanese Architects’ Furniture

WHILE WORKING TOWARD A DEGREE IN 16TH-century art and architecture at London’s Courtauld Institute in the 1970′s, Brian Kish took periodic trips to Italy that “had an obligatory checklist: the work of the Mannerist architect Alessi in Milan, the Palladian villas, the Michelangelos in Rome.” But by the time he graduated, in 1982, his tastes had undergone a radical shift.

The son of an American diplomat, Kish had begun working at DM Gallery in London, which was furnished with Castiglioni lamps, a Tobia Scarpa leather sofa and an Olivetti desk set. “That was ground zero of my interest in high-style Milanese contemporary design,” he says. Sent to see the fabled collector Giuseppe Panza in Milan, he was intrigued by two controversial buildings: Gio Ponti’s 1956 Pirelli Tower, and the 1958 Torre Velasca by the firm BBPR, with its flying buttresses and fortresslike bulk that Kish describes as “a response to medieval and Renaissance influences.” The structures, along with Milan’s subway system&emdash;a prescient icon of high-tech,with rubber floors and graphic blocks of color, designed in 1962-1964 by Franco Albini&emdash;”really got me started on my Milanese investigation,” he says.

Kish, now 45, dealt privately in contemporary art in New York and London for two decades, until his “investigation” led him to open his low-profile gallery at 27 Greene Street in Manhattan. Tiny at 400 square feet when it opened two years ago, the space is undergoing renovations that will triple its size by October. It is stocked with furnishings and lighting by mid-century Milanese architects&emdash;primarily Ponti, the versatile genius who worked in every medium from graphics to furniture to architecture to tableware; the underrated Albini; and others who boldy styled rationalist designs came out of a radical intellectual postwar culture in which, as Kish puts it, “everyone realized Bauhaus was dead.”

This material is rarely seen elsewhere in the U.S. Ponti’s shallow-seated leather Gabriella chair ($4,500), made in 1971, has been called his “last little masterpiece.” It is a revelation, as is his pressed-glass and steel Pirellione lamp ($6,500), created in 1967 for Fontana Arte, and his 1968 lamp for Guzzini, with four white plastic cylinders mounted on a clear acrylic arch ($5,000). A spectacular mahogany desk ($45,000), made for an Alfa Romeo showroom in 1961, was the centerpiece of “Gio Ponti: A Metaphysical World,” an exhibition curated by Kish at the Queens Museum of Art in the spring.

The dealer sees Classical influences on the most startingly modern forms. He notes that the octagonal shape of a tea cart with V-shaped struts by Ico Parisi ($4,800) “goes back to the Renaissance,” and that Albini’s 1953 Fiorenza chair, upholstered in navy blue ($4,000), is “a take on an 18th-century bergère, brought into the 20th century with a vengeance.”

He clearly enjoys the role of art historian. He’ll describe a piece as having “a contextual regionalism, reexpressed with new materials and new possibilities,” and in the next moment, he is simply an enthusiast, gushing over a work’s exquisite design. Even the hassle of arranging transport from Italy for such fragile and bulky items as a six-foot-tall brass-and-glass lamp by Marco Zanuso for Kartell and a custom conference table designed in the mid-’60s by Albini is pure pleasure for Kish. So is the prospect of spending a week with his nose buried in the archives of Albini’s firm (now inherited by the architect’s son) and of the BBPR offices in Milan, as he plans to do this fall. “That,” he says, “is what makes me happy.”

Opposite: Brian Kish in his SoHo gallery with Gio Ponti’s vintage 1950 Leggera chair, its seat and back in woven Cellophane. Behind him are Ponti’s 1927 majolica vessel, based on an archaic form, and his 1970 multiuse wardrobe, from the Apta series. Ponti designs, from left: A 1971 Gabriella chair with chromed steel frame and black leather upholstery; one of two desks made in 1961 for an Alfa Romeo showroom; a small walnut side table for a hotel in Naples, from 1949.

[Transcribed for web by Steven Chu]

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