Tracing Wright

September 9, 2013

Wright is the premier auction house specializing in modern and contemporary design. Founded in 2000 by Richard Wright, the Chicago-based company has successfully sold 40,000 lots across the spectrum of twentieth and twenty-first century design as well as other iconic items such as Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House 21.

Zoë Ryan, curator of Architecture and Design at The Art Institute of Chicago, and MAS Context editor in chief Iker Gil met with Richard in his office to talk about the evolution of Wright and the auction business, the need to create narratives, supporting designers, and the award-winning catalogues he produces for each auction.


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Wright Auction House. © Wright.

ZR: When I moved here six years ago, you had made a commitment to contemporary design with exhibitions on Ron Gilad and Martino Gamper for example, at a time when the limited-edition market was more robust. You are still selling work by contemporary practitioners, but you seem to have gone back to the core of your original business and realized how strong of a position you have in mid-century modern design.

RW: I have also come to see the difference between primary and secondary markets. That was not as apparent to me and I think that it was not as apparent to a lot of other auction houses. I think that auction houses are not well served doing it. I did a series of exhibitions and financially it was really tough to do. Several auction houses got involved in some of this, but the mechanisms of auctions are really about pricing. At the end of the day, it doesn’t serve contemporary designers that well to just promote the work and put it in an auction or promote it through the framework of an auction model. So I’ve retrenched into doing more secondary market auctions, which I think I have a stronger basis to work from. I certainly understand it more but I also think it is the way the auction prices are set. It just works better with older pieces.

ZR: When you were commissioning the projects, you had to take on a dual role. You were the client, and the manufacturer, and a collaborator in many ways.

RW: It is always really interesting to learn that if you give carte blanche to a designer you probably don’t end up with as good a design as when you start to create restrictions. Design works better when it’s placed into a tighter box, when it has to answer to problems and react to things. I didn’t fully understand that. I understood it conceptually but at the end of the day it was like, “Hey I want to let you do your thing, you are the designer and you run with that idea.” I think that was part of the problem that came out of the whole design-art time, which thankfully people don’t call it that anymore. And also, maybe you just need the experience. If you don’t have that experience in manufacturing, and if you’re just make one-off pieces, you can create a design brief that is so broad it doesn’t lead to the best design. It actually can lead to over-exuberance, or just plain bad design. I think Ron [Gilad] did really great work for me but there were things that if I had to do it all over I would change certain. At the time, I didn’t understand how much he was actually looking to me to create boundaries and to give that kind of muscle, the framework to the design itself. I wish I had done more of that. Piera Pezzolo Gandini, the person behind Flos, came in and took one of Ron’s better designs, reinvented it for production and really sharpened it. And Ron was really challenged and turned on by that process. I really saw, “Oh, that’s how real design works! It not just let’s make this thing.”

ZR: That’s the benefit of hindsight. With the secondary market you can benefit from history and existing interpretation. The work has already been validated by its place within history.

RW: Secondary market has chosen the winners. It is pretty easy to trace now what has already been decided.

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Wright Auction House. © Wright.

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Wright Auction House. © Wright.

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Wright Auction House. © Wright.

ZR: Do people feel more comfortable investing in this work? There are people who like to speculate and go out there and identify who they think will be the next big thing. Yet there are others who look at the vintage market and fall in love with pieces because they understand their historical trajectory or are knowledgeable of a designer’s body of work.

RW: I think that speculation can be a problem. Clearly, if you are buying from the secondary market you are buying more proven assets. In that sense, it’s a safer investment. I really try to discourage people from using this as an investment per se at all. But, if you’re speculating on work by a younger designer, it is much better to take the model of being a patron. You need to support emerging design. I think that on the positive side of the little experiments I did, it certainly helped Ron. As much as I was arguing that you need a tighter design brief, there is a place for design to be able to take chances and to make a bad design or something that doesn’t work. It is necessary to have somebody that supports that on the backside or it can’t continue. So I ended up becoming the patron, unbeknownst to me at the time. For the people who are buying contemporary, I’d much rather see them approach it with that mindset. And it really is much the same with art. You have to realize that the vast majority of the time it’s not going to be a great investment vehicle, especially in design. We do not know which of these 3D printed things is going to be important. [To Zoë] That’s your job to figure out and you know how hard that is.

ZR: I do. I don’t have a crystal ball either but my job is to follow closely new developments and identify work that has a relationship to contemporary society and that tells us about the world we live in. I look for work that I believe has relevance and signals new developments and inventive directions.

RW: And that may or may not even tie to market value. One thing I see in the secondary market is that I am offered things that are in the Museum of Modern Art all the time. There are incredibly expensive things in the design department and there are very pedestrian things that are great design. They are just not valuable. I get emails every single day with an Eames chair and they almost always reference the MoMA. But they sell for $500 or $700. The two don’t always correlate in that sense.

ZR: I never think about something in terms of whether it is going to be of monetary value later on. I think about cultural value. I’m interested in selecting work based on how it furthers an understanding of the world we live in. However, the history of ideas is not an exact science and work that was deemed important in the past can go out of favor and then cycle back into contemporary discourse. Post-modern design is a great example. We’ve witnessed a renewed interest in the work of greats like Ettore Sottssas in the past years. For us, much of the decision-making process isn’t reliant on singular works. Sometimes we acquire singular works because we just think that they are so important that they need to be in the collection. But at other times we are looking to fill holes in existing aspects of the collection, or determine acquisitions around an exhibition we are working on. Our thinking is multi-faceted as we try and make the most out of limited funds.

RW: Are you trying to fit it into a narrative?

ZR: Yes, but it’s multiple narratives. It can be a narrative about an exhibition, it can be a narrative about process, material, contemporary conditions or societal change, for example. We are living in a time of great plurality of approaches. We need to go across party lines. Our strength is in being able to show a breadth of different ways of working. I am really interested in writing people into art history who have been ignored or overlooked: women, marginalized groups, etc. We are currently working to identify practitioners that will open up dialogues and enrich the history of design.

RW: Just to reference the market, within your collection, with your decision making. Would you have a bias in choosing the less expensive example? For example, if you are you are going to add one of Ron Arad’s pieces you can add different examples of very different price points. You are certainly going to try to add the one that you think is the most successful.

ZR: Ultimately I am looking for the most inventive work or a piece that tells us something about that designer and their interests and helps us chart their career. I am really interested in industrial production as I’ve shown through exhibitions with designers such as Konstantin Grcic. However, we also collect work by designers such as Studio Formafantasma, which is known for working on limited editions because of the intensive craft processes they employ. We are also keen to commission new work, which we have done consistently. I feel that one of our responsibilities is to seed ideas and produce new knowledge. Commissions can be some of the most challenging projects but they can also produce the most inventive outcomes. Some fail and some are really successful but they provide a platform for a younger generation of talent and at best provoke dialogue and exchange, which is something I am interested in stimulating.

RW: It’s interesting to me because I know that you have no concern about the future monetary value, or at least that it isn’t so important. But you are involved in the market in that you have a limited budget and you have to make the best choices. If you make one very expensive choice then you have to limit your other choices. You may be more actively involved in the market than you may first think.

ZR: Absolutely. We have bought some limited-edition works that we know has helped increase the value of this series of works. If you really believe in something though then this is not what is important.

IG: You have also auctioned other pieces like houses by Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis Khan, collectible cars and other specific pieces. How is auctioning those pieces different from your other auctions?

RW: Each of those is a different category. Auctioning real estate has been an interesting process. I would do it again, but the process of auctioning a piece of real estate in an art auction context, to me, is really problematic. One has to understand that it really only works for a very limited number of properties. The property has to be really important. It also has to be priced right for the real estate market. People want their property to be treated as art and they want to price it outside of the real estate norms, and that has been a problem. I think that at the height of it, it was an expression of the excess of the market. I helped sell a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Rockford. The world had collapsed so I didn’t do it because it was an overheated market. I did it because nobody would buy this man’s house. He was the original owner and he was in failing health so, through the auction process, we ended up motivating the local people to buy it and turn it into a house-museum, which he had been trying to do for nearly a decade. Not that an auction is the only place for it, but I think that the mechanism is there and it can be powerful. Cars are a whole other industry that I am not involved in, which also has its own collecting world. We have taken select cars, an Avanti, for example, purely to show them to our design clients. We also sold a really great bicycle a couple of auctions ago for a really nice price1 but we don’t want to sell collectable bikes. This was just a particularly visual one and it went to a design collector. Like Zoë, we are trying to tell historical narratives and we are trying to bring you something you haven’t seen or you haven’t seen in the market. But we want to tell a story. I’ve come to see that I enjoy being an editor as much as being an auctioneer. It’s about creating the stories and bringing your own eye to them.

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Catalogues for several Wright auctions. © Wright.

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Catalogues for several Wright auctions. © Wright.

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Catalogues for several Wright auctions. © Wright.

ZR: One of the most interesting things about your auction house is the commitment that you have to design across all platforms. The catalogues are beautiful, and I am sure that these are a labor of love. They have become collectibles. They seem so luxurious in this current economic climate.

RW: Believe me, I struggle with this and I think about it a lot. I love print and our catalogues are an integral part of our brand and success. I often say that it is one of my favorite parts of the entire process because it is pure. We take small items and show them on a single page, because they are really beautiful visual things. Objects are not laid out by value. Objects are not photographed by value. We just try to find the best expression of the piece, even if it is inexpensive. I want to bring the same experience to the web. I think the web is incredibly good at the deep dive, at delivering in-depth content on a piece, something that you can’t have in a print catalogue. The web is excellent at that. We are expending a lot of time and money right now trying to define that compelling web experience but I can tell you that nothing holds your attention at this point like a print catalogue. When you are on the web, and we are all on the computer all day long, we are terribly distracted. Your level of focus and your level of attention is so different from when I hand you a book. Even if you only look for a few minutes, you form a really strong impression. I’ve come around to see the enduring power of print, for at least the next 20 years.

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Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #21 auction catalogue. © Wright.

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Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #21 auction catalogue. © Wright.

IG: The catalogues that you did for the houses that you auction are also an opportunity to create your on narrative. To bring Julius Shulman to photograph the Case Study House #21 by Pierre Koenig 50 years after he had photographed it for the first time is a big commitment. But you also are creating something invaluable that is much more than what is needed to “sell” the house.

RW: I think that’s one thing that I am most proud of. Look, we want to have a successful business, but when we realized that we could do that, it was such a compelling idea that we had to do it. We could have saved money and not done it and still have presented a beautiful book with great photos, but that story was too good.

IG: And it was also good because you sold the house unlike the one of Louis Khan.

RW: The Louis Kahn house was a heartbreaker.

IG: But the books was great [Laughs].

RW: Yes, the book was great.

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Wright warehouse. © Wright.

ZR: How do you see the auction market or buying market changing online?

RW: It’s really changing very rapidly right now. We have all lived through the rise of the Internet but also the rise of people’s level of comfort in purchasing luxury items and high-end expensive items on the web. A web-only experience is pretty new but it is really starting to happen. imploded in 2003 and they lost something like 20 million dollars because people were not ready, but now it is changing fast. In the design world, 1stdibs has gotten huge. I don’t know if you look at it but, for secondary market people, they do an excellent job. I don’t love it, but as a phenomenon they are an incredible aggregator of design and they do it at a very high-level and they have done it incredibly successfully.

The challenge for me is that people used to wait for our auction catalogues and it was an exciting auction season. Between us, Christies, Sotheby’s and Phillips, there were hundreds of items being offered and that was very exciting. Now, that’s almost happening all of the time. So we have to struggle to find things that are really fresh or really fairly priced and present them in a compelling manner to break through. That level of really great material being accessible in just a few keystrokes is something that we are all going to be used to.

ZR: It’s also about how interactive we can make websites. The Art Institute is currently working on a range of web-based initiatives. We are using programs such as Google Goggles and have made a commitment to digitizing our collections and making them more accessible online. For architecture it is more complicated because we have to have large-format rapid imaging machines because the drawings are so large. But we are working on this. For other objects, it is simpler. We can produce 360º views of an object or zoom in deep on a painting because we now have the technology. There is a benefit to having this be accessible to people who can’t come to the museum, but nothing replaces being able to experience the artwork in person.

RW: I don’t think there is going to be a reaction against it, but I think people also come to value the tangibles that you get when you see something in person. They are two completely different things, the experience is just different. A couple of years ago I said we have to shoot every mark and we believe all the labels. We take more shots of a piece than anybody else, we include multiple sides. I am proud to the extent that we archive everything that we have ever sold.

ZR: That’s really fantastic.

RW: I am trying to unlock that content and make it easier for people to find it. To your point Zoë, nobody knows exactly what the next platform is going to be and that is really expensive and time consuming. The level of investment for you is more justified because it is a permanent collection. Meta-tagging all those items is a nightmare but it’s cool because we are in the thick of it. Museums have been kind of slow and it drives me crazy. I want to see how things are marked, I’d love to be able to access more documents online.

ZR: We are working on it.

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Richard Wright. © Wright.

1 A Spacelander bicycle by Benjamin Bowden that sold for $35,000