All the Wright Moves
Richard Wright broadens his scope, from auctioning modern furniture to promoting contemporary design
Bradley Lincoln -- Interior Design, 5/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
There was a lot of spring cleaning to do this year at Richard Wright's Chicago auction house. That's partly because he was preparing for "Absent Nature," an Arik Levy exhibition that marked Wright's debut into the primary market. Levy has designed furniture, lamps, and jewelry for the likes of Zanotta, Ligne Roset, Baccarat, and Gaia & Gino and is represented in the permanent collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and Museum of Modern Art in New York. Inspired by the scale of the main gallery at Wright, a 60,000-square-foot former printing plant, Levy planned an ambitious environment of faceted Rocks, massive logs, and a constellation of glowing light sticks suspended from an octagonal spider web. All this in a location typically populated by George Nakashima tables and Charles and Ray Eames rockers. "With the sheer volume we handle, getting such a big space completely empty for a show entails a great deal of extra commitment," Wright explains.
He plans to start with three or four contemporary shows a year—in between knocking down lots at his standing-room-only Important Design series of auctions and periodic single-collector and real-estate sales. (Wright has sold a Pierre Koenig house in Los Angeles, and Louis Kahn's Esherick house in Philadelphia was about to go on the block at press time.) To provide ongoing exposure for riskier, less commercial talents, Wright is building out a smaller gallery for shows that will run concurrently with the auctions. Visits over the years to Milan's Salone Internazionale del Mobile proved inspirational. "Now there are hundreds of satellite events going on, lots of small entities putting it out there," he says. "I like that energy." He's also gunning to promote the work of graphic artists, whom he lauds for their schooling, rationality, and discipline. "Plus, they have small egos. It really is about design for them," he continues.
Wright says he has an aversion to the circus of today's design and art scenes: "I don't care for the giant confections being made for hedge-fund guys. It's so overblown." He appreciates the opportunities created by all the commotion, but he just doesn't play that way. "I'm very self-critical," he insists. "And I'm feeling my way to see what to develop, not changing just for change. I wasn't an overnight success, and I'm proud of my evolution." An evolution it's been, indeed. Wright was first attracted to the auction business by the potential money to be made in marking up vintage fashion for resale. But, he admits, "I didn't like picking through bins of old clothes, so that didn't last long. I gravitated to objects—kitschy lamps, ashtrays, kitchen clocks. Those spoke to me much more." Stands at flea markets came next, followed by a booth at an antiques mall and eventually, in 1991, a stand-alone store in Chicago where he met his wife, interior designer Julie Thoma, when she came in looking for modernist pieces.
Wright and Thoma, who died of cancer last year, opened the auction house in 2000, and their lavishly produced catalogs of modern design quickly gained attention from international collectors. "Obviously the product and my expertise were important, but the catalogs helped form the identity of our brand. They were a big part of our success," he says. "I love the process of cataloging a sale—sitting and thinking, How can I make this piece look the most beautiful and interesting? It's incredibly hard to do something perfectly, but the search is really fulfilling."
Wright continues to take things slowly as he figures out his next moves. "It's less about ambition, trying to dominate, and more about doing what hasn't been done before," he says. "It needs to remain interesting for me and my team. I have a fear of things getting too formulaic." Fair warning.