David Alhadeff, the founder of US contemporary design gallery sees the ups
and downs of this past year as an ideal opportunity to learn, grow and pivot, ultimately
making his business stronger and more nimble as it heads towards its 20th anniversary.
HOW HAS THIS PAST YEAR BEEN FOR YOU?
On both a personal and professional level it’s been both amazing and challenging, a year full of highs and lows. And what’s been so rewarding is that some of the ways we’ve been challenged - organizationally and personally - have led to development and growth and put us on a new path. One example is that for years we only hired in New York, because that’s where our office was located. And then last March, as we all did, we went home, which was disruptive of course, but we quickly realized that we could all be incredibly productive working remotely. And so, when our lease was up in June, we made a decision to no longer have an office space - something we would’ve been afraid to do before - and it turned out we were okay. And that’s been such a lesson of this year, that you can take a risk or make a decision that you never thought you could, and not only can it be okay, but it can actually be better. Because of that decision, we’ve broadened our thinking about hiring, and we now prioritize working with the most talented individuals, no matter where they are based. As a result of that, we just hired someone based in Utah, and so we now have perspectives in our company that we might never have had, which is so valuable, and makes us stronger as an organization, and better equipped to face down challenges in the future.
DO YOU FEEL THAT AS YOUR TEAM EXPANDS AND PEOPLE ARE WORKING FROM HOME, THERE’S SOMETHING MISSING FROM THE CULTURE OF COLLEAGUES BEING TOGETHER? DO THE BENEFITS OUTWEIGH ANY SCRATCHINESS?
I do think the benefits outweigh the scratchiness in this moment. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages, but given the hand we’ve been dealt, we were lucky to be able to use the challenge for opportunity. On a macro level, that’s how I see the past year. Instead of seeing those challenges as a threat or as something to be afraid of – and that was at first how I was feeling, as I think many of us were – we’ve used this time to push forward and work in a new way.
ARE YOU REFERRING TO HAVING TO PUT EVERYTHING ONLINE?
Well, we already had a strong online presence, but operationally speaking we’ve really honed-in on the digital aspect of our business, and we’ve been able to leverage our Instagram following and our website so much more than we could have dreamed. We’re launching a new trade site soon too that we’ve been hard at work on all year. That will really be a game changer for our clients and for our sales team, and the circumstances we found ourselves in this year pushed that priority to the fore. As for our in-person business, in the cities that we’re operating in – New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco - businesses like ours have been open since last summer, of course with social distancing best practices in place. We’re lucky to have a lot of square footage so we can still welcome a reasonable number of guests into our spaces, and our Casa Perfect concepts have always been by appointment only anyway, so that has continued to work seamlessly for this moment. We’ve always been a destination, so we’ve been able to operate that way, where visits are intimate and special.
YOU’RE CLOSE TO THE 20 YEAR MARK IN 2023. HOW WOULD YOU SAY THE CONCEPT OF THE FUTURE PERFECT HAS MORHPED OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES?
The focus of the business has always been about presenting what’s at the forefront of creativity in our field of interest, which is design, where so much has changed. Twenty years is a significant amount of time for there to have been major industry changes and geographic changes. We started in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2003, and now we’re in Noho, the West Village, Beverly Hills and Pacific Heights in San Francisco. What also continues to change is the way we present work, but our interest in the work remains. We’ve also had to understand that not all of the talent we work with can be emerging anymore, as some of the artists we represent have become increasingly well known. That means we can’t identify ourselves as an emerging design gallery, but I like to say that our interest and focus is on presenting ground-breaking ideas within the category, and that will never change. We work with unbelievably talented creative people: artists, designers, interior designers, art advisers and so on.
YOUR GUT IS TO ALWAYS WORK WITH PEOPLE YOU LIKE.
That’s true in the broader sense. Not everyone is meant to get along with everybody, so find your tribe and work with them. It’s easy to feel competitive, but what’s the point? There’s room for everyone and plenty of space and time. Puzzle pieces have to lock together and if they’re not locking together then it’s easier to move on than to try and make something fit.
THAT FEELS EVEN MORE RELEVANT THIS YEAR: A TIME TO TAKE STOCK. ALSO, YOU SEEM TO HAVE MANAGED TO FORGE A COMMUNITY OF CREATIVES. IS THAT IN EVEN SHARPER FOCUS DURING THESE TIMES?
Yes, 100% and in fact it’s been really interesting. We used to rely on events and exhibitions and the spaces that we created to bring say 400 people together to showcase that idea of community. But this period has shown me that community exists even when we can’t all get together and we have to be separated. We’ve done some incredibly creative projects this year that I’m very proud of. We released our first ever digital-only exhibition with Mark Grattan of Mexico City-based VIDIVIXI, and we were so proud of both his work and how it was presented and shared online. Chris Wolston and I have just installed a show in Doha; we also launched a beautiful new body of work from Floris Wubben at Casa Perfect New York. Eric Roinestad has been working on a new body of work that we’ll debut this fall, which has been years in the making. Ghanabased artist Paa Joe, who makes incredibly profound sculptures, debuted new work with us this fall. We’ve also released a body of work by John Hogan that was informed by time he spent with a photographer, and it’s always exciting to see our artists collaborate across disciplines. There’s a lot more in the works too.
IS THE MAINSTAY OF YOUR CLIENTELE WORKING ON RESIDENTIAL OR COMMERCIAL ENVIRONMENTS?
We’ve always worked in both residential and commercial, which keeps things interesting. Of course, there is a major focus on the home right now, but we’re seeing signs of life in the contract space as well, and we anticipate things will continue to grow throughout 2021. Typically, our clientele hires professional interior designers and art advisers for their homes, so we work very closely with them. And although the home space in particular is really thriving, we did have a challenging time financially in 2020, especially early on in the pandemic. But what I love about our team is that when we’re challenged, we’re able to react, and respond. I think that’s the difference. We’re a small company and in a lot of ways we act like a start-up – every show feels like the first show. We’ve been doing really simple things, examining our practices in ways that can have a big impact, and because of that, I think we’re poised for a really strong year.
YOU HAVE A SIGNIFICANT DIGITAL PRESENCE FOR WHILE, BUT HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT VIRTUAL EXHIBITIONS? IS IT A REPLACEMENT FOR IN-PERSON SHOWS? IS IT GOOD ENOUGH OR PERHAPS NOT GOOD ENOUGH?
I think it’s all of the above. In all honesty, I probably would have thought it was a cop-out before this period, but in going through it, we’ve seen there’s actually certain things in that context that do better and can do justice to a particular body of work. When we saw what Mark of VIDIVIXI was able to create digitally and how people responded, and Bower as well, who we launched a digital exhibition with last fall, we really began to believe in the medium, and I think we’ll use it selectively going forward. I think digital can be a fun place to explore ideas in the context of an exhibition space, which we’d never have done before. I love that you can see what an artist is thinking when you look at a concept. There are unique advantages to the digital showcase environment that we would not have even tested before, so the success of these, and therefore the expansion of our program, is another unexpected windfall coming out of the pandemic.
THE PHYSICAL CASA SPACES – THEY CHANGE EVERY FEW YEARS AS YOU EVOLVE AND MOVE ON. WHY IS THAT?
There are a lot of explanations for that and do ask my accountant about them! In some cases, it’s practical - residential leases are more forgiving than commercial ones, in terms of length, and so they allow us more flexibility. Creatively speaking it definitely rejuvenates, replenishes and reinvigorates our viewpoint, in doing something really, really specific and then changing it in a relatively short period of time. We’re always thinking through the evolution of what our business is and so as we are growing organizationally, we’re not just growing in terms of the work we’re presenting, but we’re also thinking of the home more broadly. Maybe we’ve opened a can of worms with our concept of Casa Perfect but it’s part of trying to evolve what the business is doing. We were absolutely not the first to put a gallery program in the context of a residential setting, but perhaps we were the first to market it in the way we do. And I’ve seen a lot of companies follow suit, which is great, but we’ll continue to do something new and different and evolve what we’re seeing.
DO YOU FEEL LIKE THE TRADITIONAL GALLERY SYSTEM IS OUT-MODED NOW?
No, I don’t think so at all. In fact, there’s an important and vital role for it. There’s a case in point in New York. We did not close our storefront setting to open up our New York Casa. We chose to do both and they both say something different.
IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE HOW MANY CREATIVE BUSINESSES WOULD’VE COPED WITHOUT DIGITAL PLATFORMS.
In our own digital platforms: our website, Instagram, Pinterest, etc – we’ve always invested a lot and we’ve now seen the fruits of that labor over this last period. On the other hand, our sales teams have been doing a lot more phone calls. With everyone dispersed, those relationships need to be nurtured in a one-to-one way, and that has also been really pivotal to our survival and then our success over the past year. Personal contact is still a big part of how we do what we do.
DO YOU FEEL SOMEWHAT LIBERATED BY THE FACT THAT YOUR YEAR ISN’T PUNCTUATED BY BIG EVENTS SUCH AS MILAN IN APRIL OR NEW YORK IN MAY? DOES THAT GIVE YOU SCOPE TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT? DOES IT MAKE YOU RETHINK PARTICIPATING?
Yes, I do and yes, absolutely. We will still participate in things, but I feel like we can participate and not be physically present at everything. We’re disruptors – we always have been since day one. From the beginning I had to defend the segment of the business that we were showcasing. When we first opened, we focused on American design, in a world dominated by Italian design, punctuated by the humour of Dutch designers. American design wasn’t even on the radar. That’s where I started from. Along the way we’ve continued to disrupt. Casa Perfect is another disruptor – maybe the most recent one. So, when I think of going forward, I don’t want to think of ways in which we can be a part of things. I want to continue to think of ways in which we can remain different and unique. I like to be ahead of something or on the cusp of something.