A healthy obsession with the modernist works of Le Corbusier, Jean Prouvé and Pierre Jeanneret led Kyle Zhang, a former fashion branding expert, to quit his job and open one of the first design galleries in Chinain 2018.
Today, Gallery Sohe is now part of a cohort of galleries, including Gallery All and Objective Gallery, which are behind the burgeoning collectible design movement in China.
Much of the work of popular artists exhibits a certain inclination for the fantastical and the otherworldly – with extravagant price tags to match. A dripping, sprawling golden dining chair by the Fenty-approved Haas Brothers went for 300,000 renminbi, or $44,032, to Gallery All; several Vincent Pocsik wooden chairs and lamps that oddly incorporate human limbs are also priced around this point, while at Sohe Gallery, animal-shaped Yilun Zhou chairs range from 30,000 renminbi, or $4,400 , at 80,000 renminbi, or $11,730.
“It’s not the most interesting part of the art world,” admits Zhang. “But it’s definitely a more forward-looking sector.”
“The sale of collectible furniture has always existed, but the sale [it] in the galleries creates an aura and justifies the artist as a brand,” says Sonia Xie, China Editorial and Marketing Manager at artsy.
Xie notes that design collectors are often also art collectors, while Zhang points to collectors from the celebrity world, such as Edison Chen, and top Asian collectors such as Lu Xun and Tian Jun, as trend drivers. “Young collectors are looking to fill their homes with something fun, to incorporate a sense of play with these adult toys,” says Zhang.
According to Gallery All co-founder Yu Wang, a global boom in collectible design began 20 years ago and China is only catching up.
“The global collectible design market has gone through two important stages: mid-century modern design and then contemporary design. But the Chinese market is skipping the first step, diving straight into contemporary design,” says Wang. “Thirtysomething customers may not be seasoned collectors, but they are certainly very opinionated.”
Launched in Los Angeles nearly a decade ago, Gallery All was one of the first to champion Chinese artists and designers overseas.
Seeing a booming local market, Gallery All launched a second space at Shanghai in 2021, in a booming neighborhood populated by creatives, skateboarders and sometimes hardcore Raf Simons fans – after a Machine open outpost next door. Recent hit shows include solo shows for James Jean and the Haas Brothers specializing in mystical creatures and fuzzy furniture.
“Buying collectible furniture is a risky and atypical business, but social media is opening up that world to a wider audience,” says Wang.
Sohe’s Zhang Gallery also understands the impact of fashion and pop culture. Zhang recently signed with French contemporary artists Leo Orta, known for his collaboration with Kiko Kostadinovand Chinese artist Yilun Zhou, whose work has been exhibited in Chengdu House of Louis Vuitton.
Zhang has been a strong supporter of Yilun Zhou, one of the few contemporary Chinese artists to work on collectibles. Zhou’s clever use of discarded plastic and paper consumer goods, such as Louis Vuitton shopping bags repurposed into totem poles, offers a witty commentary on consumer culture.
“Like Pierre Jeanneret, Yilun Zhou’s work is practical, simple and pure,” he says.
At Sohe Gallery’s recent “Future-Primitive” exhibition, Zhang’s valuable collection of French modernist furniture is skillfully placed alongside naturalist works by Chinese artist Zhou, Mao Guanshuai and Dong Han, recently a finalist for the Loewe Foundation Craftsmanship Award 2023. A zany, brightly colored dining table and figurines by Balenciaga-approved artist Nik Kosmas are paired with a set of Pierre Jeanneret dining chairs, showing how classic and new can go hand in hand.
“Contemporary Design Occupation[ies] a nuanced space between art and industrial design. If you place these works in the context of contemporary art, it is more difficult for the general public to understand, but if you place them in the context of contemporary design, it is more digestible. It also inspires people to think beyond its functionality,” says Zhang.
At Objective Gallery, one flight from Gallery Sohe, one enters a totally different universe filled with raw, sometimes grotesque collector’s items. Founded by Chris Shao, an interior designer, Objective Gallery has a client list that includes Chinese celebrities Angelababy and Zhuo Tan, high profile real estate magnet Charles Tong and founder of Art021’s art fair Kylie Yin.
Perhaps stemming from its roots in interior design, Objective Gallery is known for transforming its gallery space into immersive living environments that provide a rich and sensual experience of a bygone era.
For “Vintage Brutality”, Objective Gallery transformed the white space gallery into a habitable domestic space called “Objective Suites”, fully outfitted with decadent wallpaper, plush rugs, designer furniture and two taxidermy peacocks.
Aside from high profile clients, the gallery has seen an increase in walk-in visits, with people willing to buy pieces in the four figures with a quick scan on Alipay, says Ansha Jin. She credits the pandemic for the growing interest in household chores with some drama.
“People are now ready to invest in their homes. Staycation is here to stay,” says Jin. “The works of Brett Gander and Jay McDonald have gained popularity for their bold naturalistic beauty. People want to bring a piece of nature home.
Since 2021, Objective Gallery has become the local partner of the influential design fair Design Miami. After a one-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the second edition of Design Miami/Podium x Shanghai is set to launch at Shanghai’s new shopping complex, Zhangyuan, on March 8.
True to the theme of “transcendence”, the fair will present various works by artists and designers who create a sense of anachronistic beauty. Zhang Zhoujie’s digital chair with spider-shaped legs and Shao Fan’s deconstructed Ming Dynasty furniture will be local heroes highlighted by the fair.
But the star of the show will likely be Gaetano Pesce, the legendary Italian designer known for his work with Bottega Veneta. Pesce, whose market price has more than doubled in recent years, will bring its bold and whimsical pieces to Zhangyuan under the theme “Diversity is the most important value for a better world.”