Art | Finders Keepers

Design art

An appreciation of beautiful mergers of form and function helped forge a friendship between one collector and his dealer. Claire Wrathall reports.

September 04 2011
Claire Wrathall

If anything can be said to define a true collector,” says Loïc Le Gaillard, the Parisian co-founder of the Carpenters Workshop Gallery in London’s Mayfair, “it’s when your collection drives you to alter the type of environment you live in. Then you know the collecting virus has really taken hold.”

Le Gaillard’s friend and client Stuart Simpson has just admitted that he’s planning to move from his Chelsea home, a decision precipitated by his latest purchase: an immense grey buttoned-leather sofa, Irregular Bomb, by the Viennese artist Robert Stadler. “As soon as I saw it, I wanted it. It took me 10 seconds to decide,” says Simpson.

“It’s such a dominating and commanding piece” – and at 2.8m long by 1.6m wide, it is so big, in fact, that getting it into his apartment required not just a crane but the removal of a pair of patio doors. Logistics aside, Simpson is determined that his collection of design art – the term used to describe sculptural furniture, which may have a practical function but is essentially art – should no longer be constrained by the size of his living space: “I need a place with higher ceilings, more wall space.”

Unusually, Le Gaillard and Simpson knew each other long before Simpson began to buy from him, having met through a colleague of Simpson’s at Charterhouse Capital Partners, the Anglo-French private equity company of which he is a founding partner and director.

At the time, Simpson’s collecting was focused on Georgian furniture, which he had “spent a lot of time and energy looking for” in order to furnish a former London home, a “fairly grand” Regency town house in Islington. He also had a passion for Victorian watercolours. “I’ve still got an attic full of them,” he says. “They’re things of beauty, but they’re not on the walls any more because they fade and they’re not very fashionable.” (Some of his George II furniture does stand alongside his new acquisitions, though.)

In terms of style and scale, the often-monumental installations and mixed-media contemporary art pieces at the gallery Le Gaillard opened with Julien Lombrail in 2006 could hardly be more different from these delicate landscape paintings. But the first time Simpson visited, he was captivated.

“It wasn’t just the high-profile stuff, like Ron Arad and Marc Newson,” he recalls, “but the emerging names.” Figures such as the young Dutch designer Sebastian Brajkovic (whose work has since been bought by the V&A), specifically his Lathe V chair, a brilliantly inventive distortion of a classic 19th-century cabriole-legged dining chair, in cast bronze and vibrantly colourful embroidery.

Simpson’s first purchase, however, was a piece by the French artist Ingrid Donat. Called Commode 7 Engrenages, it’s a three-drawer chest, again in bronze, featuring a set of seven working gears that turn as you open a drawer. “I’m originally a civil engineer,” he says, “and I love the heavy industrial gearing, its substantial shape and form, the fact that it was so clearly made in a foundry.” He won’t be drawn on what he paid for it, beyond the fact that it was “an absolute fortune”. (Another from the same edition of eight sold at last year’s Design Miami for $125,000.) But he went on to commission Donat to make him a one-off bronze coffee table.

He also favours work by the Frenchman Vincent Dubourg, specifically a piece called Exile, an elaborate bronze stand that supports an aluminium attaché case containing a drawer “with a soft close like you get in kitchens” and another superbly engineered piece.

If his engineering background informs his art-buying decisions, then so does his business acumen. However, “Buying for investment has never been my motivation. It’s always a heart, not a head decision. Of course, these pieces have an intrinsic value because they’re from limited editions by artists who are becoming increasingly well known. But I can’t imagine ever wanting to sell.” In any case, he continues, “For the moment, this market is not that price sensitive: we’re talking tens of thousands of euros, not hundreds of thousands. And I have done a lot of due diligence on these guys,” he says of Le Gaillard and Lombrail.

“That’s a real City term we don’t use in the art world,” interjects Le Gaillard. But it does, he says, inform Simpson’s attitude to buying. “Sometimes I’ll tell him I’ve got something he ought to have in his collection. He may not be immediately responsive, but he’ll always come and look at it. Then he’ll research and read up on it. He won’t necessarily buy it, but his decision will always have been deeply considered. Buying art has to be based on emotions. It’s very personal and subjective. But he trusts our taste and our instincts and takes our advice.”

For these reasons, Simpson is content to buy only from Carpenters Workshop – “I think it’s probably the leading, most exciting design-art business in western Europe,” he says – though he does visit other galleries and fairs, notably Design Miami and Pavillon des Arts et du Design in Paris, “to see what else is out there”.

Inevitably, Simpson and Le Gaillard’s common interests extend beyond design art. “We love food; we love wine…” they chime, and once a month or so, they’ll “leave the wife and kids at home and go out for a boys’ night”. But though Simpson’s collection was originally born of a friendship, “he has turned into a very good collector too,” laughs Le Gaillard. “Every year he comes and tells me that he’s got a new house or a boat. More space to display work!”

At present, Simpson’s property portfolio extends to a contemporary penthouse apartment in Verbier, furnished with purchases from Carpenters Workshop; a “very traditional” country house in Sussex, filled with antiques; a “perfect bijou” 16th-century castle in Fife, which houses his collection of Jacobean furniture; and a yacht. “If I had any space on it, I’d love to be able to keep one or two choice pieces there, so long as they weren’t too heavy,” he says. “But it’s a sailing boat. And I really don’t want to affect its performance.”

See also

Collecting, Sofas, Tables