Visitors to the west London office of commodity broker James Zang could well think they’ve entered a contemporary gallery, such is the profusion of art and design in this light, white space. “It’s the perfect counterbalance to a sterile office full of technology,” he says. “I spend far more time here than at my home, so I want to live with the works I’ve bought and share the enjoyment with my clients.”
Indeed, Zang, director of Eagle Commodities, which advises hedge funds and investment banks, purchased his office specifically to display Black Gold II, a mixed‑media installation by British-born Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, now dominating an entire wall. “It has been shown around the world and is the most significant piece I’ve bought,” says Zang, who obtained the work for about $150,000.
With a degree from the Bartlett School of Architecture, Zang went on to work in the City, initially with Bloomberg, before spending four years as a senior oil derivatives broker with Tullet Prebon UK and co-founding Eagle Commodities in 2008. For him, “art is a joy – a humbling reality”, and although he has consistently made acquisitions (primarily work by modern black artists), he didn’t consider collecting design until 2009, when he visited Design Miami/Basel and met Irving van Dijk, co-owner of Priveekollektie, a modern design gallery in Heusden in the Netherlands. “I was tiring of contemporary art’s conceptualisation and found myself gravitating towards design because it’s tangible and functional,” he says.
Like Zang, van Dijk comes from a business background, having spent 19 years as a financial trader, latterly working in credit derivatives and mortgage-backed securities at NIBC bank, before resigning in 2007 to work with his wife, Miriam, at the design gallery she launched in 2006.
“I liked Irving’s entrepreneurial spirit and we hit it off straightaway,” says Zang. “We each have a get-up-and-go mentality.” Now, they regularly meet at fairs, such as Pavilion of Art & Design in London, in which Priveekollektie participates, and at the London home Zang shares with his wife, BBC London News presenter Alice Bhandhukravi. “Irving comes to criticise my artworks,” Zang jokes. “He said one painting looked like a holiday souvenir. He was right. It is now in storage.”
What initially united the pair, however, was Zang’s first acquisition from Priveekollektie – a couple of limited‑edition Ocho chairs in polished stainless steel, wood and leather by Dutch designers Kranen/Gille, for which he paid $27,000. “They really stood out as simple, thoughtful designs,” he says. Six months after their Design Miami debut, he asked van Dijk to bring them over to London so that he could view them at home. Zang went on to buy Kranen/Gille’s prototype nickel and glass Plant lamp for $6,500.
Further purchases followed, such as Alexander Pelikan’s Cliclounge chairs and matching table in tempered glass and cherrywood, bought for $15,000 for their “simplicity and timelessness”. And when van Dijk showed Zang a prototype of a mixed-media desk by the all‑female Dutch design collective De Intuïtiefabriek, he ordered one (of an edition of three), at a price of €25,000. “I love the marriage between the different materials and the evident thought processes behind the design,” he says.
What distinguishes Zang’s growing collection from shop-bought furniture is that each item is a one-off or limited edition. “I want to have something completely different and unique,” he says. “I love the way designers steer an idea from concept through to realisation. And commissioning a piece is a far more satisfying way to be involved in the process, because it can really push the boundaries.” He cites the upholstered, American-walnut AJ Double chaise longue, inspired by a Barbara Hepworth sculpture and commissioned from furniture-maker Makemei for £10,000. “I wanted something that Alice and I can relax on together, so I asked Irving’s advice before contacting Makemei.”
“And I told James it was a very good deal,” responds van Dijk, “especially as he likes to be in right at the beginning of a designer’s development.”
While Zang clearly has his own independent tastes, he says his friend has certainly had an influence. “Irving makes me think about design; he isn’t only interested in selling work from Priveekollektie,” says Zang. “I can tell him about something I’ve seen elsewhere and it’s reassuring to know he will give me his advice. It’s a very honest relationship.” Van Dijk adds: “I’ve made James feel comfortable about buying design. There is a wide spectrum of work he likes, which he looks at in an intellectual way, as well as responding to it emotionally.”
This consideration of Dutch design appears to be fuelling Zang’s art appreciation, too. “My work is very demanding, so I like being surrounded by uplifting colours and challenging pieces,” he says. “I enjoy the political aspects of Black Gold II – it’s all about power and control – but I don’t like things that shock for the sake of it.” Hew Locke’s Jungle Queen I (purchased for £35,000) – a huge head of Queen Elizabeth II made from plastic toys – “resonates with me because it speaks of empire and power”, while Tom Price’s bronze sculpture of a black male figure “makes me study it for hours, wondering what he’s thinking”.
The Locke and Price pieces came from London’s Hales Gallery, a favourite haunt, and generally such purchases are impulsive. “You know when something works, and I like the excitement of buying instantly,” Zang says. “When I saw Black Gold II at the James Cohan Gallery in New York, it spoke to me on so many levels.”
It has also proved remarkably lucrative, almost doubling in value since his initial outlay in 2009. But although Zang is always alert to the financial potential of the works he buys, this is only one of the factors that motivate him. “With modern design you’re either making a great investment or taking a risk. But the return on the risk is the joy it gives you,” he says. “Collecting is a personal addiction. But good art and design break down barriers by evoking emotions. People relate to it. That’s the point.”