It’s a surprise to hear the chairman of an international auction house attribute his friendship with the founder of a private equity fund to astrology. But when I ask Simon de Pury, of Phillips de Pury, why he and collector Robert Tomei enjoy each other’s company, he flashes back: “Two Scorpios. We instantly clicked when we met at a dinner with a mutual friend in Milan in 2000. There’s a great chemistry between us. We even finish each other’s sentences.”
Tomei, chairman and CEO of Advanced Capital Group, describes de Pury as “truly a tastemaker in the world of art and design”. Their first conversation quickly veered towards Tomei’s instincts as a collector. “At the time I was building a collection of video installations from the mid-1990s,” he says. “I’d started collecting as a student at Colombia University, mainly buying work by friends at art school and then moving into photography, video and video installations. I felt that time-based media spoke directly to my generation and needed greater legitimacy. It was fun, seductive and harked back to the question of what an artwork is – the theme of my undergraduate thesis.”
De Pury was instantly intrigued. “I felt that Robert was ahead of his time,” he says. “As with the photography market in the 1970s, it was unusual to find someone collecting video installations, and I sensed we were on the same wavelength.”
Having discovered that they are both, as Tomei puts it, “design adrenaline junkies”, he told de Pury of his decision to focus his collection on post-2000, limited edition and one-off cutting-edge pieces. “A lot of great designers are also artists, so as an art-lover I found it impossible not to fall for design, too,” he says. Once again, de Pury felt that Tomei was ahead of the curve. “Collecting design is quite a new phenomenon,” he says. “In the past, collectors rarely attempted to buy great design as well as great art. Robert, though, is passionate about both, but he doesn’t take himself seriously. His collecting is all done in a spirit of fun, with a genuine interest and curiosity.”
As a globe-trotting financier, Tomei combines business with the pleasure of visiting design galleries. In Milan he has bought from Nilufar, Rossana Orlandi and Gio Marconi; in London from Carpenters Workshop Gallery and Stephen Friedman; and in New York from Pace, Gagosian and Luhring Augustine. He often meets up with de Pury on his design missions: “We spend a lot of time together at art fairs and galleries in different parts of the world – Miami, Basel, Milan, Paris.”
Among the designers he collects are Maarten Baas, Piet Hein Eek, Sebastian Brajkovic, Rolf Sachs, Olafur Eliasson, Elmgreen & Dragset, and Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta of Studio Drift. A favourite piece is a table from Baas’s blow-torched series, Where There’s Smoke. “There’s a sense of playfulness about Baas’s work that I love, and he’s fanatical about the materials he uses,” says Tomei. Indeed, he was so enamoured by the Dutch designer’s char-grilled furniture that he commissioned him to singe another piece he owned, a Rolf Sachs Sledge chair (having first sought Sachs’ permission).
A sense of irony similarly attracted him to Brajkovic’s Lathe series of historically inspired, mutated chairs. Tomei acquired a bronze Lathe IX sofa with silk upholstery from Carpenters Workshop Gallery in 2011 – the year a Lathe VIII chair sold for £49,250 at Phillips de Pury. “It’s a wonderful mix of fine craftsmanship and humour,” he says. “I believe that a design, however wayward, should be exquisitely executed.” During a recent meeting at de Pury’s London offices Tomei was drawn to a photographic work by Balthasar Burkhard – a monochrome depiction of a camel that, while it doesn’t fit his current collecting edict, is suitably playful and polished.
Among his most treasured works are Ingo Maurer’s steel wire and ceramic Porca Miseria “exploding” chandelier, which he bought for £55,000 from Milan’s Superstudio; Piet Hein Eek’s Scrapwood sofa and chair, bought for €25,000 from Rossana Orlandi; and Olafur Eliasson’s Sunset Kaleidoscope installation in colour-effect filter glass and mirrors, from the former Milan-based Galleria Emi Fontana in 2005. The gallery later sold one of its three editions for $80,500 at Phillips de Pury in 2010.
“Simon has saved me from my impulsive self several times,” says Tomei. “Especially from being seduced by trendy, over-hyped and overpriced pieces. At the other extreme, he’s generally spared me from owning boorish, overly conceptual, institutional installations that only the most pedantic curator could love.”
A strong friendship facilitates the conversation. “You need to know what makes someone tick in order to advise them,” says de Pury. “I’ll tell Robert if I don’t believe in a designer’s potential. And I’ll encourage him to consider whether we’re looking at a great artist – a future Ron Arad or Marc Newson – who expresses himself through design.”
Tomei enjoys living with the work but says “function isn’t the primary object for me”. He cites the Go Go Go Pole installation by Elmgreen & Dragset as an example; it comprises an illuminated pole-dancing platform complete with mop, bucket and floor-sign. “Many contemporary pieces are physical expressions of a designer’s social or personal commentary,” he says. “It’s an interpretation of the way we live today.”