“To be successful as an art dealer in London,” says Loïc Le Gaillard, joint owner, with Julien Lombrail, of Mayfair’s Carpenters Workshop Gallery, “we realised you had to be either very wealthy or very well-connected. We were neither.” Which meant, of course, that he and Lombrail had to do some lateral thinking. There’s nothing like the prospect of failure to sharpen the wits – the long-time friends joined forces and carved their own niche in the market: “functional sculpture”.
“We were always much more interested in form than function,” says Le Gaillard. “There’s such a fine line between a piece of sculpture and a practical object. We work with artists whose eye we admire and ask them to add an element of functionality.”
Today, among a certain elite group, the Carpenters Workshop Gallery has a reputation that stretches around the world. Its sophisticated clientele includes those who head up international fashion labels or reign over blue-chip companies; and at PAD, Design Miami/Basel and last year’s Biennale des Antiquaires (where it was the only contemporary design gallery to be given a space), its high-ticket avant-garde pieces frequently sell out.
The two men grew up in well-heeled, highly cultivated Parisian households where art played an important part (Le Gaillard’s father, for instance, was a contemporary art dealer). Le Gaillard came to London to study before starting a marketing business specialising in designer beauty brands. “It taught me a lot,” he says. “To watch margins, to be organised and disciplined.” After 12 years he sold the company and found himself at a crossroads. “I’d always had pictures from my father and then there were my own modest purchases. People started to buy them, so I decided this might be a good business venture.”
Around this time his old friend Julien Lombrail, who already had a gallery in Paris, came to him with the notion of embarking on a London enterprise together. They put in £20,000 each and started selling pictures for £300. But it was tough going as they couldn’t initially get into any of the big fairs. “We quickly understood it was a crowded market and we needed to do something different,” says Le Gaillard. “We realised we were onto something when we saw how a chair, lamp or coffee table could drive emotions and decided that functional sculpture – pieces that were much more than merely furniture – was going to be our ‘thing.’” At the time it was a fairly novel idea; when they founded the Carpenters Workshop Gallery in Chelsea in 2006, David Gill was the only other gallerist selling work with a comparable ethos. “Many of our clients had extraordinary artworks on walls and wanted to match that quality with furniture that was just as exciting.”
They began selling pieces by Ron Arad (New Orleans armchair, price on request) and Droog and moved on to attending graduate shows at Eindhoven and the RCA. “There we came upon Vincent Dubourg’s exploded-aluminium and bronze chests [from £12,000] and Sebastian Brajkovic’s aluminium tables [from £4,500]. We bought their work straight out of college.” Soon they realised they were making the right artistic choices; the talents they spotted, such as Studio Drift, started to be picked up at international fairs, including the Abu Dhabi Art Fair. Today they work with a roster of renowned designers: the great American Wendell Castle (Whispers chair, price on request), Maarten Baas (Smoke Pleyel piano, price on request), Stuart Haygarth (Optical chandelier, price on request), the Campana Brothers, Johanna Grawunder, Robert Stadler (Spherical Bomb armchair, price on request and Cut and Paste console table, price on request) and many, many others.
Opening a second store in Mayfair (2008) and a third in Paris (2011) helped build their international profile, and today they collaborate with artists and collectors from across the globe. “We often have as many as 20 projects on the go and like to surprise our customers with something unexpected.” This is not, then, a gallery for those looking for the safe and understated. Most of what they sell are one-offs or limited-edition pieces.
Le Gaillard and Lombrail work differently from most gallerists. For instance, they finance many of the artists so they’re free to concentrate on what they’re good at – being creative. “I’ve never wanted finance to restrict the work in any way,” says Le Gaillard, “and while we get exclusivity on some pieces, we don’t insist the artists work only for us.” They also collaborate a great deal. Australian designer Charles Trevelyan, for instance, who makes extraordinary floor lamps (from £9,500), usually brings small maquettes of his pieces into the gallery for the three of them to discuss.
Lighting seems to be a source of fascination for the duo, and many of their artists are captivated by its magic. There are Studio Drift’s bronze circuit boards/cum wall lights (from £2,000) and beautiful bronze chandeliers (Fragile Future Diamond chandelier, price on request) and Studio Job’s bronze black cats (from £10,000) with light-emitting eyes (these are not, to be truthful, lights you’d necessarily buy if you want something to read by). Brad Pitt is said to be a fan of Atelier Van Lieshout, a Dutch art collective that has exhibited at the V&A and has pieces in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Its surrealist, sometimes sinister designs include the blackened bronze Kiss lamp (price on request) and a fur and fibreglass Body Sofa strewn with bodies (price on request).
Today, much of Le Gaillard and Lombrail’s work is behind the scenes. “We often play an advisory role, helping art lovers to put together meaningful collections. Our customers will have come to us in the early years to buy a single piece. Then they add to it, and because many of them have multiple homes we find ourselves acting as design consultants.” Currently the pair are advising at least 10 major collectors. “For many of our clients, the purpose of their houses is to showcase their art.”
When I meet Le Gaillard, it is their latest project – an 80,000sq ft factory outside Paris that excites him most. It is part training centre, part manufacturing base and part experimental crucible. The idea came when one of their regular manufacturers went into receivership and caused them great difficulties. Less than a year old, it now employs 30 artisans. “In return for guaranteeing their income, the artisans promise to work with an apprentice, transmitting their skills so that trade secrets won’t die,” says Le Gaillard. There’s a bronze expert, a man who’s “magical with parchment”, a textiles genius who used to work at fashion house Balmain and a specialist upholsterer. They hope to recruit around 80 artisans.
Le Gaillard sees the new venture as a virtuous circle. “If you work with the best artisans and artists, you have the best products,” he says. “By giving these craftsmen a livelihood and sharing their ideas, we hope to foster team spirit and an energy that, in the end, will make financial sense. But the factory is also essential if we are to bring our artists’ visions to life. If we provide the best tools and make the greatest skills available to them they will be spurred on to push the boundaries even further.”
So today the Carpenters Workshop Gallery is much more than just a gallery. As to the high prices its pieces command, Le Gaillard doesn’t think they act as any kind of barrier. “If you give people the best, I have discovered that they are prepared to pay for it.”