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Newsmaker Interview: Steven Learner

By William Hanley
May 10, 2013
Photo © Liz Ligon
Installation image of Lost City Arts at the Collective.1 Design Fair.

New York architect Steven Learner needed advice. While fairs like Design Miami/, which cater to collectors of 20th century and contemporary work, have popped up around the world, New York City lacked a similar event, and seeing a hole in the market, Learner decided to start his own. To bridge the knowledge gap between being an architect and being a design market impresario, he called on a group of some 13 dealers, collectors, curators, and other advisors, including fellow architect Alexander Gorlin, to help conceive a new fair. This week, Learner unveiled the product of their efforts.

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The Collective.1 Design Fair opened to the public on Wednesday with a group of 23 dealers showing work—from 20th-century classics to contemporary pieces to Modernist children’s furniture—in a commercial pier on Manhattan’s West Side. The show also includes installations by Sebastian Errazuriz and Gaetano Pesce. Timed to coincide with the Frieze Art Fair, the event runs through May 11. At a preview, RECORD spoke with Learner about how the fair came together.

Why did you decide to start a design fair?

I was going to other fairs and realizing that there was nothing like it in New York. Other people have tried to start them, but all of them have failed. I saw the gap in the marketplace, and so I went to my collector, curator, and gallerist friends, and said, “What do you think?” Most of them replied, “We’ve been desperate for it. If you do it, we’ll help you.”

That group became what you call the "Collective." Can you explain their relationship to the fair?

The Collective is an advisory board, a canvassing panel, a brain trust. From the beginning, we talked about how this fair should look. For example, Evan Snyderman and Zesty Meyers from R20th Century Gallery here in Manhattan could say what it should be like from an exhibitor standpoint, Caroline Baumann—the acting director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum—could talk about it from a curatorial standpoint, Beth Rudin DeWoody could approach it as a collector. We tried to attack it from all angles.

Does everyone in the Collective have a direct financial investment in the fair?

No. But they want it to succeed as much as I do because it fills a need in the market.

How did you select galleries to invite?

We started with a wish list. There were a number of European galleries who just couldn’t fit it into their schedules. But we wanted variety, with established galleries and younger ones. So you have Philippe Jousse with historical work—he brought a lot of Jean Prouvé—to Cristina Grajales, who started out years ago showing vintage work but has evolved into contemporary and brought a lot of it to the fair, to Volume, a young gallery from Chicago—they’re working with New York firm Snarkitecture and have a ping-pong table by them in the back of their booth. Basically, I wanted you to be able come and buy a $400,000 Prouvé table or a $40 Sebastian Errazuriz t-shirt.

Beyond strong sales, what are your criteria for success?

My goal is to add Collective to the New York cultural calendar. And with NYCxDesign, the city is really promoting a design week to rival Fashion Week.

And what about you? What do you collect?

I like a curated mix: the BDDW with the Giò Ponti with the Donald Judd. Put those three things in a room, I’m happy.

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