Stanislas Gokelaere of Gokelaere & Robinson discusses Belgium’s rich design scene, his partnership with Céline Robinson, and his love of Brazilian design.
*This story was written by Caroline Roux, and originally appeared in Miami Design District Magazine. It has been slightly edited.
Belgian design dealer Stanislas Gokelaere has a superb pair of armchairs by Jorge Zalszupin in his lofty Brussels apartment. Designed in 1956 as an homage to the Danish style of the times, the Dinamarquesa–or Danish Girl–was the first chair Zalszupin had attempted. “They are standout works, six-figure pieces,” says the dealer, who has been celebrating the centennial of the designer who made his mark in Brazil, then internationally, after moving to South America from Poland following the Second World War.
Gokelaere, who began dealing ten years ago, likes to live with the work he is selling. “That way you can enjoy it, but also test it,” he explains. “The more you experience it, [the more] you recognize its strengths and its value. Or, of course, its weakness.” But it is unlikely he’ll have long to acquaint himself with the Dinamarquesa; Zalszupin is one of the most sought-after names in Brazilian modernism, and Belgium is one of the strongest European markets for design and the decorative arts. “For us Belgians, it is important to curate a home. We’re in northern Europe and you spend a lot of time indoors,” says Gokelaere.
Gokelaere was born into the business. His father specialized in post-war Belgian painting but closed his gallery in the mid-1990s. Once the younger Gokelaere was done with a career in mergers and acquisitions, going into the arts “seemed the natural thing to do.”
He met partner Céline Robinson in 2013, while she worked for tribal art specialist Philippe Ratton in Paris, and establishing a gallery together felt almost inevitable. “We opened in Brussels in 2014 with a show that juxtaposed the mixed-media work of Jacques Villeglé, a French artist who died earlier this year, in dialogue with Scandinavian design. It was experimental, but there was an authenticity to the aesthetic combination,” says Gokelaere of the gallery’s intuitive start. “Now everything we do is far more curated. But back then, there was no business plan, just passion and the desire to always hit a high standard.”
Gokelaere finds inspiration in fellow Belgians working in the field, including Axel Vervoordt, an international arbiter of taste who has demonstrated an effortless ability to bring together design and art across centuries and styles. Ernest Mourmans was another key figure—though perhaps less known in the U.S.—who manufactured pieces for the likes of Frank Stella and Anish Kapoor, as well as designers Ettore Sottsass and Ron Arad. Meanwhile, Belgian architects, including Marc Corbiau, who is now in his eighties, and the contemporary practitioner Olivier Dwek, have committed themselves to design houses and spaces specifically to accommodate art and design, many of them located throughout Belgium.
Before opening his own, Gokelaere often visited Mourmans’ influential design gallery in the chic seaside resort of Knokke-Heist, a collecting hub with many luxurious second residences (think a Belgian Hamptons). “Mourmans’ was the only design gallery there. Now mine, which I opened in 2019, is the only one.” Gokelaere put on two temporary shows in Knokke-Heist, including one in the first modernist house built in Belgium—the 1924 Zwart Huis (Black House) by Huib Hoste—where he showed Brazilian design by Joaquim Tenreiro and Zalszupin. “You don’t want to present modern design in a retail space; you want to reinforce its relationship with art and architecture,” says Gokelaere of his choice of venue. In 2021, he and Robinson also opened a gallery in Paris, which he feels is becoming the heart of the European art market.
While Robinson has a more cautious approach and likes to call herself the artistic director (“there is no life without aesthetics,” she says), Gokelaere is charged with sourcing. “It’s a 24-hours-a-day pursuit, and I can’t resist something if I think it’s a masterpiece,” he says. He attributes his success to remaining one step ahead of the trend: “If I think something is currently undervalued, I’ll pay a premium. That’s what happened with George Nakashima. I bought the very expensive pieces from American dealers who couldn’t sell them, and I said I’d die with them, I loved them so much. But in the last six years, the market has gone crazy.”
Gokelaere’s heart, however, seems to be with the Brazilians. “I love [José Zanine] Caldas. He is completely unique,” he says of the designer who, born in 1919, started his career making models for architect Oscar Niemeyer, and whose own work is defined by an almost minimalist finesse. Then, of course, there is Zalszupin. “He embraced the Brazilian culture so quickly and the love of the curve,” says Gokelaere of the émigré. “The result[s are] so contemporary in shape and color and composition.”
It is, however, the history of a piece that resonates the most with Gokelaere. “The vibration that you get from something that has a past. It might be a chair, but it’s telling you a long and wonderful story. There is nothing like it,” he says.◆