How New York-based interior designer Amy Lau became a leading connoisseur of collectible design
New York-based interior designer Amy Lau is a powerhouse of creativity and expertise. With a big, welcoming smile, warm demeanor, and gorgeous mane of auburn hair, she draws on her finely honed connoisseurship to curate interiors teeming with joie de vivre for an impressive roster of clients—most of whom are serious art and design collectors. This month, her firm was added to the AD100 list.
Lau has been Design Miami’s champion since its inception, when she helped bring the concept for a more alluring, more contemporary design fair to life back in 2005. We caught up with Lau this month, just as she was finishing up a new project in Miami, to learn more about the unique path she’s chosen and how exactly she’s learned so much about collectible design.
What was your childhood like, and what early experiences sparked your interest in the arts?
As a child growing up in Arizona, I had a special relationship with the desert and was deeply influenced by and drawn to my natural surroundings. I loved the unique and fascinating shapes, textures, and patterns of cacti and succulents and their radiant and breathtaking spring blooms. I loved the desert’s earthy palettes and the unexpected colors and designs of sunrises and sunsets. I spent hours riding through the desert on my family's horse, White Eagle.
Nature and art went hand-in-hand for me. My grandmother was an artist, and during summertime visits to our family home in Coronado, California, we would walk for countless hours along the seashore collecting shells and marine debris, separating the prized pieces we found by type, shape, and color, which my grandmother would then use to create her abstract sea collages. On Saturdays, we would visit my grandparents’ house and watch the native birds in their natural habitat, marveling at their colors and unique patterns.
Besides being an artist, my grandmother was a self taught ornithologist and a renowned cacti specialist with passion for mineralogy. Her paintings of Arizona's native birds were reproduced on postcards and sold throughout the state. We grew up seeing her artwork displayed on the walls of the iconic Camelback Inn.
My family is also related to the painter Oscar Berninghaus, a founder of the early-20th-century Taos Society of Artists in New Mexico. My parents passionately collected his work and the works of those who made up this influential artistic circle. My father, who was born in Arizona, collects the artifacts of the ancient Anasazi Indians—tools, jewelry, decorative pottery, funerary urns, and religious icons.
What inspired you to open your own studio in 2001, and what was the design landscape like in New York at the time?
I left Arizona for New York City to attend the prestigious Sotheby’s graduate program in fine and decorative arts, where I honed my curatorial eye—my visual, critical, and research skills—through an integrated study of fine art, decorative arts, and design from the 16th century to the late 20th century. My time was spent studying eminent historians’ various styles, materials, techniques, periods, and revivals. As students we would visit museums, galleries, historic houses, auction houses, fairs, and temporary exhibitions throughout the United States, which gave me firsthand experiences with art and design objects across a range of media and eras.
After serving as Director of Aero Ltd. under interior designer Thomas O'Brien, running the gallery and his retail showroom, I became Director of the noted Lin-Weinberg Gallery in Soho in 1998. The gallery’s unique and intellectually rigorous programming contributed substantially to the scholarship of modernist design and put me in position to witness the ascent of mid-20th century design in the marketplace.
At that time, the Lin-Weinberg Gallery was one of only five design galleries in New York City. I was responsible for curating the look of the gallery, creating vignettes, and archivally upholstering and refinishing rare and historic pieces. Along with the team, I created exhibitions that rotated throughout the years. Annually, I would create the gallery’s exhibition space at the Park Avenue Armory Modernism show.
It was there, in that lovely gallery on Wooster Street, that the idea for Amy Lau Design took root. Our clients began to enquire who was designing the gallery’s environment and began to ask me to help with their homes.
What was one early project in your career that made you think, I’m definitely doing what I’m supposed to be doing?
My first office was my apartment on Broome Street. I had one little Jens Risom desk, but so many big aspirations. My first commission was renovating the apartment of Norman Levy, a very prominent New York City broker who led a realty firm. I was tasked by his family to renovate his entire apartment, which had not been touched since his wife passed away in the late 1980s.
Mr. Levy, a very elegant and kind gentleman, said he only wanted two things: “I want a very romantic red dining room, and I want to be able to look at all of my favorite paintings in my living room.” I meticulously restored the frames of some of his most treasured works by artists—such as Adolph Gottlieb, Arthur Dove, and Max Weber—and then rehung his collection in his newly designed living room. Seeing the big smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye after he finished dessert in his new dining room embellished with rich, garnet-hued walls and lovely damask curtains, I knew there was no looking back.
What do you most hope people take away from encounters with the spaces you create? Is there any particular thread that runs through all of your projects, despite the wide variety?
My highest mission and greatest hope will always be to create livable, memorable, and meaningful homes filled with harmony, artistic integrity, spirit, beauty, and inspiration. The main thread that runs through most of my projects is that I aspire to create one-of-a-kind works or site specific installations, made exclusively for my clients by emerging talents and living legends in the worlds of arts and design—pieces with the potential to become tomorrow’s heirlooms.
You’re known for incorporating collectible design into your interiors. Can you tell us more about working with clients to acquire collection-worthy pieces?
Some of my clients who are collectors of art and or design are recommended to reach out to me thanks to my academic and curatorial training at the Sotheby’s Institute and the time I spent as Director of Lin-Weinberg. My interiors must reflect my clients’ interests and tastes. My job, therefore, is to understand who they are and then educate them and elevate their tastes to higher levels of connoisseurship, so they can make the right decisions while honoring their particular styles.
What is the process like for commissioning new, bespoke pieces from contemporary designers and makers?
As a designer, I conceive my interiors as total works of art, where every piece has a supporting role to play within the space. I give the person that is commissioned to create the one-of-a-kind piece a description of each piece that will be in the room and how their piece should complement or have a dialogue with the other pieces, so everything is in harmony in the room. After that, I give a clear understanding of what we are trying to achieve, how the piece is to function, and what the parameters are in terms of size, weight, location limitations, etc.
I also discuss what I am imagining stylistically and the use of various materials and why I think those materials would complement what we are trying to create. I give a clear idea of budget and what range is acceptable and how long we have to achieve our goal. Then I step out of the picture and wait to review the various concepts; to see how the artist or artisan has translated what I described. Then, collaboratively, we select two to three of our favorite ideas and present them to the client—and all the fun begins!
What makes a design work collectible in your view?
I recognize great and collectible design by the originality of the design concept, the innovative approach to materials, the process involved to make the form, the level of craftsmanship, and the skills utilized to create a piece. If handmade, I look at the aspect of how no two pieces are alike and the subtle nuances that make each piece unique. I look at the opposite when reviewing a piece from a series or an edition, in how exact the pieces need to be in their overall level of execution.
A piece is obviously extremely collectable when it's scarce in the marketplace, when its provenance is special, and when its condition is mint. A piece’s level of collectibility can be measured by which museums collect the designer’s work and how its price in the gallery corresponds to the market value at auction houses. In other words, does the piece have the potential to hold its value in the market outside the gallery?
You were there at the birth of Design Miami. Why did you think this kind of fair was needed back in 2005, and what were you envisioning for it?
Back in 2003-2004 when the initial idea was coming to fruition for myself and Ambra [Medda], the "Art World" as we knew it was starting to be called the "Art Market,” and people—instead of buying art because it made their souls sing—started to look at art as an investment. As with the stock market, the art market was unregulated, but it was considered (back then) less volatile than the stock market. Contemporary art was the focus, and undiscovered talent was hot. It seemed like the whole world was looking for the next Basquiat. Everyone was hedging on a predicted value of a piece, instead of its past monetary value or cultural value.
The Mary Boones and the Matthew Marks of the art world were storming MFA graduate shows and the Whitney Biennial to discover these new talents. The demand for certain contemporary artists seemed to far exceed what was available at the all new art fairs, galleries, and shows popping up all over the world. The Blue Chip artworks available at auction seemed to be status quo—flat—while the outlook for darlings of the art world was up.
In the design world, things were just beginning to change slightly. The big design fairs were Modernism at the Park Avenue Armory and SOFA Chicago; auction houses like Sotheby's and Christies were still very conservative and showed traditional American masters like George Nakashima, Frank Lloyd Wright, Tiffany, and iconic French designers like Charlotte Perriand, Jean Prouvé, and Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann. The only exciting thing seemed to be the Wright auction catalogues, which highlighted mid-century modern in vivid imagery and bold graphics, like a high-end fashion coffee table book.
Moss, the notable New York shop, didn't even call itself a gallery at the time and yet seemed to be the only forward-thinking contemporary design outlet in America. There, Murray Moss and Franklin Getchell started to curate daring new works by up-and-coming designers, while in Paris Galerie kreo was showcasing the Australian wunderkind Marc Newson, and the London Design Museum was exhibiting works by the incredible rising star Paul Cocksedge and those talented siblings from Brazil, the Campana brothers.
In those years, my longterm boyfriend Bruce Ferguson, international art curator and Dean of the Arts at Columbia, along with Ambra's new boyfriend Craig Robins, founder of Dacra, the architectural gem Aqua Island, and the Miami Design District, decided that they were going to start a Graduate MFA program in Miami. To kick off and introduce the idea of the school to the world, a series of symposiums were held in Miami, New York, and Europe. The who's who in art and architecture were brought together to discuss the new art phenomenon and the art market and how this new graduate center could look and what it could become—think artists like John Chamberlain and Richard Tuttle and architects like Zaha Hadid.
Throughout this time, I began to realize that as a design historian I knew everything about historic design from the 16th century all the way to about the 1980s and the Memphis movement. It struck me as so incredibly odd that I couldn't easily name 15-20 contemporary designers as easily as I could rattle off 15-20 contemporary artists. This began to keep me up at night, and I decided to change that. I had a series of conversations with Ambra, discussing how we could create an international fair that would foster and promote contemporary design in the world.
The two of us put our heads, our Rolodexes, our love of design, and our sheer tenacity together to create the very first design fair focused on design from the postwar era to the present. After earning the faith of 15 international furniture and decorative arts dealers—and Craig’s trust as well—two young, feisty, design-enthusiastic entrepreneurs brought to life a shared vision. And finally a contemporary collector could take home a piece of contemporary art and a piece of contemporary design to go with it!
Do you have a favorite moment from Design Miami over the years to share?
I think one of my most favorite moments was working with Alexander von Vegesack, founding director of the Vitra Design Museum and the head of the Design Miami’s Vetting Committee in the early years. While wandering around behind the scenes on a private tour at the Vitra Design Museum, I found myself standing in front of one of the rarest chairs that Marcel Breuer had ever created—so incredibly unique and so different from what you would ever think his work would look like. I thought to myself, “OH MY GOODNESS, I am right now experiencing the Holy Grail of design,” the sheer beauty of which brought tears to my very proud and humbled eyes.
What are you working on next?
I am working on keeping my sanity during Covid, my mask on, and going through American Presidential History to curatorially create Biden's new White House to support his vision to unite a new nation… Just kidding. But, well, you never know! ◆