Right on Time
Game-changing gallerist Gabrielle Ammann reflects on the past while working toward the future
Timing is everything. In Gabrielle Ammann’s case, her eye for talent has enabled her to seize auspicious opportunities overlooked by others. Early in their careers, she cultivated long-lasting relationships with international creatives who proved to be superstars—Studio Alchimia, Ron Arad, and Zaha Hadid, for example—introducing their experimental, cross-disciplinary work to German audiences before anyone else. Today, Cologne-based ammann//gallery is regarded as one of the most vanguard out there working, alway pushing against the blurred boundaries of design, architecture, and art.
Ammann has recently extended her reach to London with the debut of ammann//projects, a roving exhibition concept that she has developed in partnership with and under the management of her daughter Léonie. Together this summer, the duo opened the first ammann//projects exhibition at Cromwell Place, the cool, new multipurpose art space in South Kensington. As this next phase in Ammann’s storied career gets underway, we asked her to look back on the chance encounters and crucial decisions that led her to this moment.
Where did you grow up? And what were your earliest experiences with art, architecture, and design?
I grew up in Zurich and Basel-Riehen, and thanks to my family I came into contact with art from a very early age. My father was close to the family of Otto Roos, the famous sculptor and painter, and we often visited them in their garden near our home. My mother’s sister was married to a painter in Munich, and both of my parents were very creative on their own, though not professionally. I remember fondly annual visits to Art Basel in its early days, which fueled my fascination with the art world.
How did you start working with vanguard studios like Alchimia in the 1980s? What are some personal highlights from those years?
As is often the case in life, things just happen if you’re at the right place at the right time with the right people. I had finished my interior architecture studies and was working for a design studio in Munich when an architect friend of mine invited me to Milano. There, he introduced me to Studio Alchimia, and I was immediately taken by the group’s vision and intellectual foundations.
At the time, the studio was led by Alessandro Guerriero and his sister Adriana along with the Gregori brothers. I asked Guerriero why we could not see and buy the wonderful Alchimia pieces where I was living, Germany and Switzerland. He looked at me and said, “Because there is no one taking care of it; what about you?” This is how my design journey began.
My personal highlights certainly include attending Alchimia exhibitions in their showrooms. Everybody was there during the Milano design and furniture fairs in the 1980s and early 1990s. These were the occasions that introduced me to design world figures like Ron Arad, Tom Dixon, Michele de Lucchi, and Alessandro Mendini, to name a few.
You were well positioned to witness and build the market for collectible design. How would you characterize the early years, when many people may not have understood how to view design and architecture as an art form? What has it been like to see the world catch up with your vision?
When I started my “designers agency” to promote and sell the design works of Studio Alchimia, Ron Arad, and Marc Newson, I was fully aware that I was sitting literally in between a bunch of chairs that no art gallery would have given space to show and that most furniture shops found to be too experimental and not functional enough. But there were a few avant-garde dealers who were as fascinated as I was, and they offered their spaces for solo exhibitions. This is how it started.
I am still very thankful for people like Rupert Steininger and Horst Franke in Munich and Horst Dierking in Bremen, who opened their spaces so we could create beautiful exhibitions with the designers that I was representing. In parallel, progressive industrial enterprises—like Moroso under art director Patrizia Moroso—started to produce collections with artists-designers like Ron Arad.
The next logical step was to open my own gallery in an art-loving town like Cologne, which I did in 2006. My first visitor was renowned curator Kasper König, who greatly admired Marc Newson’s Event Horizon Table and Ron Arad’s Before Summer Chaise Longue. A few months later, Ambra Medda visited Cologne and invited me to participate in the first Design Miami/ Basel fair. That was the start to a new era for me and for my artists-designers, as well as for many fellow gallerists dealing in work at the intersection of architecture, art, and design.
You’ve worked with many of the same great studios for many years. Can you give a one sentence encapsulation of the genius of each?
I would prefer to offer their own words, as I think they do a much better job than I ever could!
—Ron Arad: “Design is not a challenge; the challenge is to keep it pleasurable!”
—Zaha Hadid: “There are 360 degrees, so why stick to one?”
—Studio Nucleo: “We want to create curiosity for the history that has not yet happened by making the past of the future.”
—Satyendra Pakhalé: “Originality comes from one’s origins.”
—Rolf Sachs: “I am always in search of the new.”
What are some works from your collection that have been acquired by museums?
Die Neue Sammlung in Munich, one of the biggest design collections in the world, acquired from our gallery early works and paintings by Studio Alchimia and a very important work by Ron Arad. The V&A in London as well as the MAKK in Cologne bought works by Satyendra Pakhalé. And New York’s MoMA bought architectural photography by Hélène Binet depicting architecture by Peter Zumthor—just to mention a few.
What are you working on next?
Our motto since Covid started has been, “Reflect on the past and work towards the future.” We are in the middle of archiving a lot of historical material, brainstorming a new book project, and further developing our nomadic exhibition venture, ammann//projects, which recently debuted in London. We are now a member at Cromwell Place in London, because there we have the freedom to experiment with different exhibition formats in various spaces. ◆
*The video above, featuring Ms. Ammann at the very first edition of Design Miami/Basel in 2006, was created by the wonderful team at VernissageTV (VTV).