Design Legends

Simon de Pury on Blue Chip Contemporary Design

Daniella Ohad

Design doyenne Daniella Ohad shares insights into collecting design drawn from her conversations with the world’s premiere design experts

Currently offered as an online course through AIA New York, Collecting Design: The Legends invites architects, interior designers, design lovers, and art collectors to explore the fascinating world of collectible design through one-on-one conversations between Daniella Ohad and leading field experts. For Design Miami, Ohad recaps each weekly program, sharing rare insights into how to enjoy and “read” objects while cultivating a critical eye and elevated discernment.

Simon de Pury. Photo © Gary Morrisroe

“Simon is an extraordinary dealer, impresario, talent spotter, and auctioneer—arguably the best of all time—who has put together some of the world’s greatest collections over the last 40 years,” Ben Brown of Ben Brown Fine Arts has said. “Our joint admiration of Ron Arad led him to put together the gorgeous exhibition at Newlands House, which is one of Ron’s greatest exhibitions ever. Simon’s legacy will last a very long time.”

Everyone agrees that Simon de Pury is the world's most celebrated auctioneer, one who reinvented and reinvigorated the tradition. When he conducts an auction, when he is at the podium, it is always the best show in town. He’s earned his moniker “the Mick Jagger of Auctions.” Opening the spring edition of my Collecting Design: The Legends program with this deeply knowledgeable and inspiring expert was a true blessing. Drawing on four decades of leadership in the art world, he shared with us his unique insights into what really matters when it comes to collecting design.

Event Horizon Chop Top Table by Marc Newson for Galerie Kreo, 1992/2006. Photo © Alexandra de Cossette; Courtesy of Galerie kreo

My conversation with de Pury centered on the work of four blue chip contemporary designers—Ron Arad, Marc Newson, Mattia Bonetti, and the Campana Brothers—whose consistently on-the-pulse work can be found in important museums and private collections around the world. All four studios launched in the 1980s and helped to catalyze the birth of the collectible design market through strikingly similar career paths. Each began by crafting objects by hand, working as visionary, iconoclastic artisans who created dazzling objects in familiar materials like metal, fabric, plastic, and found objects. Their careers all found traction at a time when excitement was lacking in the arena of furniture design, which was overwhelmingly industrially produced and sold through mass market outlets in the late 20th century. As each approached the new millennium, their methods of production became more sophisticated, more connected to technological innovations, and their pieces came to be sold in galleries and at international fairs, just like art. By now, they have firmly secured their places in the pantheon of design history.

Pirarucu Armchair by the Campana Brothers for Carpenters Workshop Gallery, 2015. Photo © Carpenters Workshop Gallery

To de Pury, there is no major difference between furniture and objects created by artists and those by designers. He knows both well; he lives with both and appreciates innovative techniques, groundbreaking material experimentations, and intriguing narratives in all forms. His taste is extremely educated and defined, and he has a special fondness for design that is playful with a touch of Pop. The secret to creating a good collection, he told us, is to “mix high and low.”

Bucket by Ron Arad for Venini, 2020. Photo © Newlands House Gallery

de Pury has had a profound influence on the design world by propelling the careers of many of today’s most successful designers. British design star Thomas Heatherwick told me, “Simon is an enthusiastic muse, who inspires designers like me to try even harder to make meaningful projects.” As the Artistic Director of the newly-opened Newlands House Gallery, located in an 18th-century Georgian townhouse in Petworth, UK, de-Pury curated the two inaugural exhibitions. The first, Helmut Newton 100, celebrated the 100th birthday of the famous German photographer who passed away in 2004; the second is the current retrospective of Israeli-born, London-based designer Ron Arad, entitled Ron Arad 69 in reference to Arad’s current age. The latter, on view until March, consists of pieces from private collections, including his own.

Table by Mattia Bonetti for Kasmin Gallery, 2011. Photo © Kasmin Gallery

When de Pury speaks about Arad, you feel the spark of the admiration he has for the designer’s entire oeuvre, from the very beginning in the early ’80s, when Arad created his iconic Rover Chair, to now. de Pury enthused about Arad's recent series of chairs that celebrate Mickey Mouse's 90th birthday. The last piece in that series is Now What, also known as the Brexit Chair. As a marker of the historic moment, the chair is clad with newspaper print from January 31, 2020, documenting the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union; the word “goodbye” appears in 27 European languages.

What Now (Brexit Chair) by Ron Arad, 2020, on view at Newlands House Gallery. Photo © Newlands House Gallery

What I found most fascinating and refreshing about de Pury is the way he expresses his appreciation for design so naturally, identifying and articulating quality without effort. It’s such a pleasure to be in his audience. The reason for this can be gleaned from the designers he supports. “There is no doubt that Simon is at the top of the game in the world of auctioneering,” Arad once told me. “But when you get to know him, you discover his immense passion and amazing curiosity about art and design.”

Humberto Campana offered a similar perspective: “Simon reinvented the art of the auctioneering by introducing a vibrant approach to a field that was restrained and unemotional. Thanks to his charisma, he became a reference to us all and a performance artist in his own right.” ◆


The public is invited to enroll in Collecting Design: The Legends (Spring 2021) here. Sponsored by AIA New York, these weekly virtual classes run through April 20, 2021.