A Conversation with Richard Wright

I collect a wide range of things. I don’t collect historical rarities.
I collect things that interest me visually, from a Maarten Baas coffee table
to a Jack Lenor Larsen sofa. I like to make unexpected choices."

"Truly, American design is one of the greatest bargains out there."  

Richard Wright needs no introduction.  

A few weeks ago, Richard Wright answered some questions regarding the history of Wright, his upcoming One's King Lane Sale, and the future of Wright in Chicago. Collectors, interior designers, writers, and the design obsessed know Wright as one of the premiere auction houses in America, and as a key promoter of good design. Let's hope this conversation is only the beginning of future conversations with Richard regarding decorative arts, furniture, architecture, and sculpture. - David John 

I'm always impressed with your catalog design. 

Richard Wright: Thank you, catalogs are the defining feature of our auction house, and have been from the very beginning. We helped change the industry. Prior to our opening, auction catalogs were done in a very tradiitonal, staid model. We were the first auction house to apply graphic and book design to the auction catalog. It made perfect sense for an auction house focused on design, and became the singular mark of our brand.

JUNE 2000 was Wright Auction’s first Auction. What have you learned?

RW: Yes, we held our first auction in June of 2000. At that point, I’d been in the industry for 14 years so I had deep knowledge of the material and deep contacts within the industry. Before launching the first auction, I went around to all of my friends and asked them to give me stuff to sell. They were happy to do it.  Honestly, I’m glad that I didn’t know all the difficulties of auctioneering. It made it a lot easier to just plunge ahead and do it. We’ve certainly learned a lot along the way. Throughout my career, I’ve learned just about every lesson by doing things the hard way, but I’m also proud of the fact that we continued to incrementally learn and grow. That’s a process which I hope continues.   The market for modern design has exploded since 2000, both in its breadth and its depth. There are many more players and many more categories that are traded. As the market matures, we also see the inevitable cyclical nature of some areas – some have gone up, and some have gone down. The category of 20th century design is now really an established one.

Can you speak of the psyche of a collector? Why collect objects at all?  Is there a philosophical dimension to Wright?    

RW: Collectors are as different as the materials they collect. Some are obessive, some are very generous. I think that there is something deeply human about collecting.  We define ourselves by the objects we surround ourselves with in our intimate spaces. Design touches people in a way that is more direct and accessible than art.  Our philosophy at Wright is to continue to grow and change. I see Wright not only as an auction house, but as a real platform for the promotion of good design.

After operating for over ten years now, what are some of the most surprising sales that have happened?

RW: I’m very proud of the diversity of what we’ve offered, from the record-breaking Isamu Noguchi table which sold for $630,000 in 2005 to the Pierre Koenig Case Study #21 House in Los Angeles, which we sold for $3,185,6000 in 2006. While we mostly sell functional design, we’ve also offered art and aesthetic objects like an Aston Martin DB6 Coupe, which we sold in 2009 for $122,500. We’ve been successful because we seek material that is fresh and interesting to us. We’ve been fortunate to find an audience that is as enthusiastic as we are about the works Wright represents.

Apart from your auctions, what contemporary designer do you collect?  Have you ever shown your personal collection of design? 

RW: I collect a wide range of things. I don’t collect historical rarities. I collect things that interest me visually, from a Maarten Baas coffee table to a Jack Lenor Larsen sofa. I like to make unexpected choices. I’ve never exhibited my personal collection of design.

For the established collector, as well as the newly initiated, what in your opinion are areas or specific designers that are gaining interest in the market? 

RW: I always stress that people should buy what they love. As the market has matured, it’s clear that some works can be truly defined as blue chip. The top of the market has been dominated by French midcentury designers. I find Scandinavian design to be increasing in value.

There‘s absolutely valid things to buy at all price levels in the design markets. Truly, American design is one of the greatest bargains out there.

I know you recently showed some work from Mexican Modernists designers.  Is there a market for these designers, and how were they received?

RW: I’m proud of the fact that we continue to try to pioneer and explore new markets. Some forays into new markets are more successful than others. I think we had mixed results with the Mexican Modernists. We maintain continued interest in the market, but it’s been hard to get high-qualtiy pieces.

Of any auction house, is there a specific auction that has happened that is particularly significant and interesting to you?

RW: My favorite auction project was the selling of Pierre Koenig Case Study House #21 in Los Angeles. We not only sold the house, but we sold the entire contents including the Porsche that is in the garage. We were able to work with Julius Shulman, who had photographed the Koenig Case Study House #21 in 1960. We commissioned him to come back and rephotograph this iconic home for a monograph on the house which accompanied the auction. It was perfectly produced and was a market success. We were 100% sold.

What do you see as the future of auction houses?  

Auction houses are a vital and integral part of the market. We provide transparent pricing information and liquidity. Auction houses are here to stay.

Wright continues to come up with new and innovative sales. We’re focusing a lot of attention on developing the possibilities of our website by adding new historical analyses and in-depth content which has never been done in the auction industry.

Is auctioning architecture different that auctioning an object?

RW: Auctioning architecture is extremely different than auctioning an object. The art auction houses‘ ventures into real estate auctions have been complicated, and have been met with mixed succcess. We successfully sold two of the four properties we’ve offered at auction: the Pierre Koenig Case Study #21 House in Los Angeles the Frank Lloyd Wright Kenneth Laurent House in Rockford, Illinois. We failed to sell an absolute jewel of a home by Louis Kahn and a quirky Marcel Breuer property. The complexities of a real estate transaction do not translate well to the time limited nature of auction sales. Even for the sale of architecture, we ensure bidders have a chance to preview. Generally, they‘re done by appointment and the potential bidder interfaces with a traditional real estate agent.

The state of design in Chicago?

RW: There continues to be great energy in Chicago architecture and design. The MCA is launching an exhibition this month on the work of Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, which Wright is sponsoring. Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang has an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago this month as well, which includes some of her functional designs.   The Illinois Institute of Technology, where Mies van der Rohe educated a whole generation of truly great modern architects, has a new dean. Wiel Arets will continue the tradition of mentoring young up-and-coming architects. We are lucky that Chicago is a community that has always valued good building design, and we’re able to draw talent from all over the world.  Wright has a tradition of selling of architect-designed furniture, and of course we’re fans of design in general. We really pride ourselves on being engaged with the local design community, and feel fortunate to be based in a city that has always really excelled at architecture and design.

What is Wright20? 

Wright20.com is Wright’s presence online. We make every lot available for preview three weeks prior to the date of an auction. Wright20.com also includes additional images, information and historical content. We would like to develop this even further so that our website will be home to evergreen content that can be a great resource for collectors, students or anyone else who is interested in design.   Wright-Now.com is our other website. It is a digital storefront and is separate from the auction side of our business. Everything on Wright Now is available for immediate sale, so you don’t have to wait for an auction. The items listed on Wright Now are on par with what we offer in auctions – take, for example, the rare bahut by Charlotte Perriand which we’re offering for $195,000. That’s an expensive piece, but other items are more accessible. Regardless of what you buy, we want Wright Now to be a user-friendly interface which simplifies buying good design. You can even view condition reports online, or make an offer by clicking a button. All of the pieces offered on Wright Now are in our warehouse, so we can come in by appointment and see whatever you’re interested in in person.

You are having a Tastemaker Tag Sale on One King’s Lane. Isn’t this an unusual step for Wright?

RW: Certainly, but in terms of marketing, Wright has always strived to be on the cutting edge. One King’s Lane is leading a massive digital retail movement for the interior design industry, and we’re pleased they asked us to be a part of it. I curated a selection of items which I hope appeals to buyers who are just entering the market as well as collectors and interior designers who are more seasoned and looking for pieces that are truly special. We’ve never done any kind of flash sale, but One King’s Lane provides a great opportunity to expose our brand to a new audience. The paradigm of buying and collecting has truly shifted: now you can purchase anything from anywhere in the world. This is true, too, for our auctions which are streamed live over the internet. I hope people will enjoy the collection I assembled for One King’s Lane. I vetted each piece for its quality and beauty, just as I do for my auctions.   

Thank you Richard!