"Flawless execution is critical for discriminating collectors" – TDE meets the New York design dealer who heads up Maison Gerard.
ON THE HEELS of a highly successful Winter Show, the head of design gallery Maison Gerard, Benoist F. Drut, reveals how he has catapulted such talents as Achille Salvagni, Hervé van der Straeten and Jules Bouy onto a global platform.
Brook S. Mason (BM): You’ve carved out such a stellar career in design, yet initially you earned a law degree from the revered Université Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas. What caused you to pivot to the dealer world?
Benoist Drut (BD): Long before I delved into detailed law treatises, I was utterly captivated by design – from the glories of eighteenth-century ébénistes, right through to those Art Deco masters Rateau and Ruhlmann. I started going to the Paris Biennale des Antiquaires when I was 15. Later, I met the renowned expert Thierry Millerand, who was really my mentor. He emphatically stressed the importance of working with the object under a highly knowledgeable specialist. I worked for the master Paris auctioneer Muriel Berlinghi-Domingo, before heading to New York where I joined Roger Prigent at his Malmaison gallery. I then worked with the Biedermeier dealer Karl Kemp and moved to Maison Gerard in 1998.
BM: In the nineties Maison Gerard was heralded for spotlighting Leleu and other Art Deco masters. How did you take the gallery up to a new level?
BD: Prior [to my joining] the gallery had taken part in fairs but had never done full-scale exhibitions with catalogues – which are critical for a growing body of sophisticated collectors and heightening the visibility of the field and the gallery too. ‘The Birth of a Style’ exhibition in 2001 was devoted to Art Deco talents including the French émigré interior designer Jules Bouy, whose roster of prestigious clients included Lizzie Bliss (co-founder of MoMA). I introduced Bouy’s exuberant designs in exotic woods and sculpted metal work to the American market at a time when a sleek, monochrome décor prevailed. It was our most successful show to date. Today, Bouy’s work is rightfully in such august institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
BM: How did you broaden the reach of Maison Gerard in terms of its offerings?
BD: While we still have work by Jacques Adnet, André Arbus and Jean Dunand, I took the gallery in a new direction by bringing on a raft of contemporary designers, among them Hervé van der Straeten who is not only a graduate of the École des Beaux Arts, but was also awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. Like Achille Salvagni, Hervé turns to time-honoured processes from exquisite lacquer and hand wrought bronze, but the design is so contemporary – like his twist on the guéridon where the legs are a riff on a slender tree branch. Contemporary design complements contemporary art to perfection – whether it be a cutting-edge painting or sculpture.
BM: Without question, you played a major role in heightening the visibility of the Rome-born, London-based architect and designer Achille Salvagni in the US. He secured two major league condo tower commissions – the interiors of The Benson and The Bellemont – both of which are limestone-clad buildings on Madison Avenue. Designed by architect Peter Pennoyer, The Benson has sold out and the owner of the penthouse has commissioned Achille to design his space. When did you first glean Achille’s multi-faceted talents?
BD: Long before Achille opened a London gallery, we were the first to show his design endeavours in this country when he launched his limited-edition furniture and lighting dubbed Achille Salvagni Atelier, back in 2013. I was instantly impressed by his extraordinary knowledge of superb craftsmanship dating back centuries. Take his sumptuous ‘Tête-à-Tête’ sofa with highly sculptural bronze feet that he had cast by a workshop in Rome, which counts the Vatican among its clients. Above all, his design ethos is based on looking into the future but always harking back to the past. So his ‘Silk’ cabinet sheathed in a lapis blue parchment, which is a nod to Jean-Michel Frank, is distinguished by 24 carat gold plated bronze detailing, a new level of luxe. Clients for his work are global.
BM: So clearly your understanding of the rigours of craftsmanship, whether it be exacting casting of bronze, intricately carved boiserie or lavish gilding, has played a pivotal role in guiding the designers in your stable.
BD: Emphatically yes. Flawless execution is critical for discriminating collectors.
BM: How were your Winter Show sales?
BD: Sales and interest were brisk and clients surprisingly were global. A Chinese client took home Louis Cane’s whimsical bronze ‘Lantern of Gardener Monkeys’ chandelier. Then boxes and other objets by Achille Salvagni and Nancy Lorenz were scooped up – as well as a number of vintage and antique ceramic works.
BM: Can you detail your roster of clients?
BD: We have collectors globally and garnering those collectors heightens a designer’s visibility. We sold three pairs of Achille’s ‘Milano’ chairs at the Salon fair and one went to a high profile European collector and philanthropist. Plus, interior designers have a multitude of projects internationally. Tony Ingrao, Brian McCarthy and David Kleinberg regularly buy from us.
BM: How did you deal with the pandemic period of isolation when it came to wooing clients?
BD: Covid presented a unique problem as fairs were cancelled and galleries closed with people understandably wary during the early days of lockdown. It was an opportunity for the gallery to totally rethink how to best engage with our clients, who were restricted to only seeing design online and in endless Zoom meetings.
So we decided to take a different tack by showcasing design in residential exhibitions staged in select new luxury condo developments. Those curated exhibitions in which we blended contemporary and historic pieces helped the gallery strengthen our relationships to interior designers in particular. In many ways it was far less distracting than the gallery setting. I really can’t emphasise enough how many sales we have made from these exhibitions.
BM: Now with pre-pandemic life slowly returning, what is on your agenda?
BD: We’re currently working on an exhibition dedicated to the Puerto Rican-born glass artist Kiko López who lives and works near Avignon, France. He has revived storied églomisé techniques to create contemporary pieces. Our next fair is Milan Design Week, where STACKABL will be collaborating with Isola Design District to present its newest line of lighting.