Contemporary design joins vintage as the gallery expands its space and focus in a new location.
AFTER THIRTY YEARS in one location, pioneer Philadelphia gallery Moderne is staking out new territory as the first tenant in a repurposed industrial building in the developing Port Richmond neighbourhood, just 15 minutes from Center City. With 4,700 square feet of an expansive loft-like showroom replacing its former five-story building in historic Old Town, the gallery is now displaying iconic works of studio craft furniture by George Nakashima, Jere Osgood and Arthur Espenet Carpenter alongside designs by living furniture makers John Eric Byers and Miriam Carpenter, enamelist Paul Hultberg, ceramicist TK and others. According to founder Robert Aibel, who started the business in 1984 and built a reputation as the country’s leading dealer of Nakashima furniture, “We’re working at developing more contemporary designers, but we’re going to be very selective. It will have to be something that gets me excited, and gets Josh excited.” (Joshua Aibel, a former jewellery designer, joined his father in 2010, first in the finishing shop and now as co-director, and is in good part the reason for the addition of younger designers).
The change of locale was a matter of ideal timing: an offer to sell the Old Town building and the availability of the new facility, intended for design-industry tenants. “It all just came together,” says Aibel senior. As the first tenant, Moderne could get a prime location, and the 12,000-square-foot basement for a warehouse and finishing shop.
ROBERT AIBEL WAS finishing his doctorate in communications and film when he began travelling to auctions and buying furniture, and only turned his hobby into a business after a research trip to France when he discovered Art Deco. “I fell in love, bought stuff, and realised that was what I wanted to do.” In 1984 he rented warehouse space and started splitting his time between buying and selling furniture, and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania – and then at Drexel University. By 1985 he opened Moderne in a rented gallery in downtown Philadelphia, and in 1989 bought the building that housed the business until this year. In 1992, he stopped teaching and became a full-time dealer. “I decided to educate people about vintage designs and hope I’d make a living.”
Moderne staged the first exhibition of Nakashima furniture in 1989, when “nobody knew it.” It was an immediate success, and the gallery expanded its range to show vintage furniture and objects from the American Studio Craft movement, at a time when the category was shown only in craft stores. Aibel credits the Modernism show for enabling him to live in Philadelphia and develop a national clientele: “Without that show, I wouldn’t have gotten those New York clients.” The business is now international, with about half of Nakashima furniture sales to European clients, while new generations of Americans continue to buy, and use it.
Nevertheless, Moderne is looking towards the future, with contemporary design sharing the stage with the vintage pieces for which it’s become known. Aibel says, “I like to take on someone who’s not well known, who deserves to be better known, and try to make that happen.” A worthy ambition, and one that bodes well for continued success.
Moderne Gallery – internationally renowned for its high quality, vintage 20th Century furniture, lighting and accessories since 1984.