In Conversation with Auctioneer Richard Wright
As founder of the iconic Wright Auction House, Richard Wright was at the forefront of the resurgence of 20th-century design, giving functional pieces a more aspirational life, a groundbreaking creative challenge in an industry built on staid tradition. One of his most admiring fans (and a longtime customer, whose homes and offices have been largely outfitted in Wright’s picks) our founder, Richard Christiansen, had no shortage of questions for Wright when we spoke to him recently about his professional evolution and personal relationship to great design.
How auction houses operate has changed significantly since 2000. What would you say are the main factors contributing to that?
When we came into the market in 2000, there was really an opportunity to bring high-end graphic design to the auction world. Christie’s and Sotheby’s wanted to look like they were 200 years old. They weren't trying to be as contemporary and forward as they are now. We worked with a local graphic designer named Sam Silvio, who approached auction catalogs like they were coffee table books. That was really one of our breakthroughs. Also, we were the first champion for design. Again, Christie's and Sotheby’s were doing a lot of art deco, French deco, and Tiffany, and all those things were mixed in with the 20th-century sales. They didn't really call them design sales. We tried to take a fresher, more curated approach. Built around things that really honestly, we liked. That's what we've been doing ever since.
How do you curate your auctions? Are they always heartfelt or is it a planned strategy?
It’s a little of both. We sell things we love. We've tried to sell things that we don't like and it tends to not go very well. You're much better focusing on things that you have passion for, believe in. That can be a pretty wide range. I like to represent the spectrum of design. In our bigger sales. I like having something that's a little bit tacky, a little bit too much, as well as things can be very minimal and rather quiet. It's important to have both to me. There's not just one iconic idea of good design.
“We sell things we love. We've tried to sell things that we don't like and it tends to not go very well. You're much better focusing on things that you have passion for, believe in.”
How do you know which furniture to buy, which pieces are going to valuable in 5, 10, 15 years?
I actually don't use that criteria. If you buy good design pieces, they should hold their value. That's different than trying to speculate about future value, which is always subject to fashion and timing. That part doesn't weigh on me so much. Buying the best quality that you can, that's always where the most interest is. It's on pieces, the rare pieces. Even when a market might not be hot you can still do well with rarities. They stand the test of time.
Would you say that you sell objects, art, or the promise of lifestyle?
All of the above! That is part of what I love about design. We do sell fine art, where there's a real hierarchy, more rigid scholarship, more fear of voicing your opinion. Design is not that way. It’s very open and democratic. People who know far less about design than I would have no problem flopping down in a chair and telling me if they like it, don't like it, why they do, or don't. When you live with vintage things, they have a richness to them; if you really get into it, you're going to learn about that history and it can add something to your life. They’re a talisman of another place and time. To me, that’s certainly a lifestyle concept. We’re still selling functional objects. We want them to work. We want your chair to be comfortable. But we toggle between the two.
What's your favorite period, designer, school, or moment?
Because of what I do, I'm open to a lot. Mid-century really is a golden time of design. There's just a perfect balance that occurs in mid-century for the first time in France, America, and Scandinavia between real, true design — design that's really meant to make your life better — and real beauty. Then, I love radical ’60s, post-modern, design that’s really challenging and difficult. I wouldn't want to only have mid-century which can be a little safe, a little easy.
What do you love about pioneering and exploring new markets?
You know what, it's really what I love the most. I wanted to be a writer and it was far too hard. Then I discovered this world. The process of creating and curating our own little corner of it is what keeps it fresh for me everyday. I still get excited and that's all built upon finding new stories, seeing something you never saw before. That's really what I like. It's also gotten more competitive and more challenging so you have to sharpen what you do. Trying to translate great design to the web is something we've spent a lot of time on.
“When you live with vintage things, they have a richness to them. They’re a talisman of another place and time.”
Which markets are exciting to you now?
Paul Evans is white hot. It's interesting to see that in 2000, it was very hard to sell and not something I even wanted to carry. It's fascinating to watch the pace and my own relationship to that material change. I'm still a huge fan of post-modernism. That’s a pioneering market. Really great works in that period are still totally accessible. It's going to be important work. It's harder to live with. It's different. It takes a little more guts.
What are the most underrated markets right now?
True historical design is underrated. Great important pieces from Charles Eames, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe are selling for far less money than they used to. Mies van der Rohe chairs produced in the ’30s or Marcel Breuer chairs have this incredible patina and beauty to them. Resell chairs, real ones, sell for far less than things that are more decorative. So that's my tip, if you want to go for under-appreciated.
Which design markets are strongest today… the ones you see as solid for the next 10 years?
The real blue-chip market is French design. Prouvé, Perriand, all the solid French masters from mid-century are really doing great. Their value continues to go up. Prouvé's broken a million dollars a few times. It’s great design.
Is there a piece that you've personally been searching for for decades, but still haven't found?
I would have to say no to that. I mean there are famous pieces: a lighted wall sconce by Noguchi that’s like biomorphic, a lunar landscape, with little hanging elements. It's pictured in design books. It's never ever surfaced or been found. So, there is something like that out there.
Is there a piece you wish you didn't sell and kept for yourself?
Oh yes! Years and years ago, back when I was a dealer, I bought a rare Noguchi coffee table. It had a marble top, produced by Herman Miller. I bought it for $500 and wasn't 100% sure what it was. I took it to a fancy show and I tried to sell it for $20,000 and nobody would buy it from me. Before I started my own auction house, I needed to raise money and ended up putting it up for sale and selling it. I think it sold for $9,000 or something. About seven or eight years later, I sold the exact same design for for $630,000. So that's one where I didn't read the future very well, and wish I'd never sold it because I loved it. I knew exactly how important it was. But I needed to keep going.
If you could have any piece of furniture from any house, what would it be?
There was a Noguchi table that was done in black stone, a pierced table. It was a one-off, unique piece, sold by Christie's a couple years ago. I was competing for that table; it was one of the most sublime pieces of art translated into design. I could have lived with that for the rest of my life. It was stunning. So, I'd choose that.
“Very few artists are actually good at design.”
Noguchi had a deep impact on you, didn’t he?
Yes. Very few artists are actually good at design. Usually they use their art as decoration. Noguchi, as a sculptor, was really able to design in the same sort of language and not dumb it down, really just retain the purity. I think we've all lost the impact of his famous glass-top coffee table, which is just made up of three elements you know: two identical legs, and a glass top. It’s a perfect sculpture, a perfect coffee table. It's just a incredible design, and imagine if there was only one or we hadn't seen it.
Who are your role models?
I've honestly been influenced by some of the great retailers, like Stanley Marcus. I love retail because it draws on the idea of curation. When somebody takes their mark and chooses and presents it well, that’s the essence of what we're doing. Design-wise, it's probably Charles Eames. The absolute rigor of his thinking and the clarity of the design. He has a lot to teach all of us. I still live with Eames, I still use it in my office. It's just a part of my life that I don't consciously think about. I learned about Eames very early on and it really helped set the bar high for me in the right way.
How do you relax and find inspiration?
I really like to enjoy nature and relax. I definitely unplug, which is more and more important: to allow yourself space and not watch videos and really just be. My wife and I have a little house in Michigan. It's a digital free zone. We make the kids turn off. We go outside. We look at birds. We go to the beach. All of that is super important. I look at a lot of fine art. A lot of my travel for pleasure is built around art travel. Looking forward to going to Venice and seeing the Documenta and the great museums of the world. It's a way for me to recharge but also be inspired.
“There’s not just one iconic idea of good design.”
What's the last song you played on your iPod?
Unfortunately since Trump was elected, I've just been addicted to political podcasts. That's been very unhealthy for me. You know what, the last song, this is not new at all — but it's a song called "Rise," by Public Image Limited.
What's your favorite drink?
Oh, gosh. Well depends on the season quite honestly, I guess I would go with a really great gin and tonic.
What's your favorite hotel?
That's easy. I stayed at a hotel called Ett Hem in Stockholm. It means "our house." Ilse Crawford did the interior and it's built in a large private residence. There's only like eight rooms, incredibly special experience. I proposed to my wife there.
What watch do you wear?
I wear an Hermès watch with an aviator band. It’s not really an historical watch. It's more of a fashion watch. I love it.
So you like fashion?
I love fashion. Right now Gucci is doing an incredible work. That's my current addiction.
I wonder if that sense of “addiction” is useful in selling design, in making pieces — as you do — feel more inspirational to your buyers?
Oh, definitely. One of the talents I have that I didn't appreciate when I was younger was being an emotional person. When things are really expensive, of course, we're going to. But there's still pieces I love that just aren’t worth very much and we'll still show them on a full page by themselves, heroically, and give them the same process as something that's far, far, far more money. It's really about an emotional connection.
Words by The Editors.