When it comes to London design, few have wielded a greater influence on its immediate history than David Gill. The opening of his eponymous gallery back in 1987 marked the first commercial space of its kind in the capital, one that, in championing design, helped lay the groundwork for London’s current status as one of the key design hubs of the world.
Born in Spain and educated in France and England, where he studied History of Art before joining Christie’s for a brief spell (they offered him a job before he’d even finished his course, which he accepted), Gill, in an exclusive interview with Esensual Living, recalls the epiphany that led to his intrepid leap from Christie's specialist to gallerist. “At that time everybody was talking about Art Deco, which I was collecting as well, but along with other period pieces it was becoming harder to find – it really was super difficult – and I decided that contemporary was the thing to do.”
Our meeting takes place at the elegant Grade I-listed Mayfair apartment that Gill shares with his partner, designer Francis Sultana. Their home is famous within London lore for both its beauty and content, which not only tells the tale of Gill’s long and continuing relationship with design, but demonstrates that design can offer real warmth. In front of the fireplace in the salon is a silver Ring table by Garouste and Bonetti – the designers behind one of the first exhibitions staged by the gallery at its initial space on the Fulham Road; at that time they were known for their ‘neo-Baroque’ style. “They had just finished the Lacroix salon in Paris, and I invited them to do a collection for me,” recounts Gill. (Other early exhibitions included a Line Vautrin retrospective - jewellery, boxes and objets – and, contrastingly, aluminium furniture by Donald Judd.) Mattia Bonetti is further represented in a silver console, and resting on one of a trio of his Polyhedral tables is the tea tray, holding Fortnum & Mason’s 18th Century Chinoiserie-inspired St. James’s Eau de Nil china. Elsewhere in the room is a pot by Grayson Perry (David Gill Gallery was the first gallery to show his work, back in 1999), pieces from Zaha Hadid’s Dune Formations collection, and the King Bonk armchair and footstool by Fredrikson Stallard.
The apartment is within spitting distance of the gallery, which today occupies a large and impressive site in St. James’s, following a decade-long sojourn in a factory space in Vauxhall. In addition to the majority of those named above, the current list of gallery artists includes Jorge Pardo, David Chipperfield, the Campana Brothers and the young ceramicist Barnaby Barford. Opening on 18th November is a show by the iconic American artist Michele Oka Doner, whose enormous breadth of work includes sculpture, public art (one of her best known artworks being A Walk on the Beach at Miami International airport – inspired by the marine biology of Florida, it is composed of bronzes and mother of pearl laid into the floor, and stretches for one and a quarter miles), jewellery, furniture and objets. The new exhibition will mix past work and new pieces, spanning furniture and sculpture, bowls and vases, candelabras and accessories in cast and gilded bronze, cast silver and mouth-blown and etched glass.
ESENSUAL LIVING: The portfolio of gallery artists is diverse; how do you choose the artists and designers that you show?
DAVID GILL: Sometimes I know them, sometimes they come to me. I don’t look at a list and think that I have to show all these artists because everyone’s talking about them. It’s more that there are artists that I feel have the strength and the credibility that I like, and the philosophy of look that I like, and I try to work with them. The choice is my own vision.
EL: And how is an exhibition put together? How many months will it typically represent in terms of preparation?
DG: I’d say not less than a year, if you want to create something from its start. Even with a contemporary artist, you still have to have the dialogue, and you have to let the artist have the vision. So one-to-two years.
EL: And, if you are creating something from its start, how are those pieces – whether a set of mirrors, or sofas and chairs – chosen?
DG: There’s a dialogue that you have with each artist. And you go with the strengths of each artist.
EL: What is the story behind the Michele Oka Doner exhibition – how did it come to be?
DG: It was an encounter: she’s someone I’ve admired for a long time, from a distance, and we met, each with a very curious approach. I went to her studio in New York, and I found her work, her many years of work, very exciting. We went from piece to piece and we talked about this and that, and we had a few meetings and we ended up with this exhibition. Some of the pieces were already conceived, were part of her language, and others were at their most nascent stage, in the wax room.
EL: What can you tell us about the forthcoming exhibition?
DG: Michele Oka Doner is a very established name – so she’s not someone we’re discovering. The breadth of work that Michele Oka Doner has done, and the length of time she’s been working, the temptation has been to put pieces from five years ago alongside work she is doing today, because it shows the strength. Hence there are incidental different pieces, it’s not just one language.
EL: So there’s a mix and – I believe I saw a silver clutch bag – it includes wearable design?
DG: Yes exactly. But that bag, you could put it on the table, like a pebble or something beautiful, and then you pick it up and off you go to Loulou’s!
EL: Do you have a favourite piece in the forthcoming exhibition?
DG: Yes, the Ice-Ring Bench.
EL: And do you always have a favourite?
DG: Yes – and they always sell very fast!
EL: Is there anybody who you feel has influenced you, in terms of your career?
DG: I did not have one mentor per se. Discovering and reading first about the Bauhaus movement, as well as French architects and designers and their Italian and Austrian counterparts, amongst many other architects and designers relevant of the time, were all a huge influence on me, as well as America during the 1940s and 1950s. It is this all-embracing historical knowledge that has formed my style and vision.
EL: You’ve now been immersed in the design world for nigh three decades; can you comment on the current mood, and do you sense any particular direction?
DG: I’ve seen so many movements, and many of them have disappeared. However the artists have remained – and they are growing in number. Collectors, and young entrepreneurs, they really want to be excited by things to live with, and therefore they have been looking at design much more seriously and this has generated and enthused many artists to begin designing. And I think there has definitely been – I don’t know if you would call it a renaissance – but an energy among designers worldwide to design contemporary furniture. And not all of it will have a meaning in history, but it is through this enormous energy that you will find the masters.
EL: Do you feel that your gallery artists represent the style of the future – and how?
DG: There are pieces that I created with my artists that back in 1994 we sold for £8,000; recently they sold for £120,000 at auction. So they’re definitely collectable! And I think that many of them will be icons in the future. And I think within the breadth of each artist, with the pieces that they make, not every one of them will be iconic, but there is a strong signature whether it is Mattia Bonetti, whether it’s Fredrikson Stallard, whether it’s Michele Oka Doner – you look at these artists and there are three or four pieces that will become icons.
EL: Are the gallery artists reflective of your own personal style – and do you in turn feel that they’ve affected and influenced your own aesthetics?
DG: I don’t know who changed who! But I don’t think I changed Garouste and Bonetti… The reality is that I have my point of view, and I have my eye – for instance when I choose a Kusama (Gill indicates a canvas by Yayoi Kusama hanging on the wall behind him) I chose a white Kusama – I could have chosen a red one, or a pumpkin – I have got a very clear eye to my vision. And I think that reflects on the artists I work with. Sometimes we do a collection or a few pieces and if I don’t like them I will say so. Hopefully I would like them! But if I don’t like them, it’s very difficult for me to defend them, or to show them. It’s the dialogue that really makes excellence.
EL: And you’ve succeeded in incorporating design pieces – in a variety of styles - into your own home in a very effective manner; how would you advise someone else when it comes to living with design?
DG: I think it’s not just about your own personal taste. I think every room has an architectural feeling, and sometimes it blends. This is an 18th-century room, and we had to look at it like that.
EL: And so you’ve fitted a piece by Zaha Hadid around the orginal dado rail…
DG: Exactly. You really have to observe how you are going to treat a room in terms of the surroundings.
EL: Do you decorate your house? And, if so, how?
DG: Oh yes. There’ll be decorations, and a party for friends. One year Francis Sultana did the most amazing Christmas decoration – it was Russian eggs and crystal and coral – it was like a whole Petit Trianon on the table. But Christmas doesn’t have to cost a lot, it can be some branches that you spray red and that’s your coral! I think every family should do whatever they feel like, and involve everybody. A great trick is one we do when we’d have big Christmases with friends: we’d all come together to decorate the tree, and you give everyone a little piece of paper for them to do a drawing, and then you hang them on the tree.