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Design

Steven Learner Founder of Collective Design

By Katy Donoghue

May 13, 2015

The third edition of the Collective Design Fair opens to the public today, after a VIP preview yesterday evening. Open through May 17 at Skylight Clarkson Square in SoHo, the fair includes 29 exhibitors, a special exhibition focus on Italian design, and a series of conversations taking place all week. Steven Learner is the Founder and Creative Director of Collective Design. An architect and interior designer himself, he saw an opportunity in 2012 to create a world-class design platform that served New York, and he spoke with us about its overwhelming success thus far.

WHITEWALL: This is the third year of Collective Design, which has gone from a fair founded by the New York design community, to a year-round program that hosts a weeklong fair in May. Tell me about that transition.

STEVEN LEARNER: We are expanding to a 365-day platform, and the fair is one component of that in the spring. The first year it happened so quickly, in six months it went from first conversation to full blown presentation. In year two, we saw such a great return rate, we had 17 new galleries, and onsite galleries representing 11 countries. On top of that, the galleries had almost a dozen sales to museums in our second year.

That was a great affirmation of the quality of the material the galleries brought and the kind of magnetic character of Collective.

WW: So you’ve gone from architect, to architect and fair director, and now the head of a year-round design program.

SL: I’m really engaged with people in a very different way than I was when I was solely working as an architect. I was finding that I was spending so much of my time with expeditors and contractors and attorneys, it was not as engaging as my work now. I’m going to studio visits, going to gallery openings, pouring the auction catalogues, and working on the curatorial direction for our focus on Italian design this year. It’s really a fantastic second chapter for me.

The funny thing is I never intended to start a fair. I just asked a question, why don’t we have a world-class fair? And Beth deWoody and Caroline Baumann, Zesty Meyers, said, ‘Well we should, if you start it we’ll help you.’ That’s how collective was born. I didn’t have a vision of what it would grow into, I just hoped it would be a success and believed in it. This is a labor of love for me and for those that help support it. The way that it was organized is it really is a collective. We talked about what everyone wanted from the fair – from a curator standpoint, from a collector standpoint, even from a press standpoint. How do we engage people on their own terms?

WW: A big part of Collective Design is inclusivity, rather than exclusivity. A portion of the fair is free and open to the public. But is that also just the nature of design, it’s inherently more accessible than art?

SL: The art world and fair have grown in a way with contemporary art being more and more conceptual and more and more opaque to the everyday person, and if you don’t have the education you can walk away feeling kind of dumb. But I think with design everybody knows what a chair is. You understand a chair, so there’s a comfort level that might be lacking in the art world.

A very big part of the accessibility and inclusiveness is to provide something that is educational and free and an experience. [In the public space] we have a singular focus on a designer that reveals something about process, about how a designer thinks and works, and how designs evolve. Because once you get into the main fair you see finished products. So how do we find a way to reveal the process and let someone get a peek into what goes into something and see sketches, prototypes, successes, and failures, so it’s not all about product, it’s about process and design?

WW: Do you see design fairs becoming as ubiquitous as art fairs?

SL: I don’t think it will ever each that scale. Just looking at raw numbers and values. You aren’t going to get the equivalent of the 30 million dollar Warhol at auction. We rarely break a million at auctions or galleries. There are less than 100 great galleries for design; for art, there are thousands. But there certainly is room for growth.

WW: A lot of design collectors are also art collectors. What should someone be doing as they start out collecting design? In art, the advice is to look, learn, wait, don’t buy in number, buy the best from that artist. Is it the same in design? Is it need based? Since these are, indeed practical objects.

SL: I also collect contemporary art so I’ve been asked this question from the art side. I think just like in the art world, there are two directions to go: one is ultra contemporary and one is more established or blue chip. I think you have to understand that in terms of your temperament. Super contemporary work is a big commitment of research and involves a lot of travel, and seeing, and educating yourself to separate the wheat and the chaff. I think in terms of design, like art, buy what you love, and maybe the only difference is, when you can, buy in pairs: a pair of chairs, a pair of tables, a pair of vases.

A version of this article will appear in Whitewall‘s summer Design issue out in June.

Collective Design FairFrieze New YorkSklight ClarksonSkylight Clarkson SquareSteven Learner

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