Gallerist Peter Blake Talks Collecting, Design, and California’s Light and Space Movement

Oct 21, 2016 10:37PM

Image courtesy of Peter Blake Gallery.

Before he opened a gallery, Peter Blake was a collector. So it’s no surprise that his eponymous exhibition space, Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach, is a showcase for his personal interest in art, architecture, and, increasingly, modern design. Heading into the final days of the gallery’s current exhibition, “The Tendency of the Moment—International Design: The Bauhaus Through Modern,” we chatted with Blake about treasure hunting at auctions in Paris, the commercial philosophy behind classic cars, and his passion for the Light and Space movement.

Artsy: You and your wife are avid world travelers and longtime collectors of art and design. Can you tell us about your personal collection? Do you have a favorite piece?

Peter Blake: Our personal design collection is currently built around modern design from Bauhaus through Modern, but we are starting to explore collecting design from the 1970s through Contemporary. Our art collection revolves around California Light and Space dating from the 1960s to current, as well as recent International and East Coast Minimalism.

Our favorite item is usually the last item we collected, which at this stage happens to be a very rare Antoine Philippon and Jacqueline Lecoq “Comfort” armchair.

Artsy: Tell us about the origins of Peter Blake Gallery. Why did you decide to open an exhibition space?

PB: The Peter Blake Gallery opened in 1993 in Laguna Beach. I began exhibiting California artists whose work I loved and had begun collecting. Peter Blake Modern was formed in 2016 at the intersection of art, architecture, and design. I had always had an interest in art, and opening a gallery felt like a natural progression. This year, as I began curating the current exhibit, dealing with collectable modern design, I realized that I wanted to deal in design as well. Thus Peter Blake Modern was born.

Artsy: To what extent do your personal tastes as a collector overlap with the objectives of your new design exhibition? Why did you choose to showcase design from these particular eras while excluding artwork? Especially since the gallery has traditionally focused on minimalist and abstract painting.

PB: My personal taste as a collector informs everything I exhibit in the gallery, and my design show is no different. I have never exhibited anything that I personally would not want to own.

Design from this era, and the design that I have displayed in this exhibit, aligns perfectly with Minimalism, and the artwork I show is a natural progression from those design sensibilities. We worked on the design of the exhibition for nine weeks, during which time artwork came in and out of the equation. In the end, we opted out because we didn’t want anything interfering in the art of the design we were exhibiting. We wanted the design to be the art—to speak for itself.

'Comfort' Armchair, ca. 1950
Peter Blake Gallery

Artsy: Notable pieces from this exhibition include a Mercedes Heckflosse and a turntable that was featured in A Clockwork Orange. Can you explain the process behind collecting such rare objects?

PB: I found the turntable in Canada and had it shipped back to the designer’s son [David Gammon] in England, and he meticulously restored it and sent it back to California. The Mercedes, like the Leica camera, the vintage stereo, and the Eames speaker from the ’50s, was meant to extend the exhibition beyond furnishings and into design.

The title of the show, “The Tendency of the Moment,” speaks about trends in design that were dictated by their times. The Mercedes was called “Heckflosse,” which in German translates to “fin car,” and represented Mercedes’ attempt to address the fact that Americans wanted fins on their cars—therefore the fins were reluctantly included in the design of the car to suit American tastes.

Objects like these are found over the course of travel, through colleagues in the design and art world, online design sites, auction houses, and international fairs. I spend up to 10 hours a day researching and sourcing the items that I collect.

Artsy: You’ve said that Martin Grierson’s London Chairs are especially significant to you. Why is that?

PB: We discovered the chairs at an auction in Paris after an exhaustive two-year search. Martin is the only living artist in our collection. The process of restoration was carried out by four separate artisans and took over eight months to complete. We enjoyed working with Martin directly and sharing in some of the history and inspirations that were taking place in the late ’50s, when as a young man he designed these chairs for a competition that led to their manufacture by Arflex.

We are currently in discussions with Martin, who is in his 80s, about the possibility of a limited-edition reissue that would allow these chairs to be enjoyed by a future generation.

Artsy: What’s next? What can we expect from Peter Blake Gallery moving forward—perhaps an increased emphasis on design?

PB: The next exhibition is a solo show for historic Light and Space artist Helen Pashgian, who is a pioneer of the California Light and Space Movement and one of the only females credited in this historic movement. We are currently working on two shows for Peter Blake Modern: One is a solo show for KEM Weber, for which we have just secured a full office set that he designed in the 1930s for Walt Disney; the second show will be a group show that takes off from where this current show leaves, beginning in the 1970s with an Oscar Niemeyer “Alta” chair and documenting design from Postmodern all the way to 2017, for which we have collected our first Rick Owens work.

My plan overall, in regard to the design, is to have three large shows a year that are more scholarly approaches to eras or regions, and two or three solo shows that focus primarily on an individual architect or designer.

—Bridget Gleeson

The Tendency of the Moment—International Design: The Bauhaus Through Modern” is on view at Peter Blake Gallery, Laguna Beach, California, Sept. 11–Oct. 23, 2016.

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