Best in Show

Introducing design’s new breed of curators. Unbound by museums but linked to commerce, they scarcely resemble their art-world contemporaries and work almost nothing like each other. They can be retailers, agents, architects, promoters, or all-purpose Svengalis. Here are five of the finest.

/Christian Wassmann
Christian Wassmann likes to party. The impeccably styled Swiss-born designer doesn’t betray this taste by anything as unseemly as a perpetual hangover, but rather by the disco-ball skin of gold and silver mirrors that cover the walls of a storefront radio station he completed last year in Manhattan’s East Village. Ditto for the main wall of Vitra’s New York flagship, which Wassmann lit up like a glowstick for a Vernor Panton exhibition, silhouetting the S-shaped chair curves against a giant triptych of primary-colored light.

More precisely, Wassmann, 32, loves the spectacle of clubbing. One of his first breaks was helping Robert Wilson, the doyen of avant-garde theater production, design an Isamu Noguchi exhibition for the Vitra Design Museum in Weil Am Rhein, Germany. Over four rooms, the team created a shifting interplay between light and dark, separating stone sculptures from the airier lamps to highlight material differences in Noguchi’s work. There, Wassmann learned to respect the dramaturgy of the built environment, but he sounds more like his old boss, the architect Steven Holl, when he declares: “Making exhibitions should be like telling a story. As you move through the space, your experience should constantly change.”

Wassmann considers himself an architect first, curator second—he’s most eager to talk about the Miami Curved Wall House he’s building for Manhattan restaurateur Frank Prisinzano—but exhibition design allows him to bridge the two interests. He’s so far produced two Vitra shows, for which he selected products from the manufacturer’s catalog and designed the in-store spaces. (It’s all part of his effort to convince Vitra to let him redesign its New York showroom, which he claims is falling apart.) Last winter, he created holiday-themed domestic vignettes there and installed abstracted Christmas trees: Stacks of Sori Yanagi elephant stools formed a squat white fir, while an evergreen was assembled from the Bouroullecs’ spindly Algue partition pieces.

With Vitra, Wassmann aims to capture the lived-in feel of the company’s 2006 Cornel Windlin–designed catalog, which presented iconic pieces in the context of messy domesticity. So maybe Wassmann’s chief inspiration isn’t the party scene after all, but the cabinet of curiosities. This would explain his approach to not just curation but also life: “I want to do furniture design, exhibitions, architecture, fashion—for me, it’s inseparable,” he says. “If I said I was just a design curator and went for it, I would eventually run out of ideas.” — JILL SINGER

/Sebastien Agneessens
“I call myself a curator because otherwise people wouldn’t know what to call me,” admits Sebastien Agneessens, the 33-year-old impresario who’s behind some of the most bizarre brand extensions in recent memory. (In 2006, he convinced Starbucks to outfit a pop-up salon with furniture by the Belgian interiors firm Quinze & Milan.) “But it’s not a very precise definition. Curators show existing work. I mostly collaborate to create new work,” he says.

In 2002, Agneessens founded the boutique consulting company Formavision. Since then, he’s moved around downtown New York like a dapper French yenta, creating unlikely unions between brands in need of an image rehab and niche designers who could use the exposure. For the past 18 months, he’s collaborated with Marithe + Francois Girbaud, a fashion house whose reputation in America, at least, was built on its success as a purveyor of 1980s designer denim. Agneessens conceived “Construkt” as a series of exhibitions and designer editions that would bring to light some of Girbaud’s lesser-known innovations; last year, to highlight the label’s pioneering use of temperature-regulating ceramic fibers, he enlisted New York designer Dror Benshetrit to produce a collection of sculptural jewelry made from fur dipped in porcelain and fired in a kiln.

Agneessens’s work lies somewhere between curating and branding. As an MBA who left a marketing position at Chanel to open a gallery, he’s equipped to mediate between the two worlds, whether that means working with Japan’s Kenzo Minami to create CNC-milled sculptures for Sharp Aquos or asking the Australian metalworkers Korban/Flaubert, among others, to design installations for New York’s Diesel Denim Gallery, Agneessens’s first and most loyal client. “More and more brands are trying to be involved in art, but they need a curator to be relevant,” he says. “And they have bigger budgets than museums, so you can really do amazing stuff.” Currently, Agneessens is working with Koan-Jeff Baysa, a New York–based doctor, to co-curate a series of self-regenerating sculptures that will incorporate plant life and travel the world from greenhouse to greenhouse. Vegetation as art? “I know a curator is supposed to rationally explain his decisions,” he says, “but most of the time I can only articulate my choices once the project is done.” — JILL SINGER

/Anthony van den Bossche

For Paris’s Anthony van den Bossche, 36, curating has one big advantage over his days as a design journalist and television producer. He still gets to work with creative talents but now he can add his own point of view “instead of just reporting theirs.” With last year’s Eden DNA, for example, he positioned a series of inanimate mutants—USB memory sticks embedded in natural twigs, lamps made from sheep’s intestines, a taxidermied rabbit with embroidered ears—alongside live, human-bred creatures—koi fish, bacteria, orchids, even a chinchilla—making the point to would-be alarmists that nature has always been designed by man.

Van de Bossche is perhaps best known for his website, Resetdesign.com. It began in 2003 as a dumping ground for a journalist’s ever-accumulating pile of press kits but has recently evolved into something like an online exhibition space, with a carefully edited database of designers claiming space next to commissioned work, like his recent collection of designer-created tattoos. He’s currently recasting Reset as a blog; the new version, he says, will focus more on ideas than on actual design. “Design includes everything,” he explains. “It’s philosophy, sociology, art, form, function—and just life.”

Such statements sound wonderfully charitable, but in fact Van den Bossche is resistant to the democracy of design. Next year, he will debut Duende, which he describes as a Droog-like collective for French designers. Working with a rotating cast—the first includes up-and-comers Mathieu Lehanneur and Olivier Peyricot—he will commission experimental projects such as a series of “psychoanalytical objects” meant to reconnect us with fire and water. (That the first collection will include a “liquid mirror” and “a smoke machine that’s also a table” is all Van den Bossche will reveal for now.) “The design we are interested in is for the gallery,” he says. “Duende is not design for real people.” — ARIC CHEN

/Max Fraser

Don’t ask for names, but a number of people in the design world are waiting for globe-trotting, frequently quoted journalist, curator, and macher Max Fraser to turn 30. That won’t happen for a while. Fraser, 27, who lives in London, has been promoting design for a quarter of his life in every medium he can wrangle.

“There’s a logical progression in how things came about,” he says. Having dropped out of a product-design course at Nottingham Trent University, Fraser, who possesses aristocratic-looking chiseled features, was passing around drinks at a fancy party when he ventured to propose a book project to one of the guests, a marketing expert. The idea was for a guide to design shops, which were proliferating in millennial England. First published in 2001, Design UK sold respectably, but Fraser was dissatisfied. “It was just an inherent frustration that comes with writing about 3-D projects in 2-D media. I thought about how to lift products out of the printed page and put them in an interactive environment,” he says. At the time of London’s annual 100% Design furniture fair, Fraser found space in an allied young people’s show, Designersblock. “A bit at the last minute,” he gathered the work of 40 emerging British designers, charged them only enough to cover his costs, and exhibited the collection under the “Design UK” banner.

After the umpteenth visitor commented that the products looked better in Fraser’s setting than at the trade show, Fraser realized just how much context counted. Each display was “merged with other relevant products in a room that allowed people to comprehend them,” he explains. Seven months later, he repeated the exercise at the Milan Furniture Fair, and a curator was officially born. “But I would argue that curating is only 10 percent of the job,” he says. “The rest is logistics and administration and making sure the bloody things work. It’s very much a commercial exercise as well for the designers”—Fraser often serves as an agent, matching designers with manufacturers—“so in that respect I have always distanced myself from being seen as a curator in the institutional sense of the word.”

Fraser does occasionally dream of a museum job, if only because it would ensure him a regular paycheck along with a steady flow of work. Weary of flailing in the quicksand of self-employment, he wrapped up a book project (a monograph on the Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek) and took four months off last spring to travel the world. Refreshed, he’s now planning a kind of book/website/salon—he’s mysterious about the details: “I want to create a cultural hub where people can celebrate all the creativity in London—not just design, but also food, drink, multimedia, music, film, and fashion. I want to blend these things a bit more, but in really bizarre ways that make people sit up.”

Which would make him, what? An impresario?

“You aren’t going to bracket me,” he laughs. “That’s why I put three job titles on my business card.” — JULIE LASKY

/Josee Lepage
Part independent design curator, part roving retailer, Josee Lepage delights in inciting our lust for novelty. “Most retail is so boring,” she says. “I want to put more amazing things out there in more interesting ways.”

Shuttling between New York and her native Montreal, Lepage, 42, enlists collaborators in both cities to help realize her retail rebellion. Two years ago, she teamed up with former copywriter Pierre Laramee to create Commissaires, a Montreal gallery and boutique that defies either label. Every few months, the duo works with designers to cull or commission new, salable work, and launches each themed collection with a museum-like opening party. In 2006, for example, they paired with Canadian architect Gilles Saucier for “The Colour of a Shadow,” exhibiting within ebony-painted walls a collection of all-black works, such as Maarten Baas’s scorched seats and Ineke Hans’s carbon-colored rocking chair.

In New York, Lepage’s chief creative partner is Tobias Wong. Their work ranges from the crass to the conceptual—from glass dildos and gold pipe screens presented during the holidays at the Manhattan design showroom c.i.t.e., to the now-infamous Wrong Store, which this past spring beckoned passersby with a window display of limited editions and luxury fetishes. The punchline? The “store” was always closed.

For Lepage, who got her start as the early-’90s director of c.i.t.e. (a post she later bequeathed to Wong), retailing offers instant pleasure, but curating allows her to challenge how design is bought and sold. For an “advent calendar” she and Wong created in 2006 for the e-tailer Charles & Marie, participants could pay more than $1,000 to have specially chosen curiosities—say, a limited-edition version of Harry Allen’s piggybank—delivered to their doorsteps for each of the 24 days before Christmas. She and Wong will soon take their antics completely virtual, “curating” characters for Porcupine Jungle, a Sims-like social networking site launching this fall by digital media mogul Richard Szalwinski. Users will be able to interact with design-world luminaries’ virtual personas. The project seems way off the curatorial path, but that doesn’t bother Lepage. “To me, curating is about working without restrictions,” she says. “I can’t intellectualize it. I just do what I like.” — ARIC CHEN

COMMENT