By Vasia Rigou
When Richard Wright was young he wanted to be a writer. But shortly after he went to college, things took an unexpected turn. “I knew I was a genius at the time, and I knew no one could teach me anything so I thought I’d hitchhike cross-country,”Wright says. “I was out for a month. It was a disaster. I ran out of money in Mississippi,” he adds, smiling. “I soon figured out I wasn’t a genius. You know, writing is really hard.” He might have failed at this first quest but one thing was clear as day: The kid from Maine was looking for adventure. He had no idea that years later the Chicago-based auction business bearing his name would become a favorite among design connoisseurs and an international leader in the world of modern design auction houses. Nor that this would be an adventure continued to this day.
Headquartered in an elegant 40,000-square-foot building in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, with a second, newer location on Madison Avenue in New York City, Wright has handled more than 40,000 lots of twentieth and twenty-first century design since its founding in 2000. But unlike Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips, the Wright space looks nothing like a traditional auction house. After all, it’s only seventeen years old. The first floor includes a storage warehouse that looks like a mismatched showroom made in heaven. All design objects and furniture are available for preview, which, with very few exceptions, means touching, exploring, even sitting where appropriate. How a piece feels is extremely important in the design world. Upstairs is the main auction floor—a minimal open space with chairs perfectly lined up toward the podium. On the right-hand side is where some of the most competitive, head-to-head battles take place. Even in the event of short in-house attendance, as many as twenty phones may be buzzing in the room. The left side of the room features a few pieces that will be auctioned. They look more like part of the decor. One wouldn’t be able to tell.
After his two most recent auctions concluded another busy month, Wright reminisces about the early days, when he first discovered the world of vintage through an old girlfriend. “It was 1985 when I first got exposed to it—first vintage clothing, and then the larger world of… a little bit of junk,” he says, smiling. “I was going to school and she was going to school and I convinced her to drop out—she was three credits away from an art history degree at Boston University and I still had two years to go because I had wasted all that time hitchhiking—so I said let’s do this, it’s going to be amazing, we’re going to get rich! And she did it. And we bought a van. It was a Toyota minivan we even stayed in for a famous six-month period of time, only getting a hotel once a week, while traveling all through the Southwest to California. And we started driving around and buying stuff. It was crazy. It was the eighties! It was all flea markets and thrift stores.”
Wright didn’t know much about art or design at the time but he was willing to learn in any way possible. “I started buying stuff from the fifties because it was inexpensive and I was drawn to it. I didn’t yet know if it was good design, but I didn’t like antiques per se, so I gravitated toward that,” he says. “I remember that this girl’s father was an architect, and he was incredibly angry at me for having his daughter out of college. One day he said to me, ‘Do you know who Charles Eames is?’ and I was like, ‘No, I don’t!’ ‘Oh God, you’re such an idiot,’ he said. ‘If you’re gonna do this, at least learn.’ So he pointed us the way.”
For the next couple of years they would spend all of their time either driving around trying to buy stuff (mostly vintage and postwar pieces) or going to libraries and looking up old magazines—there weren’t many books on the period yet. “It was great: We’d go into the library and we’d learn, then go around buying stuff,” he says. “Soon we discovered we could set up at the 26th Street Flea Market in New York. We would drive there every two weeks. It was fun. We were in our twenties. It was all cash!” Some people are wired for storytelling and Wright is one of them. “After I did that for a while, I opened a little space at an antique mall. And then a little gallery,” he continues. “But then we split up. She started her own gallery. I had my little shop. I was making a living but I wasn’t growing anymore. By that time it was the early nineties.”
Beginning his career in the humblest of places, Wright always had a bigger vision. But it was at Oak Park’s Treadway-Toomey Auctions and their focus on modern design that he got the bug. “I had this piece and it was really expensive,” he says. “It just sat in my shop and nobody would buy it. I knew there was someone in Chicago that wanted it but they wouldn’t pay my price. So I decided to consign it at their auction. The same person sat in the audience and he bought it for more money than what I was asking. And that was when the lightbulb went off! I was like, ‘What am I doing sitting here trying to sell to people? I can do this!’”
When the person who started the modern auction left within a year, Wright stepped into the role. He worked there from 1993 to 1999. “That’s how I learned the auction trade,” he says, reminiscing of those first six years , when he would try to produce different auctions. They finally agreed to let him do one. “It was an Eames auction. I took a year to plan it, I found all this great furniture, I art-directed it and I worked with this really great graphic designer to make an auction catalogue that looked like no other auction catalogue,” he says. “And it went extremely well. It was a huge success. And that gave me a taste—it sort of launched me.” But then a couple of things happened, as he says. “I wanted to do it again. But they didn’t really believe in it. So I left and opened my own.”
Wright Auction, in Fulton Market just five blocks from the current space, was born. “It really started on a shoestring, with a tiny staff, one full-time guy that would help me bring in furniture and a freelance photographer. I kind of did everything myself,” says Wright, explaining how he has developed a unique style. “We’re certainly not a traditional auction house,” he says. “We take things for consignment and we sell them, much like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but we try to do it our own way—one that has our personality. I wanted to be professional and creative—to try to do things differently and not follow the models of the traditional auction houses which were very conservative at that time.”
First order of business? The auction catalogue: pre-Wright, auction lot directories were boring checklists disconnected from the creative nature of the featured objects. Post-Wright, catalogues became highly editorialized, featured vivid imagery, and began, more and more, to resemble high-end fashion or contemporary-art coffee-table books. “The creation of the catalogue is my favorite part of the auction process,” says Wright. “It is pure as your singular focus is on making every lot look great.” This innovative breakthrough changed the image of the auction catalogue forever and established Wright as a house unafraid of bold risks and big ideas. Bringing graphic design to the auction world was now part of their brand story.
Wright co-founded the business with his first wife, award-winning interior designer and major contributor to the design scene, Julie Thoma Wright. Together, they were a force of nature. With their combined vision, hard work and expertise, business thrived. “Our first auction was $400,000 and that was good enough for me,” Wright says about the early days. “We kept growing from there. We did another one in the fall. The first year we did two auctions. Second year we did four or five. This year we’re going to do thirty-five auctions,” he says. “The most successful auction I’ve ever conducted was $10 million. That was back in 2007, our best year to date. We sold a house, we sold a car, we sold a couple of hundred pieces. Things were really going crazy.” Except for one: this was the year of his wife’s passing. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. “It was a terrible experience—a really strange disconnect to have someone you love dying while the business you started together takes off.”
The Chicago auction house has come a long way, playing a major role in establishing a market for twentieth-century modern design which Wright has sold consistently over the years, as well as serving as a broad-spectrum platform to promote design at-large. And after about thirty years in the business, Wright himself has too. But he still has big ideas. To him, continually learning and growing is key. “Design is for people that like to be engaged,” as he likes to say. “I want to continue to evolve—finding new ways of celebrating the art and design we handle motivates me,” he adds, explaining his fascination with the design world.
“One of the things I love about design is that there’s something very democratic about it. People are feeling it, touching it, using it. Then, they give you their opinion,” Wright says. “But most people will not look at a piece of art and tell you if they like it because they’re intimidated. Maybe they don’t know who it’s by or are afraid they might sound ignorant. Design is different because people feel differently about their taste in it. That’s the reason why these two markets are driven by two different things,” he explains. He’s right. We tend to define ourselves by the objects we surround ourselves with in our intimate spaces. That’s why design touches us in a way that is more direct and accessible. That’s why we’re so emotionally attached to possessions and why it’s so hard to get rid of them, even if we never use them. And that’s why the auction setting can be uncomfortable at times. “It’s always a little high stress when the consigner is sitting there, staring at you,” says Wright, who, after years in the business, has seen it all. “I always tell people it’s really hard to watch the auction process if you’ve lived with the estates,” he says. “It’s so cold. It goes fast, there’s no explanation,” he adds. “It’s just, next, next, next… and then it’s over, gone. It’s too emotional.”
Auction houses might still be a vital and integral part of the market but the paradigm of buying and collecting has shifted as the market itself has changed. Everything is more digital: collectors are an email away, lots can be sourced from anywhere in the world and auctions are live-streamed over the internet. But according to Wright, this, too, comes with its own set of challenges. “The pace of change has sped up over the years,” he says, stressing the fact that in the digital marketplace everything moves so quickly. Technology might allow us to reach a much broader audience, but this also means increased competition and, in some cases, really crazy inflated prices. “The vast amount of online options has lowered the quality,” he says, adding, that in the art world one can simply look at the auction records. “Price databases aggregate detailed information on past and upcoming auction results that help understand and anticipate prices,” he says. “Design is a little more of a gut feel.”
Wright has always been fascinated by the dynamics of auction. “These are thinly-traded assets,” he says. “So much of what I sell is pretty much perceived value. I used to say that I love design pieces that barely work because to me this was some sort of experiment. I see the idea and I love communicating to the world the potential of that piece,” he says with a smile. ”Anyone can sell a gold bracelet. You measure it, you set the grams, it’s easy. And there’s a huge market. But I like a challenge.”
This past February, Wright rose up to another challenge, presenting “Design in Motion: The Berkel Slicer Machine,” the first auction ever dedicated to vintage flywheel slicing machines, kitchen scales and ephemera. “I found this really awesome, vintage collection of meat slicers and I thought ‘I really want to auction this,’” he says, adding, “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Meat slicers worked!” But that’s not always the case. “I once did an auction with just one lot,” he says. “There was this crazy collection of photographs of these men, in the 1950s that were supposedly straight, and they went to this summer retreat and they dressed as women and they photographed each other.” He’s talking about the Casa Susanna archive, an extravagant collection of 340 images found by collectors Robert Swope and Michel Hurst at a Manhattan flea market in 2004. “It was amazing,” says Wright, “They published a book, and it got licensed for a Broadway play [the Tony-nominated “Casa Valentina”], but it was anonymous and way too expensive,” he adds. “We did an installation in New York, we designed a beautiful catalogue—it was a super-chic project and no one bought it. It just didn’t happen.”
“It’s a really small, tiny world. And your reputation matters,” Wright reflects on the auctioneering business. In an industry of personal relationships, tension, excitement and graceful yet uncompromising battles where multimillion-dollar art and design works are secured by an anonymous phone bid or the subtle wave of a paddle, Wright discovered something important about himself: “I like the grey area of life—the middle ground,” he says. “At this level of auction you try to use silence, you have to vary your pace, and then you try to add some drama. After a long time you learn if somebody’s going to stop bidding or if they might bid one more time. Most people are really easy to read,” he adds. “And I always tell them to set a limit. Then you can go over your limit but you have a reference point. For an auctioneer, the art of it is trying to find this price level that is fair to both sides. The buyers want you to present work at a fair price and the sellers want you to get them the highest price possible. So you have to navigate these two, because those two are opposed.”
Wright talks about the rare case of “buyer’s remorse,” when a client might be unhappy with a sale or realize they might have overpaid. “We’ve all been there,” he says. “We know it from buying fashion: You go in and you make a choice but the next day you put it on and you’re like ‘what the hell was I thinking?’ The same thing can happen when you buy a work of art. One can easily get caught up in the romance of the auction.”
Having experienced both sides of the auction process over the years, Wright admits, “I get weirdly nervous when I’m going to bid. My heartbeat really goes up. And I’m competitive! I like to win,” he says. “But you have to be graceful when you lose. That’s what I teach my boys. That’s the bigger strength.” In 2013, Wright married Valerie Carberry. “My wife is an art dealer,” he says, “I find it really important to be with someone, not in the industry per se, but who would understand. It’s great to be able to share. This stuff is important to me.” Together they have started an art collection—”It’s a passion. You get obsessed with it”—and they travel the world to recharge and find inspiration, and have a rule to shop together. “I don’t know how many couples share it but it’s really fun,” he says blaming his design training for putting a creative twist on classic men’s style. “I’m trying to balance contemporary sensibilities with vintage,” he says, encapsulating his unique sense of art direction that extends across all aspects of his life—from fashion choices, to auction catalogue design, to his artfully-curated live sales.
Wright’s latest project is, unsurprisingly, another challenge. “We’re doing the entire interior of a restaurant,” he declares. Chef René Redzepi’s groundbreaking noma, in Copenhagen, named the world’s best restaurant four times before Redzepi closed it earlier this year, is auctioning off its interior furnishings, décor and tableware. The 500-lot auction will include everything from hand-carved wooden cutlery and ceramic dishes to knife sets, wall maps, taxidermy waxwings and site-specific sculptural installations. Even the custom twenty-foot-long table from the restaurant’s private dining room and their wine list is fair game. “It’s a super-risky one. It could flop, I’m telling you right now,” says Wright.
But his eyes sparkle. Once again, Wright is up for the challenge. He has made it close to the top of his trade but his need to continue evolving and pushing creative boundaries in the ever-shifting design world never diminishes. “Can you imagine, I used to set up at flea markets? That’s how I started out, as a picker, as we say in the business—someone who goes around hunting for things. I’m actually really grateful that I’ve experienced the whole spectrum,” he says, adding, “that’s what I’m most proud of.”
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