24 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Guillaume Cuiry: the art furniture collector

Guillaume Cuiry runs La Galerie Nationale in Dubai – dedicated to amazing furniture designed by the greatest craftsmen of the 20th century. Here, he tells us about hunting down lost treasures, and why you should spend over a million dirhams on a table…

Mike Peake
19 Sep 2016 | 11:22 am
  • Guillaume Cuiry

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  • When Guilamme started out, people laughed at him. Now, furniture from the 20th century is immensely popular and sells for many millions.

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What is art furniture?

We also call it design furniture, and it is a passion of mine since I was a kid. My focus is on rare and amazing pieces exclusively from the 20th century.

How did you get interested in it?

It was all by accident in the mid-1970s when my parents introduced some new furniture by the Italian designer Joe Colombo into my bedroom. It was very strange for me because it was the first time I’d seen anything like it as most of the things in our apartment in Paris were from the 18th and early 19th centuries, and suddenly there was this contemporary design. There was a bed, a chair, a desk and I remember when my friends saw it they were like, ‘Wow!’. I discovered, subconsciously I think, the power of design.

Slowly and surely I started to find out more and more about modern furniture. I’d go to the library to look at ‘the nice books’, as we’d call them, and I got interested. Then, a few years later, my very best friend, Jacques, told me he was going to open an art furniture space. I was amazed – our focus at that time was on cars, music and parties. But he did it, in the flea market in Paris, and as he was my best friend I’d be there every weekend.

How did things progress?

We started to learn about furniture. While I went to university to study business, he went to art university and then in 1982 we went into business together. It was very strange back then because no one at the time was interested in 20th-century furniture – no one wanted a chair or a light from someone like Le Corbusier. To show you how things have changed, I remember that the maximum you would pay back then for a sofa by Jean Royère was 1,000 French francs. Now it would be $1m (about Dh3.6 million). Today it’s very fashionable to have an original and genuine piece of 20th-century design furniture, but back then people were laughing at us. My friend was a real visionary.

What brought you to the UAE?

We moved from the flea market to the antiques quarter in Paris, and then to Rue de Seine where he is still based, and I am here in Dubai where we opened in 2011. It’s a great story because probably only a few people in the world would have believed that furniture from that period would become so popular.

What is a typical day for you?

First thing is checking in online to see what pieces friends are suggesting to me. The biggest challenge of this job is to find pieces that people will want to buy. There’s always a journey before it ends up in the gallery: where is it? What condition is it in? Is it for sale? And if it’s for sale, is it a good price? Finding pieces is such a big part of the job. When these pieces were sold there were no computers, so there are no computer records, meaning we have no idea where they ended up. We have a full-time employee who spends all his time investigating where pieces are.

Of all the pieces you ever bought, which was the most difficult to acquire?

Oh, there are so many that took years to track down. In the gallery in Dubai right now I have a set of four armchairs and a low table made by Warren Platner in 1966. This set started with two armchairs, but I knew from old books that it was designed as a set of four, with a low table, and after two or three years I found the third chair in Belgium. A few years later I found the fourth in Italy but it was impossible to find the table. I eventually got a lead about a man in Baltimore, in the US, who had worked with Platner. I contacted him, explained who I was and then I said I was looking for this table from the 1960s. The man told me he had two of them, but they weren’t for sale. However, he said I could still go to Baltimore if I wanted to see him.

Did you go?

Yes, I took the plane, I met the guy, I thanked him for seeing me, he asked me questions about myself, wanted to know what I knew about Warren Platner and eventually he said, ‘OK, I know you now, I like you and I will contact you sometime.’

He still wouldn’t sell me the table, so I’d gone all that way just to meet the guy.

Anyway, two years later he called me and said I could come back. I explained it was a long way to go back to Baltimore and he then told me I should definitely go back because he’d done some research on me and had decided to give me one of the tables.

For free?

Yes. There’s a lot of passion and emotion in collecting art furniture, and he could see how much I admired the table and the work of his former boss. So it took maybe 10 years to put the set together – and it is now here in the gallery. We can spend years investigating things. Fifteen years was the longest.

Fifteen years!

Yes, it started in Buenos Aires and finished in Chile. We found the piece, on a farm, being used as a wall in a chicken coop.

Do most things need renovating?

There’s a 90 per cent chance it’ll have to be renovated, to make it like new. When you see these pieces you’d never imagine they were 70 or 80 years old. We’re now trying to make a full apartment from the 1940s and 1950s, which will be our next exhibition.

What helps make a piece of design furniture valuable?

It is a combination of many things such as who made it, and also the story or inspiration behind the piece. Then there’s its history or the provenance as a guarantee of uniqueness and authenticity. Technique at times is part of the value, as well as quality of the work, creativity, and the timelessness of the design.

Finally, is there any difference when it comes to eating your dinner off a $500 table and a $50,000 one?

Definitely yes. I can confirm your scrambled eggs will have a special flavour and flair if served on a rare genuine table with a unique design, a special story and a huge soul.

Mike Peake

Mike Peake