Gallery Fumi pushes its designers to expand their horizons
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In the office at Mayfair’s Gallery Fumi, owners Sam Pratt and Valerio Capo invite me to take a seat; this chair is, in fact, a fitting introduction to the dealers’ design ethos. One of British designer Max Lamb’s Scrap Poly chairs, it is constructed from irregular slabs of expanded polystyrene, then slathered in a glossy, cream-coloured coating of polyurethane rubber.
It is weird and wonderful, and the office holds plenty of other indicators of Fumi’s unconventional take on collectable design: a playful neon squiggle of a lamp is a collaboration by London-based creatives Saelia Aparicio and Jochen Holz; a black and white vase by Anglo-Dutch duo Glithero is covered with a blue-tinged seaweed print. The table is another of Lamb’s Poly pieces, its super-shiny white surface a striking counterpoint to the rugged, somewhat neolithic-like structure.
Lamb has been part of the Fumi line-up since the gallery was launched in 2008. “We called up Max when he had just graduated and told him we loved his work; he was the first person that we showed,” says Sierra Leone-born Pratt, whose middle name, Oloronfumi, was shortened for the new venture. “At the time, Valerio was a marketing consultant,” says Pratt of Italian-born Capo. (The men are life and business partners.) “And I was a trader in the City. But we both hated our jobs and really wanted a change.”
Diving into the design world with no previous experience, they set up their first space in Shoreditch. “We wanted to bring something new to the market, to show designers that were undiscovered,” says Pratt, adding that they swiftly established a set of selection guidelines that they still adhere to: “We only show work that we would have at home. We always have to both agree on a designer. And we never work with anybody that we don’t like as people.”
“Even when we’ve been offered the possibility of representing a well-known name that could help the gallery,” says Capo, “we’ve had to politely decline if we really don’t feel it.” This approach has not always been an immediate recipe for success. “Sometimes it takes a very long time for people to get the work,” says Pratt, citing Lamb’s lacquered Urushi pieces, created with master Japanese artisans in the city of Wajima. “When we first showed this work, nobody looked at it for two years. We didn’t sell a single thing. But now it’s in museums.”
One change they’ve made along the way is the gallery’s location. “We quickly found out that our clients don’t necessarily live in Shoreditch, which is why we ended up here in Mayfair,” says Pratt of the two-floor Hay Hill space they moved into in 2017, which they extended to a double frontage in 2021. Their current exhibition (on until 22 October) is Haptic Nature by design duo Voukenas Petrides — the creative partnership of Greek designer Andreas Voukenas and American architect Steven Petrides, whose organically shaped and statuesque furniture pieces begin as plaster forms. While some stay in this state — such as the towering, curving “Gypsum Light Sculpture 6” — others are cast in bronze. From throne-like chairs to huge hanging lights, each piece is handmade in their Athens studio as a limited edition.
Fumi’s previous solo show was very different, dedicated to the work of multidisciplinary artist Saelia Aparicio. It included the oddly anthropomorphic neon lights with Holz, as well as a cartoonish, figurative fireplace. Most intriguing, though, are her rectangular birch plywood forms cut and ink-illustrated to resemble folded-over bodies. “She focuses on the ‘not beautiful’,” says Pratt of her distinct aesthetic. “She enhances what other people could consider is ugly,” adds Capo, highlighting the Matilda mirror, framed with a fringed hairstyle and big sticking-out ears. “It’s a message against bullying. Kids in school usually get bullied about big ears, but Saelia has gilded them to make them more noticeable, to make them special.”
Voukenas Petrides’ and Aparicio’s contrasting styles will be brought together by Fumi at PAD London. “We have such varied taste, and we try to reflect that in the gallery,” says Pratt, adding that a common theme in their selection is “the handmade and craft”. Also in the PAD mix is British sculptor Rowan Mersh, whose intricate wall artworks painstakingly piece together a multitude of individual elements — from shells to coffee stirrers. At PAD London in 2016, Mersh’s hanging piece “Asabikeshiinh” (Dreamcatcher), constructed from thousands of sliced pink sea-snail shells, was awarded the Moët Hennessy Prize for Best Contemporary Design, and this year’s PAD creation is an amalgamation of tiny leather coils.
“I love Fumi’s visionary aspect, they are always pushing boundaries to find something new but meaningful,” says Finnish textile artist Kustaa Saksi, whose PAD project with Fumi is a series of cabinets combining oak with woven fabric made of Japanese paper developed at TextielMuseum in the Netherlands. Called “Hiisi”, the design is based around a fantastical creature in Finnish mythology.
“As a gallery, we always try to push our designers totally outside their comfort zone,” says Pratt of how they prompted Saksi to move into furniture. Mostly recently, the Fumi duo has been encouraging young Chinese-born, London-based designer Jie Wu to grow from miniature boxes to large furniture. “The side table I’ve made for PAD,” says Wu, “was inspired by ancient Chinese palace lanterns, which were found in the imperial garden and were symbols of light and peace.”
All her works are produced in resin, embedded with wooden elements salvaged from her father’s antiques business in China. It’s an unlikely combination of materials. But as with the Fumi selection as a whole — or indeed the founders themselves, who describe themselves as “like yin and yang” — it’s the cohesive vision of contrasting elements that is so enticing.