It’s been more than a decade since Volume Gallery arrived on the collectible design scene, and in that time, the small Chicago-based platform has consistently punched above its weight. Chalk it up to pluck and sheer good taste: Volume has cultivated a roster of smart, experimental, critique-oriented talents that distinguishes it from the rest of the pack. Sam Stewart, Thaddeus Wolf, and Anders Herwald Ruhwald were all given a big push by the gallery. And it’s not just designers. Unique for collectible design, Volume invests in architects foraying into the realm of object making, working closely with practices including Norman Kelly and Young & Ayata.
This mandate harks back to the discipline’s origins—in addition to buildings, architects once masterminded furniture and interiors—and aligns well with Chicago’s own design tradition. Volume’s reach isn’t limited to the Windy City, however, and the gallery routinely engages emerging practitioners from all over the United States. In many respects, it is more akin, according to cofounder Claire Warner, to an “incubator” for formal risk-taking, as can be seen in its most recent spate of exhibitions. Warner and cofounder Sam Vinz commissioned new collections from Christy Matson, Ania Jaworska, and most recently Jonathan Muecke, encouraging each to hone his or her ideas in order to spark critical discourse. AN Interior market editor Adrian Madlener spoke to Warner about the gallery’s mission and why making a functional chair is beside the point.
AN Interior: What’s the story behind Volume Gallery. How and why did you and Sam Vinz decide to launch the platform?
Claire Warner: Sam and I met while working at Wright auction house [in Chicago]. I was a 20th-century design specialist, and Sam was developing a contemporary design program. With the 2008 financial crisis, everything got derailed and we were both let go from Wright. I started thinking about opening my own gallery based on the question, where American design is going. In the 20th century, there was a huge residential design market with innovation coming from Charles and Ray Eames. Manufacturers were doing a lot of experimental and interesting things. That had all since evaporated. I was also seeing historic American talents Claire Falkenstein and Ruth Asawa selling at auction for much less than their European counterparts or what their works were truly worth.
My idea was to focus on the country’s overlooked design heritage and craft tradition, which at the time was still quite a dirty word. I was talking to designer Jonathan Nesci about my idea. He mentioned that Sam was looking to do the same thing. Based on this coincidence, we decided to join forces and establish Volume Gallery. The moment was not unlike the present one in that we set out to launch a new platform in the middle of a crisis. We thought that if we started a business and it failed, we could blame it on the economic downturn. It gave us the freedom to develop what we really wanted to do. That was the general mood at the time. Nesci was one of our first exhibitors.
AN: Why was it important to set up shop in Chicago?
CW: When we opened there were a few galleries in Chicago that paired some contemporary and 20th-century design but none that focused exclusively on the former. There wasn’t really a viable platform for young, experimental talents, especially in the Midwest, where a lot of them are based. Being in Chicago puts us in close contact with them, but we also are keen to look everywhere. I think a large part of the art market has been kind of pulling from the same sources and really kind of being prohibitive of who gets to participate. One thing I like about design is that it feels open; it doesn’t follow the same rules.
AN: The gallery has an informal connection to the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Talk about how the institution’s culture of interdisciplinary experimentation corresponds with your own vision.
CW: Cranbrook is a huge resource for us. It’s almost like going back to the source. The school has a strong connection to 20th-century design, Harry Bertoia, and the Saarinens. One of the first things we did is go to their graduation show and discovered people like Ania Jaworska, Jonathan Muecke, and Nesci, whose innovative use of material immediately struck us as something new and exciting. The institution is all about studio practice and cross-pollination, which is a philosophy we share at Volume Gallery. Students in the 3D department creating design are encouraged to take classes in clay and metalworking. You experience critique from your peers. There’s an inherent understanding of craft and breaking out of your comfort zone, which is what we like our designers to do. That kind of unique conceptual ideation informs a lot of practitioners that end up looking beyond just creating a functional chair.
From the outset, it was crucial that the talents we worked with were able to challenge typologies, because so many did not yet have a portfolio. Being more improvisational or open to trying new things out affords them the chance to establish their approach and point of view. This is especially true with young architects, who rarely have built projects under the belt yet. At that early stage, they’re still talking about ideas. At Volume Gallery, we like to think of ourselves as a kind of incubator, helping these creatives develop and formalize those concepts. We don’t go to their studios and say we want this or that finished piece. Instead, we say, “Is there something that you want to do that you feel that you can’t push right now?” Then we’ll look at what that proposal is and we go about seeing how we can partner to make that a reality.
AN: How did you cultivate your architect program? What do these practitioners bring to collectible design that others might not?
CW: If you look way back, furniture was always more expensive than art. The market has since shifted, but a lot of historic architects saw [furniture’s] value in accentuating a space or helping to create a cohesive environment. If you think of Frank Lloyd Wright, he kind of shifted from that too, creating furniture that could almost go anywhere. But in the present day, architects, unfortunately, have to execute the vision according to strict client demands. They don’t necessarily have a lot of opportunity—unless they have a patron—to take the risk and develop their own holistic projects.
We see our partnership with architects as twofold. On the one hand, we provide them with a platform to create works in a neutral environment [so that] their particular style or interests becomes apparent to potential patrons who want to invest in these living talents. This is the core of our mission. On the other hand, working at the scale of the gallery allows them to fail from time to time, which is central to any experimental practice. Obviously, when you have built architecture, you do not have a lot of flexibility to take risks. We push our people to such a point that their projects sometimes fail and don’t make it to the gallery. It can be nerve-racking, but there is also beauty in it. We push things so far sometimes that we can’t help but learn lessons. We keep our designers close and foster their careers, developing multiple solo shows over time. It’s a labor of love with very fruitful outcomes.
On the other hand, working at the scale of the gallery allows them to fail from time to time, which is central to any experimental practice. Obviously, when you have built architecture, you do not have a lot of flexibility to take risks. We push our people to such a point that their projects sometimes fail and don’t make it to the gallery. It can be nerve-racking, but there is also beauty in it. We push things so far sometimes that we can’t help but learn lessons. We keep our designers close and foster their careers, developing multiple solo shows over time. It’s a labor of love with very fruitful outcomes.
Header image: With Sam Vinz, Claire Warner (pictured) founded Volume Gallery in Chicago amid the uncertainty of the 2008 financial crisis. The gallery has since grown into an important node of contemporary American design. (Courtesy Volume Gallery)