While many entrepreneurs stalled or failed in the recession, Craig Appelbaum defied convention.
He launched his first business — a design gallery — from a most unlikely corner: Trinidad, the hardscrabble neighborhood in Northeast Washington.
Within a year, he managed to shake up the elite world of contemporary design and turn the luxury-furniture market business model on its head.
Appelbaum’s gallery wasn’t the only business to enter the local luxury-furniture market during the downturn. When Room and Board opened on 14th Street NW a year ago, the multifloor store was greeted by many residents as a triumph for design in Washington, which has seen numerous smaller luxury-furniture outlets spring up along the city’s hippest commercial corridor.
But while Room and Board and other outlets hope to capitalize on a preexisting market for modern furniture in Washington, Industry seeks to introduce an elite category of contemporary design to the U.S. and global marketplaces.
“There’s a huge gallery presence out there for mid-century modern. French mid-century, there’s no shortage,” says Appelbaum, owner of Industry Gallery on Northeast Florida Avenue. “But there’s nobody focusing on 21st-century design. I didn’t see it anywhere. I saw a void for emerging, museum-quality design.”
With Industry, Appelbaum is one of a handful of dealers in the world focused specifically on furniture design of the past decade. For many of the designers he represents, Industry is their only U.S. outlet. In a short time, Appelbaum has positioned himself as an exclusive retailer to museums and collectors looking to boost their collections of new design.
The work is often new to the designers themselves. The nine tables, benches and shelves in Jens Praet’s January show at Industry were experiments made from condensed, shredded documents, including magazines such as Fast Company and Art in America. In November, Jerry Mischak exhibited a 36-foot-long table, complete with dining utensils and 12 chairs, all prototypes made using found objects and thousands of yards of colored vinyl tape.
In late April, the Milwaukee Art Museum acquired Danish designer Mathias Bengtsson’s “Slice” chair — a functional chair composed of topographically layered slices of aluminum — through Industry. Milwaukee got the 15th iteration of the chair, which comes in a limited edition of 20. Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum and a private collector based in Washington bought editions 15 and 16, respectively, also through Industry. The sales prices are confidential, Appelbaum says.
Only one other outlet in the world offers Bengtsson’s “Slice” chair: Paris’s Galerie Maria Wettergren, which is devoted solely to Scandinavian design.
“I would call Industry one of the very few galleries worldwide to deal with contemporary design,” says Henry Urbach, former San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curator of architecture and design. Urbach served as curator at SFMOMA when the institution gave Industry its first museum acquisition, announced in November: a prototype chair made from poured concrete by Atelier Remy & Veenhuizen, the subject of Industry’s second show.
“Other design dealers often mix contemporary design with the works of designers from the last century or earlier — which often command high prices and demand higher market value,” Urbach says. “I think what Industry is doing is quite gutsy.”
Urbach, who ran an eponymous gallery in New York focused on the intersection of art and architecture from 1997 to 2005, says that he knows from experience how challenging it is to run a gallery targeting a niche market.
“It’s certainly not a career path to fortune,” he says. “It involves a lot of uncertainty, a lot of variables. There are fewer rules and fewer protocols to follow.”
As with any small business, he says, the rewards stem from risk.
Appelbaum says it was a matter of catching the market at the right time — even given the recession. Museums have begun to look at the category of applied arts that came to be known as “design art,” auterdesign (“authored design”) or vrije vormgeving (“free design”) early in the millennium as an important extension to traditional decorative arts collections.
A tax lawyer, Appelbaum works by day as a business development director at Special Counsel, a legal staffing agency in Washington. His background in business and law helped him launch the gallery.
In 2003, Appelbaum and a group of partners considered opening a wine bar in the District, “before they appeared on every street corner.” The costs of entry at that time were prohibitively expensive, he says. But he didn’t blink about opening Industry on his own during the recession.