Q&A with Russell Brightwell

From architect-designed tableware to nearly impossible-to-find fashion and design collaborations, Russell Brightwell’s pieces are a reflection of his lifetime of collecting and ever-evolving taste and interests. Shop his collection now on Sotheby’s Home.

Can you remember the piece or pieces that first set you on the path to collecting, and why they spoke to you?
I went to Parsons School of Design in NYC. Swid Powell* had a warehouse and offices across the street from school, and they would have sample sales. I could afford little but bought a few Tsao & McKown cups and bowls and a Robert AM Stern Candlestick. Over 30 years later, I still collect and sell quite a bit of Swid Powell silver.

*Swid Powell was started in the ’80s by Nan Swid and Addie Powell. They commissioned architect-designed tableware. It was like an American Alessi, but more elegant.

What advice would you give someone just dipping her toes into starting a collection?
Though “collect what you like” is true, I don’t think it’s quite enough. I think the pieces should have the potential to have lasting value. I hate the idea that one would spend thousands on an item that is merely decorative, something that will end up in a charity shop marked down 90%. They should be attributed to a designer or artist. The maker might be special (Tiffany & Co.) or culturally significant (Target). I collect items that had limited production or are just no longer being made. It’s not always about the original price of the item collected. I love the four vases Hella Jongerius did for IKEA in 2005. They are perfectly representative of Jongerius’s oeuvre and already in museum design collections worldwide.

What pieces in the Sotheby’s Home collection are you most excited for people to discover?
The vessels Ettore Sottsass did for Marutomi (Senape and Mirto vases and the Big Basilico Compote/Bowl) in the late ’90s and early ’00s are fantastic. They were initially made of resin and wood composite (later ABS plastic) to channel the warmth and durability of traditional Japanese Urushi or lacquer ware. They are the perfect mashup of traditional Japanese techniques, modern materials, and Sottsass’s playful approach to shape and color. And as far as Sottsass goes, they are affordable. They are becoming increasingly difficult to find.

Frank Gehry’s 2005 Rock Vase for Tiffany & Co. is my jam – a starchitect-designed tabletop object made by an iconic American luxury brand. And because Gehry’s relationship with Tiffany & Co. lasted a short three years and there were only a handful of tabletop items (along with 100s of jewelry designs), these pieces have rightly reached cult status.

Any stories you can share about pieces that were particularly difficult to find or track down?
To mark the opening of their new David Chipperfield-designed Fifth Avenue flagship in 2014, Valentino collaborated with Fornasetti on a limited-edition collection of objects featuring Valentino’s then-new camouflage pattern and iconic red with Fornasetti’s classic forms and black and white drawings. The collection debuted as an installation at The Whitney Museum (still in the Breuer-designed building on Madison) accompanying Valentino’s Sala Blanca 945 haute-couture show. I purchased a round enameled tray from the store, and sold it in 2017 to a collector of Fornasetti. I’ve never seen another piece for sale. Last month I found not one, but two of the lacquered wooden trays. Only 100 of each were made and, as far as I know, only sold at the New York store, so a pretty great find.

Do you tend to know immediately when you see something that it belongs in your shop/collection, or is it more a process of discovery?
I usually know pretty quickly. I look for design cred, cultural significance (emblematic of a point in time), expressions of designers’ bodies of work, interesting collaborations, scarcity, and of course, beauty.

I am always looking, reading, and collaborating with associates who know more – or at least different things – than I do. I love learning and expanding my collection/offering.

What are the pieces in your shop/collection that you can’t imagine living without, and why?
There are very few things in my loft | showroom that are not for sale – a handful of gifts and family pieces, including my grandmother’s live-edge tables, a 1st century AD Roman bronze amulet that was a gift, and a work on paper the artist Leslie Wayne painted for me on my 30th birthday.

I am sometimes disappointed when I don’t get to live very long with some great new find, but selling things allows me to find and buy new things.

Is there a piece that seemed very far-out when you got it that now seems like its time has come?
I just styled (and sold) a yellow version of the ABS plastic Deda Vase (designed in 1972 by Giotto Stoppino for Heller) for a client with a traditional home filled with contemporary art and elegant modern furniture. The vase added color, form, and a dash of humor to an entry console, over which hung a gorgeous Richmond Burton painting. I love this particular client because she appreciates The Mix – decades, materials, styles, prices – that gives interiors real depth and richness.

What’s on your radar these days as far as the pieces you’re most drawn to acquire?
I’m always looking for Swid Powell silver – there are dozens of designs/pieces I haven’t bought/sold yet. And I love silver in an interior for the shine/pop.

I’d like to find more of the pieces Marcel Wanders designed for Target during Christmas in 2009. I’ve bought and sold three of the large white “turned” vases. Like the Jongerius vases for IKEA, they are fabulous and oddly hard to find.

I love Philippe Starck’s Royalton Hotel era objects like the Petite Étangeté Contre Un Mur Vase for Daum I have listed, and the less expensive Alessi objects that are out of production. (I learned in a lecture by the director of the Glass House this past year that Philip Johnson and his partner David Whitney collected Starck and even curated a show at MoMA PS1 in 1999. Seemingly incongruous, but emblematic of their interest in the changing design world. They evolved.)

We’re about to move into the holiday season – what gets your home in the holiday spirit?
I keep it pretty simple by adding paperwhites and Byredo holiday candles to my always fairly festive loft | showroom. And I go to New York for Christmas to get my holiday on.

Are there any favorite pieces that only get pulled out during the holidays?
It’s Christmas all year round here – see above.

From your consignment, can you choose five things that are perfect gifts and give a short note on why?

Tapio Wirkkala Pollo Bud Vase


Wirkkala was the Michael Graves of Finland (my assertion), creating thousands of designs, from glassware to banknotes. The 1970 “Pollo” vase, with its silk matte finish, studded neck, and rounded bottom is an iconic design of great elegance and wit.

Ettore Sottsass Senape Vase

This Japanese-made painted resin vase is a wonderful example of Ettore Sottsass’s playful approach to architecture and design (he’s a founder of The Milanese Memphis Group of the 1980s) at a more manageable price point than most of his tabletop objects. It’s a great way to own or even start collecting his work.

Fornasetti for Valentino Tray

This lacquered wood tray has all the hallmarks of collectability. It’s a collaboration between two titans of Italian design, was produced in very limited numbers and references a very particular time and place.

McGinness Skateboard Deck

Some of the world’s most famous artists have created work for or lent existing work to appear on skateboard decks – Cindy Sherman, Nan Golden, Yayoi Kusama, and Damien Hirst to name a few. This hand-signed and numbered deck by Ryan McGinness is a great example of his work, with its visual language of public signage, corporate logos, and contemporary iconography. Purchased directly from the store at MoMA, it’s also a doorway to collecting editions.

Swid Powell Meier 10” Bowl

In the 1980s, Nan Swid and Addie Powell commissioned starchitects to design tableware – they were a more elegant American Alessi. Richard Meier (of LA’s Getty Center and Miami’s Shore Club fame) likely produced more designs for Swid Powell than any other architect, certainly the most iconic pieces. These include The Meier Fruit Bowl, here the 10” size. In gallery collections from The Met to Yale, this icon of 20th century design is a ready-made heirloom.

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