If you’ve recently undergone the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and found it all to be a bit less than, well, life-changing, Brooklyn-based modernist dealer Rayon Roskar has a new, intriguing challenge for you: put everything you own—yes, even the joy-sparkers—up for sale. It may sound extreme, but that’s how Roskar and his wife, Ellie, live in their Brooklyn, New York brownstone—amid personal belongings wearing invisible price tags. To put it in context, Roskar’s home also serves as his gallery. When the couple moved from Geneva, Switzerland to Brooklyn in 2013 they merged their gallery and home into one, effectively turning their personal quarters into a living gallery. To discover the perks of living among for-sale possessions, we sat down with Roskar recently to chat attachment-free living, the Swiss lighting products that he (almost) can’t part with, and the biggest difference between American and Swiss collectors.
You have a definite eye for beautiful, everyday objects. When do you first remember becoming interested in design?
In 1994 I discovered the high-end architectural salvage gallery, Urban Archaeology by chance, then located on Lafayette Street in New York City. Fascinated by what I saw, I walked in and expressed my interest in working there. Although I had no formal experience in the industry, I felt this would be an interesting place to work. I started work the following Monday.
My work at Urban Archaeology centered on restoration and conservation of early 20th century architectural lighting. My specialty soon extended to metal patination. Today, I recognize that my foundation in restoration has been instrumental in my understanding of design quality and construction.
During those days, Lafayette Street and its surrounding areas were a mecca for high-end design and architectural salvage shops. For an enthusiastic novice, the inspiration and learning was endless, although it was not until my move to Switzerland that modernism, and in particular Swiss modernism, defined the direction of my young business and lifestyle.
You specialize in Swiss 20th Century design. What makes Swiss design from this era so special?
It all started at a dealer’s warehouse in the medieval city of Fribourg, where I first discovered a nickeled floor lamp designed by the art historian Sigfried Giedion and the Dutch designer Hin Bredendieck. This was also my first encounter with the manufacturer BAG TURGI, the most revered of the Swiss lighting manufacturers. Switzerland is home to great talents such as Le Corbusier, Rudolf Steiner, Max Bill and so many others. The Swiss culture has long held a reputation for precision and quality in the arts, design and especially architecture especially during the 20th century. For me, Swiss design represents a perfect marriage between purity of form and precise execution.
You originally opened your shop in Switzerland, then moved operations to Brooklyn in 2013. Are there any differences in design tastes or design approach between the Swiss and New Yorkers?
The most obvious difference lies in clientele. In Switzerland we had more contacts with private clients, but in the U.S. most clients seem to hire designers and architects. I think this difference comes from the difference in the scale of market. The New York market is flooded with more merchandise, and everyone’s life is so busy that most clients need a narrowed-down, vetted and put-together presentation. The Swiss market is relatively small. When I moved to Geneva in 1997, there were only three design galleries at the time: Ars Nova, Galerie Latham, and Francois Horngacher’s gallery of French and Swedish design.
Our New York clients tend to be more daring and more open to diversity. In Switzerland, the approach can be more structured and academic, especially in the Germanic Northern part of Switzerland. In New York, and in the U.S. in general, we have found our Swiss lighting receives the positive response more than anything else. Possibly because it is packed with Swiss design quality, but also people here are very curious and adventurous to try something new.
You call your gallery “The Living Gallery” and run it out of your two-story Brooklyn Brownstone. How did the concept for “The Living Gallery” come about?
The name “The Living Gallery” came about during an interview with NYC Metro newspaper about a year after moving to Brooklyn. Combining personal space and work congruently was a natural progression from our time in Geneva. It was a practical solution on many fronts. Without doubt there are three defining elements to the living gallery: practicality, accessibility and economics. We also enjoy receiving new and long standing clients into the living gallery where work and daily life interplay.
What’s been one of the highlights or benefits of running a gallery out of your home?
The benefits of living close to our items are immense, especially in such a busy city like New York. My commute is literally one floor down with coffee in tow. If a client asks for detail shots at 10 PM I can easily take new photos and send them right away. For Instagram, I can post snapshots of our gallery where objects are already in situ instantly! But most importantly, the proximity means we have intimate knowledge of each object which we can pass onto our clients, especially when it comes to lighting. A beautifully lit home is a place of peace and tranquility at the end of the day, beauty makes us happy. Understanding which light source is best for a given space is absolutely crucial for this.
How has living with the objects you love shaped your approach to design over the years?
The Living Gallery has proven to be the perfect venue to investigate our constantly evolving interests. One example is garden elements. The brownstone came with a spacious backyard that we have developed into a proper vegetable and bee garden. Adopting gardening opened the door to a new component for our business in the form of garden elements and patio decorations. We now carry outdoor lighting, sculptures and many wonderful planters by Willy Guhl, Bruno Rey and others. Last May we participated in the New York Botanical Garden Art and Antiques Fair, which was a great success to showcase our new collection. We will happily return to the NYBG Fair this year in April. Our highlights this year will include a monumental limestone open hand sculpture from Swiss artist Thomas Blumer dated 1995.
You have a particular interest in Alfred Muller and his technical lighting systems. What makes Muller’s lighting so special?
I found my first Alfred Muller at a flea market in Nyon Switzerland perhaps some 18 years ago. In fact, what I found was a section of what I assumed was an accordion wall lamp. The entire shade area and back plate were missing, but I knew it was something special, judging by the fine machined parts and excellent patina. I kept the piece hung by my work bench and would look it over from time to time, often asking to myself “what are you?” Sometime later I found a fully intact lamp with AMBA, Alfred Muller Basel stamped to the backplate. I may have screamed, “that’s what it looks like!”
It is probable that I have handled the most Alfred Muller lamps in and out of Switzerland—I am not familiar with any comparable collection anywhere else. Handling so many Muller lamps, I have discovered the interchangeable intentions, particularly with the atelier lamps. Depending on the model, the workshop lamp can be wall or surface mounted. It’s also multi adjustable for maximum efficiency, a very Swiss solution.
Are there any special items that you consider part of your permanent collection and you can’t part with?
I have three attachments at the living gallery. The first item is a chair I bought from the late Elliot Buck on Prince street, NYC back in 1994. This was the year I started working at Urban Archeology, and I was wanting to have something beautiful of my own. The chair is peculiar. The construction is sound, although near-sighted with the handling of the armrest by the design technician. I sometimes feel it may have been a master class project by a talented student. The wood is of sublime Cuban Mahogany, with fantastic graining and color, and the carving is exceptionally good. A super comfortable chair which I continue to enjoy to this day.
My second favorite is a collection of BAG TURGI bronze bears. I purchased my first bear at the Zurich flea market years ago, and the collection has now increased to seven. Strangely enough, I did find one bear in frosted glass of identical size and form, though not signed BAG TURGI as the bronze ones are. I have squeezed the bears onto a thick mirrored square block from the 1930s. It is a conceptual arrangement reminding me of the melting Arctic glaciers.
My third attachment is my Mid-Century wooden toy collection.
Tell us a bit more about that collection of wooden Swiss children’s toys. How did your interest in those come about?
I would like to think my collection started with the birth of my son Killian or my daughter Skyler, I don’t recall which. When I started buying there was little interest in Swiss made wooden toys and so I was able to develop a good collection. Now there are more Swiss dealers recognizing the value in these charming objects. My collection has evolved over the years, with some of my favorite pieces now in private Swiss collections.
My favorite collection currently is from the Zurich based company Albisbrunn. Despite the difference in size, Albisbrunn toy company was similar to the toy company Franz Carl Weber in that both companies used vegetable dyes rather than commercial paint to color and decorate wooden toys with child safety being important to both companies. I have also noted that vegetable dyes take on the most beautiful patina I have ever seen on wood.
What’s been one of your most prized scores over the years?
Over the years, I have handled many fine Swiss pieces. One of my favorite finds is a stool from Meraggia. After learning the fascinating story behind its creator, the ultra eco-friendly German migrant Heinrich Brunner, I was further compelled to seek out more of his nature-loving artistry. My latest design crush is a beautifully carved ebony stem, chased steel table lamp by Walter Bernhard Haggenmacher. Fortunately, the lamp is signed otherwise we may never have discovered its pedigree. His works are very rare.
Tell us more about your experience with DECASO so far.
We joined DECASO when they offered the opportunity to participate in their Field and Supply collaboration last October in Kingston, NY. The DECASO team is very active and attentive to their participating dealers, or “partners” as they call them. Despite all technological advancements, it is people that drive the business. We are confident that the DECASO team excels in building human relationship with their clients and partners and that relationship is the best benefit for us. We personally have noticed there are more and more clients from the West Coast finding us through DECASO. It is a welcome addition to our client list for sure and a true testimony of what internet can do.
Follow Roskar @galleryrayonroskar
All photos by Rayon Roskar