Barneys New York’s creative director, Dennis Freedman, began collecting during his first full-time job as an assistant art director, and in the decades since, he has amassed a world-class assortment of early editions and prototypes of significant furniture and decorative objects from the 20th and 21st centuries. We spoke with him about how he does it, where he goes, what he looks for and why he’ll never stop.
Q: Your collection begins with Italian Radical Design of the 1960s, which is very specific. How and when did you first discover it?
A: While I was an art student at Penn State, I was reading Abitare and Domus in the library because I was interested in design and architecture. Those magazines introduced me to a whole world of design and furniture that was wildly different from anything else that existed. The furniture, then, wasn’t based on form as much as it was an exploration of new materials, of new ways of living.
Q: You obviously became very passionate yourself, almost to the point of obsession. How many pieces do you have now?
A: I don’t know. I need to start archiving things. When you collect like this, it isn’t so much seeing it as knowing what is there. A lot of the collection is in my mind. The real appeal and excitement for me is assembling a collection that forms as complete as possible a distillation or a representation of the last half of the 20th century to today.
And it’s not just getting a piece and having it. It’s learning about it, discovering relationships between different designers, different countries, different times. The great thing about this period was that it was a lot of virgin territory, so I was able to make those connections and find great pieces.
Q: Do you actually use any of them?
A: I do eat at the Flight Centre table, a James Butchart piece from 1972. The thing is, to use it, you’ve got to take off that big foot, a rare edition of the sculpture by Gaetano Pesce, which covers the top. I’m into utility to live, but as you can see, you don’t need that many couches. I do have one very comfortable couch and club chair that I had made in England.
Q: The pieces look radical even by today’s standards.
A: That’s the irony. They are still extremely radical, and in fact more radical than anything being created now. I have very mixed feelings about what we see these days—with computers anyone can make an organic piece of furniture with a bunch of curves. And it can be deceptive, but there is usually very little depth to a lot of those pieces. There are people who are exploring interesting ideas and making good, solid pieces, but most of the work from the 1960s and ’70s wasn’t functional. There’s a real gap between art collecting and collecting applied art, like furniture.
Q: Is there a way to summarize what you look for?
A: I look for—and I mean this—poetry. Period. Every piece has a subjective quality. It also has to be either a prototype or an early production, and I’m not interested in perfect condition. To me a piece from the ’70s had better look like it’s been used. I mean, I don’t want something falling apart, but I think its history, its age, its patina are all part of its integrity.
Q: Where do you find these treasures?
A: Before the Internet, I’d get all the auction catalogues from a few key houses, mostly in Europe, where I still buy most of my pieces today. I’ve bought things at Wright in Chicago and Phillips in New York and purchased two of my greatest pieces from Yves Gastou. I did, and still do, everything by phone.
I also look when I travel. I was in Paris a few weeks ago, and I walked down the Rue de Lille, which is an issue for me, because in one walk I saw a great piece at RCM Galerie and bought it. Then I saw two other pieces farther down that street and I bought them, too.
Q: Who are some of today’s artists/designers whose work you’ve bought?
A: Joris Laarman. I have his Bone chair in aluminum and Bone chaise longue in resin. I also own a Cinderella table by Jeroen Verhoeven. It was obviously designed on a computer, but it was made in slices of plywood, then assembled by hand, so the workmanship is exquisite. I saw a prototype of Patrick Jouin’s Solid C1 chair in Domus, went to meet him when I was in Paris and commissioned that piece before it was editioned.
Q: I can tell by the way your face lights up as you talk about specific pieces that this is never going to end for you.
A: Yeah, that’s a problem. I really had decided to stop, but if money weren’t an issue, I’d never stop. My choices are made very carefully. I often have to sacrifice, and sometimes I’ve paid over the course of a year. I do feel now that the collection has enough weight that it could stand on its own. I do hope, and there are some irons in the fire, of putting together a real show of all this work. Because the reality is, this does not exist—there’s nothing like this collection anywhere else.