1stdibs Introspective - Shop Talk - JF Chen
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Shop Talk at JF Chen

Joel Chen’s Blackberry chimes. “Excuse me,” he says politely, and picks up. “Hmm, that’s expensive,” he says after a contemplative moment, and, based on an encyclopedic knowledge of the antiques market, decides against the offering — this time. This is but one of several dozen phone and email conversations he has each day with his many dedicated friends and antiques scouts around the globe, in as far-flung locales as Budapest and Prague, who constantly help feed the vast vintage destination that is JF Chen.

From his gargantuan warehouse showroom on LA’s Highland Avenue (and from an additional 14,000-square-foot space in Culver City he moved into after vacating his previous post on omnipotent Melrose Avenue), Chen quietly hosts architects, designers, celebrities and design aficionados, and helps them find just what they are looking for. “I don’t know how to sell, but I sure know how to buy,” he says in his signature self-effacing tone. “I shy away from getting involved in people’s projects too much. They know what they are doing; they have their own aesthetics, so I like to let them find what they are looking for.” This seems an easy task, with 20,000 feet of upstairs space filled with an astonishing selection of mid-century modern pieces mixed with any number of Egyptian architectural fragments, Japanese screens, angular lamps and chandeliers, contemporary artwork, Regency daybeds, and a few good Buddhas. “19th-century Cambodian,” he notes as he points to one sitting peacefully in one corner, then offers, “There are a lot of bad Buddhas out there [laughs]. You want 18th or 19th century with a really nice face.”

Tucked into the space are a few rooms outfitted with serene vignettes that tell their own stories, such as Chen’s cherry-red “Commie Room,” covered with vintage Mao posters from the Society of Democrats in London. “You have to be careful because people Xerox these, and it’s hard to find an authentic one,” he says. “Therefore, provenance is also very important.” Within the large spaces are easily navigable groups of furniture placed together in artistic ways, with one-of-a-kind objects paired with whimsical, yet always very good, selections. A case in point: If you look hard enough, or if you just ask Chen, surrounding a couple of little wood low tables you will find a pristine quartet of T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings Klismos chairs that one must accidentally stroke as one walks by.

In his office, Chen has surrounded himself with his favorite finds: art and architecture books, a collection of skulls of varying materials, Danish modern gems such as Hans Wegner’s Ox chair (with original leather) and, in the corner, next to a random vintage Alpaca dog sculpture, one of the most rare Eames chairs in existence — a prototype high-back armchair designed by the Eameses and Eero Saarinen in 1940-1941 for the Museum of Modern Art Organic Design Competition. His eye for such rarities has landed him opportunities for about as much extracurricular activity as he can take on, including his post on the board of the California Museum of Design, and consulting with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for their 2011 California Design Show. This particular Eames treasure will stay put until he can reveal it in an exhibition of more than 350 rare, early Eames prototypes he is planning for his newly acquired 15,000-square-foot street-level gallery space downstairs.

Most recently, this gallery was transformed into a moody, Black Forest chamber starring rare pieces of Nymphenburg porcelain (in diverse modern forms from mice to Bambi to skulls, and jewelry by Patrik Muff) paired with vintage antler chairs, iron candelabra, tree branches, dry leaves, and artist Michele Oka Doner’s spooky Soulcatchers installation, accompanied by a most unusual and detailed fertility chair made by Aleister Crowley. “I plan on doing more shows and focusing more on contemporary artists,” Chen says. “When I do shows it is because I believe in the pieces — it is not necessarily profitable, but I like to do it anyway. When I believe in something I like to go forward and get it out there.”

Chen is helped in this ambitious endeavor by his wife, wife, Margaret, and daughters Bianca and Fiona, as well as several staff members, all of whom move about the showroom like a well-choreographed team, with the added warmth that a family dynamic brings. No one seems to have too set a role, with each sitting for a moment at the various computer workstations dotting the warehouse, then rising to greet customers after they are buzzed in at the understated, almost Speakeasy-like entrance, or rejiggering one of the thousands of furniture groupings, or rattling up and down the industrial stairs to show clients the exhibition. Dad courts the architects and designers — Steven Learner, Kelly Wearstler, Michael S. Smith and Rose Tarlow are regulars — and Bianca and Fiona help him remember which celebrity bought what, from Cameron Diaz (“an angel,” says Chen) to Jake Gyllenhaal and the Olsen twins (“a delight”). At present, the Chen women are sporting small Nymphenburg charms about their necks in support of the current show, all wearing a variation in their own particular style. At their feet are the two shop mascots, Cashew, a cute and jittery Chihuahua, and McLovin’, a poodle mix named after the unlikely Superbad Romeo.

When asked to define his general collecting parameters, Chen admits to an unrelenting addiction to mid-century modern Danish, evidenced by early Egg chairs by Arne Jacobsen (“Bianca, who bought the last one? Right, Adam Levine from Maroon 5”), rarities by Poul Henningsen, Poul Kjaerholm, Hans Wegner and Marcel Wanders. He says that this is one of the areas in which the prices did not recede at all with the economy, and that with Danish pieces, “the rare is still rare and the unusual still unusual.” Beyond his stellar eye is a willingness to search, within reason, for some oddities that clients are seeking: “Somebody asked me for a stone statue of Mussolini from the 1940s — still looking for that one.” But don’t ask him to break up an original pair (“I won’t do it — it’s sacrilegious”) or “restore” anything with its original leather (“Also sacrilegious. And original material always means it’s more valuable, by the way”).

With his Blackberry ringing steadily several times an hour, Chen appears to have many opportunities to buy, be it antique, modern, contemporary or impossible. When we last visited him, he told us he tried to buy something every day. Now, with nearly 50,000 square feet already well stocked, he says, “I try to buy something every other day.”

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