July 4, 2021For business partners Adrian Agudo and Marc Esteller, the savvy Spanish duo behind DADA Studios, in Barcelona, becoming design connoisseurs was an evolutionary process.
“We were both working as photographers here in Barcelona and in cities like Berlin, Copenhagen and Amsterdam,” says Agudo. “I started training my eye photographing great design long before buying or selling any.”
Amsterdam provided the springboard to trading. A dealer Agudo knew there asked him to help launch a furniture gallery. “I was involved in starting a small space in central Amsterdam selling pieces by twentieth-century designers like Alvar Aalto, Finn Juhl and Jean Prouvé,” he recounts.
The venture was a success, and the experience taught Agudo a lot about what it takes to break into the business, including the importance of online sales. “1stDibs immediately brought us buyers from Asia and America,” he says, “so we quickly tailored our approach to the global market. Amsterdam may draw millions of tourists, but that’s not the same as a global platform for design lovers all around the world.
“I had committed to one year at the gallery to get it off the ground,” he continues. “Meanwhile, I was running around in a van buying pieces for myself with absolutely no project of my own in mind. Marc and I both eventually returned to Barcelona and started an online gallery out of a storage unit. Since every piece we sold seemed to always be the one at the back of the unit, we eventually upgraded to a gallery space.”
They chose the name DADA because they embrace the free-spirited rule breaking of that early-20th-century art movement and appreciate artists who do things differently. They wanted their gallery to embody that ethos.
As the business grew, they felt compelled to go to art and design fairs and soon were staging their own design and contemporary-art openings and events. “We added contemporary art because we wanted to engage with living people,” Agudo says. “In furniture, we’re drawn to historical pieces, but those designers are no longer around to speak for themselves. We also wanted an active dialogue with living artists — such as Ramon Horts and Enrico Della Torre — who can explain their own work.
“But after a while,” he adds, “we realized that too much of our time was going into the logistical and social aspects of the trade. So, about eighteen months before the pandemic, we switched back to online sales or seeing clients by appointment at the gallery.” This approach has given them more time to pursue their design treasure hunting, and their balance sheet is the better for it.
Introspective recently talked with Agudo about the designers he most admires and why vintage furniture isn’t for everyone.
How would you describe your aesthetic? What pieces or artists would you say embody it?
Especially at the outset, we were all about rational, pure lines and simple, straightforward forms, as exemplified by some of the early-twentieth-century design greats, such as Jean Prouvé, Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Gerrit Rietveld. And we love elemental materials like wood, stone, glass and metal. Originally, we were very strict with our tastes and acquisitions, but we’ve since fallen for other, less spare styles, so it keeps opening up new worlds for us.
Many pieces of early-twentieth-century wood or metal furniture feature painted elements. What’s the best way to maintain such finishes?
Collectors will almost always prefer something with its original patina, and with both the age and mixed materials — not to mention the often high monetary value — of works by Prouvé or Rietveld, I always recommend going with a trusted restorer for any treatment beyond basic cleaning. That would be my advice for virtually everything vintage that we sell.
But we also work with quality reissues from Cassina, Vitra and others, because most clients have needs that go beyond having one collectible chair that gets treated more like a sculpture than furniture. We’ve had clients take delivery with original patina but ultimately get the pieces restored, because that sense of fragility or worry about how it’s used just doesn’t work in their lifestyle.
We began designing custom pieces, as well, and eventually created our own brand, DADA est., based on the works of the early-twentieth-century designers we consider the great masters.
What’s the most unusual or rare object you’ve handled?
We currently have a red Lips sofa prototype, designed in 1972 by Salvador Dalí and Oscar Tusquets Blanca, that’s both unusual — totally not in line with our typical taste — and rare, since only six were made. But we love artists who go their own way, and no one did that better than Dalí.
In what other ways have you expanded your design horizons?
I think our appreciation of simple wooden furniture by Pierre Chapo or Dom Hans van der Laan opened us up to a rustic element that we wouldn’t have expected at the beginning. At the other end of the spectrum would be Ettore Sottsass, whose complex and highly finished pieces are really not in line at all with our aesthetic. But as we read more about him and his design philosophy, we fell in love with his outlook and realized he was absolutely our type of artist.
What item do you love too much to sell and why?
None! I used to maintain my own parallel collection outside the gallery until a couple of years ago, when a chance encounter with another dealer changed my mind about holding on to beautiful objects. Now, the works come to us, we appreciate them, and then we pass them on for others to enjoy.
Anything you wish you’d bought but didn’t?
There are many things we’ve missed out on — usually because we couldn’t afford them. It’s both the best and worst part of this business. On one hand, you continually refine your taste. On the other, you’re drawn to ever-more-valuable objects.
What would be your design dream item?
I’d want Fernando Botero’s large bronze Gato [Cat] sculpture in Barcelona’s Raval neighborhood for my garden.