Shop Talk

How DADA Studios Brought Dalí, Prouvé and Sottsass Together in One Room

A black-and-white photo of DADA Studios' first exhibition, in October 2016.
DADA STUDIOS founders Marc Esteller (left) and Adrian Agudo
In a January snapshot, DADA Studios’ Marc Esteller (left) and Adrian Agudo sit in their furniture-filled warehouse. Top: The pair’s more minimalist gallery space offers both contemporary art and 20th-century design, like the Jean Prouvé daybed in the foreground. Photos courtesy of DADA Studios

For 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.”

A living room featuring a Finn Juhl Pelican chair, offered by DADA Studios
Agudo started his career as a dealer at a small Amsterdam gallery selling pieces by the likes of Alvar Aalto and Finn Juhl. Now he’s offering Juhl’s Pelican chair, at center right, at his own gallery.

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.

A black-and-white photo of DADA Studios' first exhibition, in October 2016.
DADA’s first exhibition, in October 2016, showed works by contemporary artist Enrico Della Torre alongside masterpieces of 20th-century design like a Le Corbusier coatrack, Gerrit Rietveld Crate chair and Charles Rennie Mackintosh side table. Photo courtesy of DADA Studios

“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.

OSCAR TUSQUETS BLANCA and SALVADOR DALÍ pose behind a prototype of the Dalilips sofa.
Oscar Tusquets Blanca collaborated with Salvador Dalí on the Dalilips sofa. A rare 1972 prototype is available from DADA.

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.  

A dining table surrounded by FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT ROBIE CHAIRS, reissued by Cassina and offered by DADA Studios
The duo believes that reissues, like the 1908 Frank Lloyd Wright Robie chair now made by Cassina, offer clients great design without the worry of caring for vintage or antique furniture.

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. 

A black-and-white photo of DADA Studios' first exhibition, in October 2016.
Charlotte Perriand is among the pair’s favorite designers. Here, they’re showing, from far left, her Méribel chairs, Cansado bench and Bauche chairs. Photo courtesy of DADA Studios

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.  

Adrian Agudo’s Talking Points

Salvador Dalí Lips sofa prototype, 1972
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Salvador Dalí Lips sofa prototype, 1972

“Dalí’s Lips sofa is such an iconic piece — really a masterpiece in the history of design — yet only six of these prototypes were ever made. The sofa never went into production, so it’s beyond rare. One of the prototypes is lost, and another is in the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres. It’s a thrill and a privilege to have found and acquired this one.”  

Pierre Chapo wood wall-mounted bookshelves, ca. 1960
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Pierre Chapo wood wall-mounted bookshelves, ca. 1960

“This Pierre Chapo bookcase absolutely represents the essence of our design taste — clean, rational lines with simple, quality materials. It’s a very sober aesthetic and is a consummate example of a sort of purity that we love from the mid-twentieth century, when designers like Chapo focused on the beauty of wood.” 

Salvador Dalí for BD Barcelona Design and Deyrolle set of four limited-edition Xai lambs, 2015
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Salvador Dalí for BD Barcelona Design and Deyrolle set of four limited-edition Xai lambs, 2015

“For Dalí, there were never any boundaries when it came to making something surreally unique and beautiful. These pieces by BD are like real sheep. No two are the same, and since nature is the greatest creator of beauty, why not copy it, albeit with the handy addition of the drawer. It was a very limited edition, and it’s a great opportunity to buy them as a set.” 

Ettore Sottsass for Design Gallery Milano limited-edition Piccoli Libri cabinet, 1992
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Ettore Sottsass for Design Gallery Milano limited-edition Piccoli Libri cabinet, 1992

“This very rare 1992 Piccoli Libri cabinet by Ettore Sottsass sort of marks a moment of conversion for us. At first glance, Sottsass’s most emblematic works — of which this is an extraordinary example — were not our style, but the philosophy behind his designs and their mix of sobriety and playfulness won us over.”

Antoni Gaudí for BD Barcelona Design Calvet bench, new
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Antoni Gaudí for BD Barcelona Design Calvet bench, new

“Antoni Gaudí is beloved for his iconic buildings in Barcelona and elsewhere, but he was also a brilliant designer of furniture and other decorative elements created to complete the buildings’ aesthetic appeal. This 1902 oak bench, reissued by BD, is another example of how the sheer beauty and elegance of an object have made us reconsider the rationality and pure geometry we always consider to be our signature style. Gaudí’s career and his furniture in particular mark a transition in which the intricate curves of historical styles were fused with the energy of modern lines.”  

Karl Blossfeldt set of 12 black-and-white botanic photogravures, 1942
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Karl Blossfeldt set of 12 black-and-white botanic photogravures, 1942

“My partner, Marc, and I both began as photographers, so we’ve always had photography in the mix in our gallery. These 1942 Karl Blossfeldt photogravures are so iconic, and we love the quality of the printing. The delicate details and subtle tonalities of each particular image and the repetition of twelve similarly intimate images of nature also have their own potent beauty.” 

Salvador Dalí for BD Barcelona Design Invisible Personage limited-edition armchair, new
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Salvador Dalí for BD Barcelona Design Invisible Personage limited-edition armchair, new

“Dalí’s Invisible Personage chair is another BD edition that I think is just genius, not only in terms of the artist’s vision but also in terms of its beautiful craftsmanship.”   

Ettore Sottsass for Design Gallery Milano Twenty-Seven Woods for a Chinese Artificial Flower vase L, 1995
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Ettore Sottsass for Design Gallery Milano Twenty-Seven Woods for a Chinese Artificial Flower vase L, 1995

“As our interest in Sottsass grew, we assembled an entire exhibition of his work a few years ago. Each piece, such as this beautifully manufactured pedestal vase, seems to convey a message. In this case, the carefully sourced exotic woods, exquisite lamination process and delicate blown Murano glass vase become a vessel for a cheap plastic flower made in China, perhaps a reminder not to take ourselves or design too seriously.”  

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