“There is a new wave,” said Emma Scully, who opened her namesake gallery on New York’s Upper East Side last spring.
Ms. Scully, 33, is among a new guard of gallerists who aspire to shake up the current contemporary design scene with new perspectives. “It felt for a long time, you kind of saw the same, very established players in design,” she said. “Now, there are so many new voices and different ways of working.”
As retail moves increasingly online, and showrooms, vintage stores and pop-ups become more and more of a curated experience, Manhattan has seen a swell of design galleries started by new curators — many of them young and intent on making their mark in a growing market for collectible, limited-edition works that straddle the line between sculpture and functional furniture.
In the 1990s and early aughts, galleries such as R & Company, Carpenters Workshop Gallery and Friedman Benda helped develop this market of high-end, mostly European modern designs, Ms. Scully noted, and typically filled the critical space left by major art museums that have often overlooked significant contemporary design in favor of more established mediums of art, like painting and traditional sculpture.
“The dichotomy of art and design is more of a Western idea,” said Chris Shao, 31, who opened Objective Gallery in Shanghai in July 2020 before introducing a second outpost in Manhattan with his business partner, Marc Jebara, 34, this March.
“In Asian cultures, we don’t have this division between art and design,” Mr. Shao added. “An antique teapot is art, handwritten calligraphy is art. A chair from a dynastic period is art. It’s not the same concept of decorative art versus fine art here, where design is seen as a tertiary category.”
Among younger collectors, Mr. Shao said, that sort of genre distinction is less of a concern. And while the pandemic lockdowns of the last two years jeopardized some industries seemingly overnight, the design and interiors professions enjoyed a significant boom, buoying the efforts of emerging and experimental curatorial voices expanding their practices with a physical footprint.
“Showing my work in a physical space means everything to me — it is what I create the work for,” said the artist Vincent Pocsik, 37, whose hulking, anthropomorphic wooden furniture pieces are currently on view at Objective Gallery. “I do not believe you can really understand an artwork from a picture.”
“It’s important to see, touch, as well as smell the works in person,” said Stephen Markos, 39, who began establishing his curatorial practice, Superhouse, through pop-up exhibitions and an Instagram account. Last fall, he opened his gallery in a small, vitrine-like shop in an East Broadway mini-mall in Chinatown.
To the consternation of some locals, the space’s tenants are increasingly young start-ups; Mr. Markos’s second-floor neighbors include the vintage boutique James Veloria, a fashion industry favorite, and the indie fashion label Eckhaus Latta. While the gallery is open only on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the lights stay on all week during the mall’s business hours, welcoming anyone who happens to be passing through to peer in.
“Ask me in five or 10 years, but I feel very strongly that this is rooted in downtown and cultivating the market with people here — it’s not a Chelsea thing,” he said of the gallery, as a subway line rumbled overhead on the Manhattan Bridge. At Superhouse, he continued, the clientele is diverse but consists of “mostly artists, mostly under 40” who are interested in unique and limited-edition artworks that cut through the uniformity that can permeate the fast-paced interior design trend cycles of social media.
For young design enthusiasts, the abundance of design content from the last decade on social media could be equated to what Design Within Reach — the modern design retailer founded in the late dot-com era — was for Gen Xers looking to invest in their nests. At that time, DWR widened access into a previously niche market that, up until that point, was primarily tapped into through specialty dealers, interior designers or trade fairs.
That shift moved the needle toward shaping tastes for design aesthetics, such as the boom of midcentury modern design. But in the age of social media and the proliferation of visual culture, tastes have skewed more toward the unique and collectible photogenic works that are more concerned with eclecticism and expression rather than only function.
For Ms. Scully, though, presenting works that touch on a wide range of concerns, including sustainability, local manufacturing and social equity, takes precedence over a specific style or aesthetic. Rather, she said, “it’s more about a concept.” Currently on view at her gallery, “Paraciphers,” a collection of new floor lamps by the lighting designer Bec Brittain, takes formal and material inspiration from NASA parachuting, with geometric textile patterns that encode messages of social justice in a mid-19th-century telegraphic code, interpreted through color.
At Superhouse, previous shows have featured furniture by Ryan Decker, whom Mr. Markos described as someone who creates in a “Carlo Bugatti meets Minecraft” aesthetic, and a group of nonbinary artists who specialize in woodworking — a realm of craft traditionally known for a “masculine, macho” maker culture that “can even make cis, straight men feel uncomfortable,” he said.
“I’m trying to take a more academic approach to exhibitions, with a definite focus on inclusivity, across gender, culture and age,” Mr. Markos continued. “I want to have a broad swath of representation at the gallery.”
The type of work presented by these new Manhattan design galleries reflects both what young, contemporary and independent designers are making and what millennials — some of whom may have reached a point in their lives at which they find themselves having attained a certain amount of disposable income — want to buy and collect. This includes work that challenges the definitions of beauty and function, as well as the idea that one needs formal training to be a working artist, or a curator, for that matter.
“As a relative newcomer to the art world, I’ve always struggled with how exclusive it feels,” said Alex Tieghi-Walker, who started Tiwa Select, a moniker that has taken on different shapes including an online shop, pop-up events and exhibitions and focuses on self-taught designers and craftspeople. The platform also offers hybrid events that foster a sense of creative community and culinary appreciation.
“I don’t want it to feel like I’m an institution,” he added, but instead, “an environment where people can come, enjoy the art and meet the artists.”
Mr. Tieghi-Walker, 35, recently relocated from Los Angeles and opened 181 Mott, a gallery and event space, last month with a presentation of the artist Megumi Shauna Arai’s patchwork textile works, which blend elements of her Japanese and Jewish heritage. There are also plans to host a food program with the chef Chris Kronner early next year.
Mr. Tieghi-Walker’s residence, on an upper floor of the building that houses the street-level gallery, may also eventually be a live-in showroom by appointment. It’s a model popularized by the vintage dealer Michael Bargo, with whom he collaborated last spring to host “Vetro Alga,” a show of seaweed-inspired glass works by the artist Dana Yolanda Arbib during New York Design Week.
“I think our generation is a lot more supportive of one another, and we have the tools of the internet to share each other’s work for it to feel a lot more like we’re a bigger community rather than a group of islands in competition,” said Mr. Tieghi-Walker, who hopes to team up with more galleries and curators.
For “Sexy,” a splashy group show earlier this year at Objective Gallery, curated by the designer and influencer Eny Lee Parker, Mr. Shao said the organizing theme was less formal and “more of a vibe” that welcomed a good time. Its door-busting opening night also conveyed a sense of hunger, after two long pandemic years, for more cultural spaces championing emerging artists and designers, added Mr. Jebara, Mr. Shao’s business partner.
At the new Jacqueline Sullivan Gallery, which opened in September on the fourth floor of 52 Walker, in TriBeCa, its debut show, “Substance in a Cushion,” is a love letter of sorts to the meaningfulness of objects. Taking inspiration from a line from Gertrude Stein’s book “Tender Buttons,” Ms. Sullivan, 35, noted a double meaning in the word “substance”: works can have “substance” in the sense that they have a tangible, physical presence; they can also be “substantial,” in that they are imbued with significance.
These include a series of “chair dressings” by the designer and curator Kristin Dickson-Okuda that elevate seat covers to layered, sartorial splendor, and work by Valentina Cameranesi Sgroi, an art director and set designer in Italy, whose delicate glass vessels appear almost like liquid, sculpted and suspended midair.
“I’m a very intuitive person,” Ms. Sullivan said. “I’ve never really felt super-analytical about things, it’s more about the feeling.”
For many among this new cohort of design gallerists, who came of age during the Great Recession and the rise of social media, the transition to entrepreneurship has been both natural and a long time coming.
Mr. Markos, who started his career working at the auction houses Artnet and Christie’s, also had a stint in product development for several years, though his long-held dream of opening his own gallery remained. “It’s what I came to New York to do,” he said.
Mr. Tieghi-Walker said: “Maybe it takes a while for people to figure out what career they want, or where their passions lie.” Like many millennials, he has had various jobs throughout his career — in media, hospitality and tech, “partly out of necessity,” he said.
“Traditionally, you’d go to school and enter one job and do that job for the rest of your life,” he said. “I feel like our generation has never been able to do that, or even wanted to do that.”