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‘You want to create an atmosphere in which good art and good people meet’

Architect Kulapat Yantrasast and Christie’s Sonya Roth, Managing Director, Western Region and Los Angeles, describe the thinking and design behind our superb new West Coast flagship space in Beverly Hills

To design our new multifunctional flagship location in Beverly Hills, Christie’s engaged wHY, the interdisciplinary design team known for collaborating with important local clients such as the Marciano Art Foundation, CalArts and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as top artists and collectors.

As our team of specialists in everything from Impressionist art to jewellery and watches prepares to welcome clients to Christie’s new home, we found out more about the project from Kulapat Yantrasast, the celebrated Thai architect and creative director of wHY, and Sonya Roth, Christie’s Managing Director, Western Region and Los Angeles.

Architect Kulapat Yantrasast
Architect Kulapat Yantrasast

How would you describe the design language of wHY?

Kulapat Yantrasast, Creative Director of wHY: ‘If you ask about design as language, I think wHY is a global, borderless and fearless design studio with various languages. We do have one language, which is essential design — tight and timeless with a focus on the essences of architecture in terms of space, light, proportion and tectonics. I could also think of an additional language, which is very playful, collaborative and open. Many of our works are public and planned for people to have enjoyable and inspiring experiences — multiple languages allow you to reach a wide variety of people and to be inclusive and welcoming to all.’

Can you describe how working with Japanese architect Tadao Ando has influenced your work?

KY: ‘In a very profound and personal way. I worked very closely with him from 1996 to 2003 — and since I worked on most international projects that came into the studio, I also travelled extensively with him for all those years. He is my mentor both personally and professionally. Having said that, there are also the disparities — the Japanese and the Thai people are quite different in terms of cultures. I see myself as having the best of both worlds: the vigour and clarity seen in Japan as well as the playfulness and the spontaneity loved in Thailand. It’s a dangerous combination, you might say!

The interior of Christie’s Los Angeles flagship

The interior of Christie’s Los Angeles flagship

In terms of Christie’s new LA flagship space, how and when did the process begin? 

KY: ‘Sonya Roth of Christie’s West Coast reached out to me, having seen a few of the art spaces we have designed in Los Angeles and other cities. I think that was January 2016. We saw the building together and I immediately had an idea of what we could do with it.’

Sonya Roth: ‘Kulapat was tasked with reimagining a very simple rectangular building into something fresh and new. It was a matter of keeping in mind the elegance of a classic Christie’s building, but redefining it into a modern gallery space.’

What can you tell us about some of the specific requirements for this project? 

SR: ‘High ceilings, versatility in space and lighting, as well as simple loading. We also wanted to offer private client rooms for viewings and luxury sales, with an eye to future events and entertaining.’

KY: ‘We always start our projects by looking, listening and learning. This was especially true of Christie’s LA flagship because this is supposed to be a Swiss army knife of an art building. The space must beautifully accommodate each and every art form that the auction house holds, from contemporary arts to Old Masters to watches, jewellery and luxury items.

‘We have interacted with the senior specialists as well as the operations staff to understand the specific requirements and critical conditions of each department, so that the spaces can easily and efficiently be used for all. The floor finishes, the lighting system, the flow of the gallery spaces — all of these design elements are the outcome of our collaboration with the teams at Christie’s.’

What were the biggest challenges?

SR: ‘The main challenge was fitting the needs of many departments, as well as our office space, into just 5,400 square feet! We needed enough separate areas so that different departments could function simultaneously, so we sacrificed office space to ensure we had versatility in the client-facing areas. That said, we did gain a beautiful landscaped 1,400-square-foot terrace.’

Kulapat Yantrasast at work at his home in Venice Beach

Kulapat Yantrasast at work at his home in Venice Beach

How did the building’s multifunctional purpose influence your vision? 

KY: ‘The multiplicity is truly the challenge and the inspiration. I think it is relatively easy to design a good space for one specific thing, but to design a strong and meaningful building that is clear and welcoming for so many different things — without turning it into a characterless mall, that takes guts and generosity. I always love the openness and opportunity that collaboration brings.’

Can you talk about your thinking and the process for the various areas?

KY: ‘The ground-floor gallery is planned as a generous and open space that could be used for various presentations and usages. The lighting system is fully flexible and can be programmed for all kinds of artworks and events. The upstairs offices and meeting rooms are designed as an open space where specialists are able to concentrate, but also to collaborate. The rooftop courtyard is planned for events as well as for artwork presentation, whether they be outdoor sculptures, video projections or performances. Each space is connected seamlessly to others and can be used simultaneously.’

What was your thinking on the finish to the exterior of the building, and how it speaks to the history of Christie’s?

KY: ‘The exterior is designed to be simple, not fuzzy, but also eye-catching and functional for 24 hours, day and night. The texture and colour of the metal façade reflects nicely the daylight and glows with the nightlights of Beverly Hills.’

And what about the bespoke wHY-designed reception desk and seating? Did these come out of How, your design laboratory?

KY: ‘Yes, we hope to design a few specific pieces for our projects — not many, but just a few critical ones that clarify the design intentions. Bespoke is the perfect word, because these pieces speak about how the spaces can be experienced.’

Which specialist outside companies did you work with to realise your vision?

KY: ‘We collaborate with Creative Space, which is the architect-of-record, along with Luminesce Design for the lighting.’  

How do you think the way in which art is being shown — and the environments required for that — is changing?

KY: ‘I always say designing an art space for people to experience is like being a good matchmaker. You want to create an atmosphere in which good art and good people meet one another. You should not force or patronise the situation. And it is very important that when good encounters occur you remain in the background to allow the magic to happen. I think the architecture for arts should be strong, clear and generous, but it does not have to be self-obsessed and controlling.’

Were there any specific learnings from your previous projects that you applied to the new Christie’s space?

KY: ‘Yes: when it comes to spaces for art, scale and proportion and good lighting must be mastered.’

How does the new flagship space reflect the burgeoning art and collecting scene on the West Coast? 

SR: ‘Los Angeles has been steadily growing, with an increasing number of artists, collectors, international galleries, and institutional support. The last 10 years has seen Los Angeles become a centre of creativity and cutting-edge innovation in the art community. It’s such a great time and place for Christie’s to jump in, not only as the only auction house with this kind of presence, but also with the new direction of a permanent privates sales gallery.’

Kulapat, which have been your most satisfying art-world assignments since founding your company in 2004?

KY: ‘I think the most satisfying aspect of my work is the collaboration I have had with clients and other designers and specialists. When the team works, it is like being in a band or in a sports team in which every player performs well, likes one another and knows exactly what to do. It is the magic of collaboration and I actively seek it.’

What were the first and last pieces of art that you bought? 

KY: ‘The first artwork I bought is a large mobile piece by Gabriel Orozco, made of bamboo and feathers. It hangs in the centre of my house and it inspires me no end. The last work I am fortunate to hold is a very small and lovely fertility figure from around 700 BC. She sits on my desk and reminds me every day how short and fragile our life and contribution to this earth could be. So let’s take a long view.’

Finally, Sonya, what are your hopes for the new Christie’s flagship space in Los Angeles?

SR: ‘Our goal is to become a centre for the collecting community in LA, for discovery and education across categories. We plan to offer exciting new programming specifically tailored to the interests of our community, and also service our longstanding relationships and clients on the West Coast.’