When I arrived in London 11 years ago, I lived in Bayswater, near Notting Hill. I loved the area and spent hours wandering its streets. This is how I discovered Flow, a gallery specialising in international and British Applied Arts, located off Westbourne Grove. I was still working in banking and knew nothing about Craft but I remember being fascinated by the space, the works displayed and particularly by the contemporary jewellery collection. This Gallery means a lot to me, as it is where the idea of changing career and training in jewellery design emerged. The gallery features several exhibitions a year and I think I may have missed only a few of them. On the Flow website one can read: “Flow, situated in the heart of Notting Hill, was established by Yvonna Demczynska in 1999 […] Flow represents over 100 artists working in ceramics, glass, paper, wood, textiles, metal and jewellery. Flow works both with collectors and more recently with corporate clients who are establishing collections of applied arts”.
I have already written about an exhibition held at Flow called FUSED on contemporary enamel (see this article here ) but this time I wanted to know more about the owner, Yvonna, and how she came to open this wonderful Gallery. She very kindly agreed to be interviewed and I thank her for her time.
Yvonna at Flow. Courtesy of Flow Gallery
How did you discover Craft?
I suppose I should start with my childhood. I was brought up in Poland and came to England when I was 13. I was not able to speak English when I arrived. I went to a grammar school in Hertfordshire and later graduated in Business and Administration from Loughborough University. I studied History of Art at school and should have studied it at University. I suppose I really discovered design and art when I had my first job at the Design Council. I worked for the marketing department where I was helping to promote British design overseas. My job involved organising events at trade fairs in Japan, America, France, Frankfurt and I came across the Craft Council at these events, especially in New York City where they had a group of makers in the hand made section of the fair. I used to look at these wonderful pieces and thought that hand made objects were much more exciting than design from manufacture because they had more soul and spirit and were not perfectly made. The Craft council offices were then in Waterloo Place, just 5 minutes walk from The Design Council. So I used to go and see all their exhibitions. I started buying little things, especially the ones blurring boundaries between design and craft. Having left the Design Council I then worked for a packaging consultancy which wasn’t really me. Therefore, when somebody contacted me to help the biggest design guru in Japan, sourcing well design British products, I was more than happy to become a buyer for him. He just asked me to work a few days a month for him, providing reports on trends in design, visiting trade fairs, exhibitions, and then buying things that he liked. After a while, another opportunity arose: the Craft Council really liked what I did for the Design Council and asked me to do a similar job for them. As a freelancer, I started to organise exhibitions of makers in New York and San Francisco (which I still do in NYC). This is how my love affair with Crafts began.
What is the story of Flow Gallery?
I have always wanted to have my own gallery but this type of business required quite a big investment so it took a while to save up the money. I had never worked in a gallery before, which in retrospect was a bit of a mistake. Having some experience in running a gallery would have been useful. I did, however, rent a space for a few months within a gardening shop, just to test the market in Ledbury Road, Notting Hill. We organised a small exhibition of contemporary crafts with rough scaffolding and shelves. We sold jewellery, ceramics, glass, wooden bowls and did very well, even made a bit of money. Then I started to look for a space and it took me around one year to find this one. Rents were very high on Westbourne Grove and Ledbury Road, which is why we are in a smaller street off the main high street. The Gallery opened in September 1999 and at that time I had a business partner but unfortunately it didn’t work out as planned and we had to part after a year. It was a bit of a hiccup but I don’t regret it at all as I really love what I do. I learned a lot and I am still learning about some craft disciplines. I suppose my business background has helped me run the company. I am the only director now with two wonderful members of staff who help me to run the gallery (one graduated from Ceramics at the RCA and the other one is a lawyer/art historian). The current model is working well. However, I do enjoy collaborating with other Galleries as a curator as teamwork always brings a fresh view and something extra or exciting into the projects.
Flow Gallery, Main room. Courtesy of Flow Gallery
How did you combine running a Gallery with your family life?
As a career woman with a family I have always found it very difficult to find a job that evolves with your situation. I was bringing up two boys and my ideal business model was to have a partnership and work less, take some holidays with the kids, letting the business grow as the family grew. Now my children are grown up and I spend more time at the gallery and outside networking. When I opened the gallery I was in my early 40’s and I thought, if I don’t do it now I will never do it. But it was a big risk opening this space as it required such a big investment. The gallery is a very important part of my life; my life revolves a lot around its exhibitions and networking activities such as private views. But it is much harder now to reach the same level of sales as it was 4 or 5 years ago because of the financial crisis so I have to do much more development work. And I still don’t know what the best way of finding new younger collectors is. COLLECT is a great place to meet new people: when young collectors discover craft they are usually very excited and surprised by the relatively affordable prices for such beautiful objects. However, I am still looking for the best approach to reach this younger collector base.
Are you the only Gallery of that kind in London?
Yes, I think so. CAA (Contemporary Applied Arts) is the oldest craft gallery and is a membership based organisation, mainly showing works from its British members. I am originally from Poland and was interested in showing international crafts from the outset. Slowly I started researching the market, looking at Japanese and Scandinavian craft and design. I love and have empathy with them as my first foreign show was Japanese and the second one was Scandinavian. As I have often travelled to Japan in my previous jobs I had close links with curators and artists there. I suppose people see the style of Flow as European with some Scandinavian aesthetics and a very organic use of materials, respect for nature, and finally a touch of Japanese spirit. At the moment, I am researching artists for an exhibition which will look at the empathy between Finnish and Japanese craft. What is currently happening in craft is very interesting: some people start to think that applied art is a more exciting area than fine arts because there is more going on, more innovative use of materials and some amazing ideas.
In my upcoming show, “BLUE”, I will be showing a fine artist, Livia Marin at the Devon Guild who is creating a wonderful installation of plaster plates with blue transfers. I invited her to COLLECT and she loved it as she enjoys working with different materials. How to define her? Is she a craft person or an artist?
How do you select the artists you are showing?
I do go to a lot of exhibitions and degree shows as well as New Designers every year. People also come to me spontaneously and I travel abroad. I sometimes collaborate with other galleries such as Blas & Knoda in Stockholm, Gallery Norsu in Helsinki and Galerie Sofie Lachaert in Antwerp. Sofie has an amazing eye and her gallery with a B&B attached to it is wonderful. I usually choose new artists and mix them with established ones: this year at COLLECT I showed a ceramic artist who just graduated with an MA from the RCA as well as a textile artist who had just finished her MA, alongside with more established ceramicists. I usually follow the development of artists and I try to show them more than once. This is the case with Mia E. Görransson for example; we showed her at COLLECT a few years ago with terracotta tiles. She then did porcelain tiles and porcelain vessels with amazing leaves and twigs. Her work was very figurative and she has now evolved into more abstract pieces which will be featured in our next show, BLUE.
FUSED exhibition. Courtesy of Flow Gallery
What are the relations between the artists and you? Do you consider them as friends,customers, suppliers?
This is a very interesting question...Some have become friends but I think it is more a relationship of equals, it is teamwork. They are supporting me and I am supporting them. I like to know what they are doing, their exhibitions, and they often pop into the gallery for a chat. It is much more than a business relationship; it is more of a friendship. You have to take an interest in people as well. I sometimes take risks in showing new works, as not all of them were commercially successful. Hans Stofer had his first solo exhibition here and it was a great show but it didn’t sell out.
You have always a thematic exhibition going on. Can you tell me more about it?
I have 6 exhibitions a year with either a theme or material based. At the moment we have a show curated by Melissa Rigby about ENAMEL, the next one is called BLUE and we will have a show in the autumn called WOOD. In the rare occasions when we have no show, we put more emphasis on our gallery artists, highlighting their pieces in the middle of the gallery. I always feel I should be doing something new to get people in. It keeps my interest and brings something new to collectors as well. Maybe we should not change that often, just extend the exhibitions as I find some of them are too short. I usually curate the exhibitions myself but we also do have guest curators like Simone Ten Hompel, Hans Stofer, Sofie Lachaer. I really like working with other people as it brings a fresh perspective and something else into the project.
Main room. Courtesy of Flow Gallery.
Is Notting Hill a good location?
I don’t know, really. I happen to be here and I don’t think I will move. There are a lot of fashion shops popping up and closing, which is not ideal, but now people know where we are and it is more a destination for them: they come here especially. We don’t get a lot of passers by, which is why we have to work quite hard on the PR and the press. When we get articles in the Financial Times, World of Interiors, House and Garden, etc…people then come in and it is a great way of attracting new people. Overall, I don’t think location is that important in our business.
Main room. Courtesy of Flow Gallery.
What is the mix between ceramic, glass, paper, textile, wood, metal in the works you exhibit?
It is difficult to say. I suppose ceramic is the predominant one. We only have a few glassmakers because I find it really difficult to find interesting glass forms and colours. As an aesthetic choice, colours are quite muted in the gallery as I don’t tend to display very bright colours. Ceramic seems to be the most popular purchase. It used to be jewellery but somehow people seem to be buying more things for the home rather for themselves in this time of recession. Ceramic also sells well because we have a wide range of prices, from small bowls to larger pieces. I personally prefer jewellery, wood and ceramics but I love everything displayed in the Gallery as I find it difficult to sell things I don’t like.
How do you organise your communication?
COLLECT is the only show we do in the UK and it is very good for attracting a new audience. We are also going to do SOFA in Santa Fe for the first time. We try to do as much press as we can before each show. The next BLUE show created a lot of interest from a large number of journalists so we have received quite a good amount of press coverage. We have a policy of not advertising therefore we just rely on our editorials. Before each exhibition we send out a large number of invitations: they are square cards, always the same format, the same design and the same look, so people know when a Flow invitation lands on their table. I know a collector that keeps them in a big bowl. We are on Twitter and Facebook, on which we have a lot of fans. It does help a lot but I am not sure we use social networks enough: if you want to attract younger people, you must use them more intensively. I would like to do a course on social networking to optimize and increase our presence.
Do you see an evolution in trends (more collectors, interest for craft and hand made, interest for a particular material?)
I think there is a revival in hand made, people are interested in acquiring fewer, but still beautiful objects with an imprint of the maker. Big brands like Louis Vuitton and others have hijacked the word “craft” and I think it will take time before we see a truly beneficial effect back in the Craft discipline itself. The Craft museum in New York is now called the Museum of Art and Design: they changed their name because craft was so unpopular. They now have more visitors although after all, what they are showing is craft…We are also definitively seeing the impact of the financial crisis: fewer people, fewer sales but increasing number of people looking which will hopefully translate into higher sales.
What are the financial issues when running a Gallery? Do you receive subsidies or grants?
Everything at Flow is on a sale or return basis. I would like to be able to afford to buy pieces but unfortunately I can’t. As far as margins are concerned, we apply the same rate as every other London gallery. We do not receive any subsidies or grants as we are a limited company. I have thought of changing the status of the gallery into a social enterprise, as it feels like we are one or maybe a charity in order to apply for grants, but this is a lot of work. The only grants we have ever received were from foreign embassies at the occasion of a thematic show about a specific country, where they paid for shipping the works or for the catalogue.
Yvonna at Flow. Courtesy of Flow Gallery.
Have you ever thought of quitting? Or finding alternative ways of promoting craft?
There are days when we have very few customers but we often don’t even notice until late in the afternoon because we are busy working on so many projects. Sometimes I think of retiring in a few years but then, what would I do? I love my job so much!...
I keep thinking there must be other ways of running a gallery. Some dealers work from home, where they also have their showroom. Another alternative could be the organisation of “pop up shows” or small improvised exhibitions in ad hoc venues.
Artists’ studios are doing a great job in promoting artists but it can be frustrating for the galleries sometimes. We invest a lot of time promoting and displaying their works to show to collectors who occasionally end up buying directly from the artists. I wish there was a different way of working. Maybe similar model to the fine art world. These days we generate most sales from international artists as UK based collectors do not have easy access to them.