creative chit-chat

Kathryn & Ike

Gallerists and collectors

Galleries aren’t spaces where you can wander around, sit on design chairs and touch everything you see. Because they like things to be very personal and welcoming, Kathryn Smith & Ike Udechuku came up with a fresh and alternative concept. Ampersand House is a living gallery that serves as their private home. As the name suggests, their unique dwelling functions as a get-together of people, various disciplines and backgrounds. “The dining room is my favorite room, we have all our meals there. Having the great luxury to use this amazing dining table is beyond imagination, for it is a truly rare museum piece. It seems a bit crazy to be able to have the banality of everyday meals at this stunning creation of Joaquim Tenreiro.” Kathryn says. It is funny how easily you can get used to luxury, cause after a short while, we feel remarkably comfortable at Ampersand House. It feels as if we are invited for coffee at a friend’s house.

How did the idea of a living gallery come about?

Ike: Ampersand is very different from everything I’ve ever done. But it relates to Kathryn’s expertise in the field of art. We met in law school and spent most of our time in London, the U.S. and Luxembourg. After many years of working as an investment banker I decided it would be interesting to do something completely different. We settled on an idea and tried to figure out how we could use real estate and do something artistic and interesting. We decided to go for a grand building and this is when we developed the idea of a living gallery. We went researching for Scandinavian furniture, because people regard it as valuable and beautiful. With that being some sort of a business plan we started looking in Brussels for an interesting house, maison de maître style.
Kathryn: Before we found it, we bought another one that we divided into 4  apartments. On the long run we would like this project to be an extension of the gallery. So when someone rents an apartment, they are surrounded by furniture we would have in the gallery.

How do people react to the concept of a living gallery?

Ike: My sense is that it is exactly how it would be, if it weren’t a commercial enterprise.  That if you had invited a group of people over, who know who you are, but don’t know you well personally. They come to your home, they behave and in the same way they ask permission before they sit down.
Kathryn: People are very respectful and they come and visit because they are knowledgeable about design and design history and have high regard for the pieces. We’ve never had anything spilt on a piece of furniture, nor anything damaged. Touch wood! As a matter of personality, we never take the easy route, do we? Sometimes we think: why are we doing this? Why do we live in this complicated way? There must be an easier thing to do. And of course there are other ways, but maybe not so interesting. copy.jpg?1347970771

Where do you find design inspiration? Where do you go to find unique pieces?

Ike: We really like doing research and I try to start with what sells. I look at design auctions and see what people like to buy. As you research, items become very obvious. A pair of chairs I had, were featured in Madmen two. I took them to Pierre Berger, who loved them and sold them. Once a client pointed down a candlestick, that Bettie Draper had on her dining table at a dinner party.  Because of this crazy TV series it suddenly became highly collectable and so I bought a bunche of it. You start with Google search, which might lead you to a dealer.
Kathryn: The process becomes really personal because you start to know people who have collections and you get this one to one. If you would point on a map the way you found something, you have a thread that travels all the way over the world.

Have you ever bought a piece that you didn’t specifically like?

Ike: No, because we are living with it. If you put things in your living room and if you start buying with your precious cash things that you don’t like and you have to look at it all of the time, then you are doing the wrong thing.
Kathryn: You have to feel affiliation and affection. Intuition is very important when collecting. This feeling that you want something is a good indication. If it’s a good choice you’ll be happy with for a very long time.

Since your work space is your home, how do you find the balance between work and private life?

Ike: We try to create a business that reflects our personalities and have been given the opportunity to do something for ourselves in our home, which was an interesting change of pace. It’s very sociable and quite enjoyable. You meet people and open doors to other aspects of life.
Kathryn: You become friends with people who visit. I think we are comfortable with the balance between public and private and it doesn’t feel as though our privacy is invaded, because we have one floor to ourselves, which is totally private. We use the space downstairs as our working office. We are not open every day, we don’t have public exhibitions all of the time. From time to time there’s an open house for a couple of days a week, and you can come and visit by appointment. We probably don’t use the different sitting rooms that often, for they are part of the gallery space, but the dining room is used all of the time. Furniture is supposed to be used. Every designer I ever spoken to really wants their creations to be used and don’t want them to be put behind glass and never touched. We want things to be very welcoming and warm. We want people to try things, because the pieces are for sale. People would want to live with them and to feel that they are comfortable and accessible.

As the name suggests Ampersand House is about bringing people together. How do you operate as a duo? Do you share the same taste?

Ike: We’ve been together since 1986, but we haven’t worked together. For old people like us, it’s one of the best phases we have ever tried. (laughs)
Kathryn: It’s an opportunity for conflicts as well.
Ike: I always end up choosing lights and furniture. And Kathryn will always end up looking for art and carpets.
Kathryn: It is very complementary, various things overlap. We both learned to appreciate each other’s natural taste more since we are doing this project, because Ike’s direction is more modernist and hard edged. My natural tendency is more decorative, more elaborate. And we discover more about each preferences, but also the interrelation between them. So it’s a richer kind of layering.  What you see at Ampersand House is a very personal choice and a way of combining many things. It’s great to bring pieces together and create little stories and an atmosphere.

You also like partnering up with experts, like curators, dealers, designers and artists. Do you believe in creative partnerships?

Kathryn: We work with experts to extend the reach of an exhibition so that it becomes more complex and more culturally educating. That’s why we have this amazing range of pieces on the walls, pieces of light, textiles, jewelry, paintings that show so much of what’s happening creatively. We couldn’t possible do it ourselves and that I think enriches the whole environment.
Ike: What we have become is a house, and the house has art, but has also furniture, carpets and lighting. It is a gallery of the living experience. And if you are going to change that profoundly within a year and you want people to come back, you cannot do that without partners. Because there is so much research, depth is required. We have a partnership model, which means that we concentrate on making friends. (laughs)
Kathryn: We have an overarching curatorial role, we create the mise en scène so that there is harmony in every event and exhibition.
Ike: I think that people increasingly regard this as Ampersand house. When we started the concept, it wasn’t as clear to us. Our house is about bringing people together, encouraging them to interact, to get known by artists, collectors, art dealers as a place where events could happen. To be able to style this entire environment, is a great and sustainable niche. I hope not only in Belgium, for the idea seems to appeal people long way outside Belgium. We don’t know where the future might take us.



Ampersand House

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Coffeeklatch stands for ‘Slow journalism using a fast medium.’ Magali Elali and Bart Kiggen created the blog as a creative chitchat featuring creative entrepreneurs in their homes over coffee, including interesting people telling intriguing stories. It celebrates storytelling and creativity in all its forms, from fashion design to architecture. Read More


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