A confluence of forces is behind the opening of Guild Gallery in New York, the latest enterprise from local design studio Roman and Williams. Situated along the vibrant thoroughfare of Canal Street, Guild Gallery is a beacon of contemplation that’s dedicated to showcasing the applied arts.

A celebration of individual makers and artists, many of whom have never had solo exhibitions before, the gallery opens with a year-long roster featuring 12 practitioners from around the globe – each a true force in their chosen medium, be it ceramics, glass or wood. First up is an exhibition of vessels by London-based ceramic artist Akiko Hirai (until 23 December 2021), with future programming set to include urushi-lacquer pieces by Japanese artist Kenta Anzai, and stone sculptures by Dutch artist Mirjam de Nijs.

Roman and Williams’ founders Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch are no strangers to this patch of Manhattan. Their pioneering retail operation, Roman and Williams Guild, which regally occupies the corner of Mercer and Canal Streets, just a few doors down from the new Guild Gallery, has brought a flood of well-heeled visitors to this cultural crossroads since it opened in 2017. Known for its impeccable curation of furniture, tableware and accessories, Guild heralded the resurgence of Canal Street as a hub for art, design and creativity – a reputation it continues to bolster, despite the impact of the global pandemic. 

Guild Gallery by Roman and Williams celebrates makers and artists

Guild Gallery interior with minimalist wooden plinths by Roman and Williams showcasing several white ceramic pieces
Akiko Hirai, ‘Container and Content’, exhibition view, at Guild Gallery, New York

The idea to create an even more elevated platform began for Standefer and Alesch after the firm was tasked with re-envisioning the permanent British Galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The six-year undertaking culminated with the unveiling and opening of the new 11,000 sq ft space in early 2020 – just seven days before New York City went into lockdown. The enforced period of solitude that ensued gave Standefer and Alesch time to allow their personal pursuits and dialogues with artists and makers in their orbit to coalesce. 

‘Stephen and I have been very devoted to makers all over the world and that conversation became more present as we were working on The Met,’ says Standefer. ‘In the midst of trying to survive [during the pandemic], we started to see a shift in the cultural dialogue and revival of ceramic craft as an applied art,’ says Standefer. ‘Ceramics have been celebrated, but [mostly] in an environment that was contextual. At the Guild, people are able to experience these objects in the context of their homes, their lives and how they are used. From there, a dozen or so artists started to emerge, who I saw were already on a trajectory, they had credibility and goals and aspirations that were grander on a physical scale. They had training and focus that required us to start to spotlight them for their form.’

The front of Roman and Williams Guild Gallery, with large windows facing Canal Street in New York
The Canal Street façade

She continues, ‘If you look at Roman and Williams’ core practice, we’ve been fundamentally sort of maximalist, always about creating context and relationships and interactions between objects. We saw these 12 people and said, we need to consider isolating them. These artists’ practices demand a focused and elevated attention. I say this because it all happened very organically. We wanted to celebrate them in a more profound and focused way. We wanted to celebrate the handmade.’

The debut exhibition by Akiko Hirai is entitled ‘Container and Content’. Widely varied in scale and eluding classification with their idiosyncratic surface textures, Hirai’s poppy-pod and irregular moon-jar forms are intentionally ambiguous, some seemingly half formed and others on the brink of bursting to life. Displayed on custom-designed oak pedestals, which are accompanied by matching benches and translucent screens to create the opportunity for moments of introspection for visitors, the complex and monumental aspects of Hirai’s practice are clear to see.

Guild Gallery interior with minimalist wooden plinths by Roman and Williams showcasing several white ceramic pieces. On the foreground is a large vase with sticks coming out of the top
Akiko Hirai, ‘Container and Content’, exhibition view, at Guild Gallery, New York

‘Galleries rarely create contemplation and journey. The scrims are about not giving it all away immediately. The gallery is modest, it’s not that big, but we wanted to create some sense of the journey,’ Standefer says. ‘Everything is in a mono-material of oak, with a simple expression of the hand in the detail and joinery of the woodwork. These are all things you recognise when you’re looking at surface and texture.’

She concludes, ‘I see ceramics as an unbelievable, almost semiotic investigation of the history of humanity. It is ancient, it is global, it is part of every culture. It’s part of our fundamental nature. I think in the pandemic, people started to look at nature and recognise the earth that we live on.’ §