David Gill is a pioneering gallerist of 20th Century and contemporary design. He produced some of the first furniture collections from Zaha Hadid to Mattia Bonetti and was one of the first people to show the work of artist Grayson Perry. David Gill broke new ground in championing the work of designers who have become world famous, from Marc Newson to Tom Dixon and Ron Arad. His latest gallery in St James's demonstrates the significant role he has played in changing the status and perception of contemporary design internationally.
There's a strong theatrical feel to his story. Born in Spain and educated in France and England, Gill grew up with a rich exposure to culture, arts and science. He was lucky enough to encounter teachers who recognised his precocious intelligence and encouraged his interests. 'I was always enquiring,' he says. 'I was keen to know about everything I encountered, examining things minutely and developing a keen eye.' He is now renowned as a collector with an instinctive understanding of what is best and what will appreciate in value. 'I simply know what is good,' he says. Studying History of Art in London, Gill was offered a position at Christie's before the course was even finished. He specialised in Modern Prints but was drawn to 20th Century art and design - a category which didn't really exist at the time. After leaving Christie's, he chose to travel for two and a half years. During this time he met Edward James, the renowned eccentric collector and art lover who, in turn, had been friends with Salvador Dali, Magritte, Techelitchew, masters of surrealism and many of the 20th Century 'greats'. 'After that experience I decided that I didn't want to work in a museum or gallery or auction house but to move into the commercial world and to open my own gallery.'
It is audacious for anyone to embark upon an entrepreneurial venture without previous experience and when in 1987 Gill decided to open a gallery on Fulham Road specialising in 20th Century art and design, it was viewed as a bold move. Around him were shops and galleries specialising in Georgian furniture, chintz and antiques and Gill was bringing something decidedly different. He assembled an impressive array of pieces by many top artists and introduced his collection to the market. He chose to open with the 20th Century masters but to introduce 'New Romantic' painting and work by contemporary Russian artists. He featured pieces by some of the greatest furniture makers of the twentieth century, including Eileen Gray, Jean Michel Frank and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and championed the work of artists and designers as diverse as Giacometti, Donald Judd, Elisabeth Garouste and Mattia Bonetti.
The new gallery was immediately greeted with great enthusiasm. 'Where have you been!' cried David Mlinaric as his car screeched to a halt outside the gallery. He became a great collector as did Jacob Rothschild, David Sylvester and Doris Saatchi. 'I met many great people very quickly,' says Gill who began to attract a circle of collectors to him, and who continue to trust his judgement implicitly. Gill has presented a diverse array of exhibitions in the Fulham Gallery, creating immersive spaces which conjured the atmosphere of the period or the subject. For one of his shows, Fifty Years of Fashion, he celebrated the glory of 1950s style by creating a couture salon. He bought a portfolio of Dior dresses and materials which he exhibited amongst mannequins. He had also collected work by Cocteau - drawings, posters, ceramics and memorabilia - and created a museum. It was cited as the 'best exhibition in London.'
By the late 1990s it was apparent that more exhibition space was needed. Gill had always hankered after a New York loft style dwelling and found a large factory space in Vauxhall which he opened in 2000, and lived in for a while. The new space made large scale collecting possible and also meant that there could be a permanent exhibition of pieces on show and to stage events. The new space had no restrictions. 'I could show the journey between historical pieces and contemporary design,' he says. Being in this new extensive space, Gill could extend his portfolio of artists and designers to represent, such as Barnaby Barford, Fredrikson Stallard and Oriel Harwood.
David Gill's new space located at 2-4 King Street is next door to Christie's on the corner of Duke Street. 'It's destiny,' says Gill, 'having worked at Christie's at the start of my career I see it as entirely fitting that I should set up my gallery there.'
David Gill has been honoured both with the Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts & des Lettres and as Officier of the Ordre des Arts & des Lettres - recognition by the French government of his important contribution to the worlds of art and design.