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Tea With Claudia: Zesty Meyers

Tea With Claudia: Zesty Meyers

Tea With Claudia: Zesty Meyers | SFLUXE
claudia juestel and zesty meyers
Claudia Juestel with Zesty Meyers and his son Max (photo: by Deborah Taylor)

This is the first installment of our exciting new interview series at Tea With Claudia. As founder of one of San Francisco’s leading design firms, the Adeeni Design Group, Claudia Juestel has access to some of the most exciting figures in the world of design, whether it’s architects, craftsmen, authors, artists, painters or other designers. We’re thrilled that she’s allowing us in on her world, with engaging conversations taking place over a lovely pot of tea!

Samovar Tea Menu on copper. (Photo: Deborah Taylor.)

I recently sat down with Zesty Meyers, co-owner of R Gallery, known as one America’s foremost showcases for 20th century design. Local clients include interior designers Douglas Durkin, Orlando Diaz-Azcuy and Steven Volpe. An artist, gallery owner, curator, and historian, Zesty is an authority on mid-century design. He shared some of his passions with me over tea at Samovar at Yerba Buena Gardens.

Zesty ordered iced Samovar Masal Chai, and I enjoyed the most delicious Blood Orange Pu-erh Tea. We were joined by Zesty’s six year old son Max, who patiently endured the interview with a cup of milk and assorted cookies. Max told me that he wanted to work in a museum when he grew up and, based on my conversation with him, he struck me to be a perfect example for the fact that children can live with fine design. Max has rare pieces in his room by Verner Panton, Sergio Rodrigues, Poul Kjaerholm, Joaquim Tenreiro, and Achille Castiglioni.

Some of the designs his family lives with every day have immense value; but Zesty does not worry about that — like his friends or his son drinking from delicate vintage Venetian glasses. Art and design are meant to be enjoyed, and I was delighted to converse, not only with an expert, but also with one of the youngest collectors of modern design. – Claudia


Claudia Juestel: What brings you to San Francisco?

Zesty Meyers: I am here for personal reasons now, but I am coming back in a month for the SF20 show, which is a design show to benefit the SF MOMA. It is comprised of a group of dealers from around America that sell mid century design and clothing from 1945 up until today.

CJ: Is this the first SF 20 show in San Francisco?

ZM: No, it is the second one. However, this is the first time we are participating.

CJ: Tell us more about the upcoming SF20 and how you got involved.

ZM: We wanted to do this because I think Regionalism or something like that has to come back in America. I think the idea of “bespoke”, “atelier”, those kinds of styles have to come out. I am used to performing on a very big world stage, such as Design Basel or Art Basel or Design London, where it is a world marketplace. But it is also very fascinating to me to come into a community like San Francisco to be able to do something. There is an intellect here, there is a sophistication, and there are numerous great collections and other kinds of fashions here that I find America needs more of.

What I mean by “bespoke” or “cottage industry” is that San Francisco is an amazing place for what it has brought to it, if you look at its cultural history. You can see very clearly in the architecture that people cared about how they lived, or where they went to do their business, or where they went to eat, or how they wanted to function. I don’t think you find that everywhere in America. San Francisco has got it, wealth knowledge and interest. What is happening here has the opportunity to influence the rest of the country.

I am impressed with the design collection at the SF MOMA, I am impressed that they have a growing design collection, and I am impressed that they really care, where I think a lot of museums don’t really care about design yet in America. A lot of what we carry today at R Gallery will be gone one day. And once it is gone the curators will be fighting over it, just as they do for a Greek urn that turns out to be fake, or some sarcophagus we read about in newspapers.

SF 20 is only in its second year now, but I believe that it has the potential to become as renowned as the San Francisco Fall Antique Show. In return SF 20 gives San Francisco the opportunity to influence the rest of the country.

CJ: How old were you when you first got interested in modern design? Was there a defining moment that led you in that direction, or did your interest grow gradually?

ZM: I grew up with good design without knowing it. In my son’s bedroom are bookcases from my grandfather’s house, as an example. I guess it has been in the family for four generations now, ever since it was made in the forties. But I did not know this until I was an artist, and I had a performance group, and I had someone starting to collect my artwork who had a design business, and who was an immense and amazing collector. I started to trade my art for great design, and then I started to study and research it. Then it became a hobby.

I finished the goals with my performance group and I opened my first store in New York. It was my growing interest to be the presenter instead of the actual maker. I found it really fascinating and just as interesting, and I found it to be a necessary thing for me, as in the sense of presentation, since for an artist presentation is everything. How we presented, how we displayed, what we picked out, why we chose to show this, all of those things became the reasons why we started to do what we did. And by doing that it became like making art in a way, or doing a performance.

CJ: Has this replaced your performance art or are you still doing performances?

ZM: Completely. Although I don’t get the same high I did from my performance art I get to inspire, I get to sell, I get to buy, I get to educate, I get to preserve history, I get to write about it, I get to show my knowledge. All these things combined are passionate, positive things. And yes, I need to sell to be able to do these things, but most of my clientele really cares about what they buy, and I am able to show them or teach them why this is interesting.

Masterworks from the R Collection: red sconce by Jorge Zalszupin, 1950s, desk by Joaquim Tenreiro, 1960s and side chair in pau marfim by Joaquim Tenreiro, 1948, sofa and club chairs by Joaquim Tenreiro, 1954, coffee table by Martin Eisler, 1950s, floor lamp by Tito Agnoli, ca. 1960, credenza by Martin Eisler, 1950s, orange glass sculpture by Jeff Zimmerman, 2004, Kaiser Leuchten adjustable table lamp, Germany, 1950s, hanging lamp in white metal by Tobia Scarpa, 1960sm spun aluminum hanging lamp, Denmark, ca. 1960. (Photo by Sherry Griffin for R 20th Century)

CJ: You and your partner Evan Snyderman founded R Gallery in 1997.

ZM: Yes, Evan was part of the performance group. I have been working with Evan for probably twenty years now. We know how to really work together. We were both glass blowers, and with glass blowing you work in teams. Working in a team maybe helped us towards this partnership, on this level of business that we do now. We have different interests, and so we push each other to learn about what the other likes, or why the other thinks this is good design.

Evan Snyderman (center) and Zesty Meyers with fellow B Team member Kelly Lamb, 1995. (Photo: Eva Heyd)

I think it is part of the mission of the gallery to never stop reaching for what it is that makes design interesting, great, passionate, exciting, and to be looking for and to create a depth to the stable of designers whom we represent, vintage and contemporary, to make it better for the world. We are not nationalists. We represent design now from three continents, and we are looking at representing Asian designers too, to watch how it grows into something bigger, and to put the links together of how things travel the earth, or how ideas travel. It is really very similar once you break it down, and this it what the gallery really does.

CJ: What time periods of the 20th Century do you specialize in, and what criteria do you use to select designers for representation in your showroom?

ZM: It is 1945 until 1999, and the criteria can be unique. There has to be something about the designer and why they make it. We don’t look for things that are mass-produced. A lot of what we have in the end is not mass-produced, but there might be some quantity of it. But the pieces were made for a reason.

For example, even though some of Poul Kjaerholm’s designs are still produced he brought craft to metal in Denmark when everyone else worked with wood. That is really interesting since working with metal in Denmark in the late forties into the late fifties was extremely expensive because it was not what they did. And he found a way to back it, he found a market for it, he found a way to break it down and ship it to create other markets. Then some of what he made became exceptionally rare. He also coined the term “interior architecture”, and you could go on and on reading about him, but this is just one brief example.

PK 56 round dining table with triangular chrome-plated steel frame and a flint-rolled light, designed by Poul Kjaerholm, 1974 (Photo: Sherry Griffin for R 20th Century)

And then there is Joaquim Tenreiro from Brazil who looked at himself as an artist who also happened to make things that could also sit on. But he was a master woodcarver, and he understood the strength of the wood incredibly well. There were no ergonomics machines at the time, or no technology to say that you could push the wood this far. He also always tried to outdo himself. So everything was unique because it was hand-carved.

Barstool with wooden seat in bonded amendoim and imbuia wood and frame in metal. Designed by Joaquim Tenreiro, Brazil, 1950s. (Photo: Sherry Griffin for R 20th Century.)

CJ: With all the technology we have today do you see emerging designers today who have the same mind frame and who are equally innovative and different?

ZM: Not as much as I want. I see that they work with new materials. Instead of plastic they work with carbon fiber; but the shape pretty much looks the same. Never mind, does the shape look the same, the only difference to me is that weighs three quarters less than what the original did, because of technology, because of what physicists, or scientists, or someone else created. But I don’t really see people pushing design to the limits of where I want to see it. I think it exists more in local communities, but it has not come out yet, and it would be interesting to see it.

I like Objects USA and other such great shows and what is happening today with design in Europe, which is so far more organized than America is. I dream of America to have a design community like that for people who care about design that much in their homes, because I think it is something that is really needed to make someone’s life better. I do think it has exploded in America, because now you can get good design at Target, and other such places. It is fascinating that that part has come back on a mass industrial level, and on that level I feel design has exploded worldwide with designers.

CJ: How about on a luxury level, how would you say the designs you sell fit into a luxury life style?

ZM: I think luxury needs to be redefined, because when Chanel started making shower sandals is that luxury anymore? I think people need to bring this back to the best quality, and I think that it is the only way we will define the taste of the billionaire, which has to happen. A hundred years ago it happened for the millionaire.

A good example of what would be the mansions of Newport Rhode Island. That was the height of luxury at the time and what people aspired to be. A trickle-down effect would become a show like MTV Cribs a hundred years later where anyone could have a stucco palace where their cars are basically worth more than their property. But that is all we wanted.

So how is the taste of a billionaire going to be defined? Well, a billionaire can have a private jet. He can have as many private jets as he wants; but it is not interesting because you can only do so much with a jet, and they are all going to look more or less the same. Of course they have one most likely, but they can also go to Herms and buy anything they want. But all their friends can too. So is that special and good enough for someone who wants to be the man, the woman, the family, whatever they want to call it? No!

So I think there are only two ways to be unique in this world, and it will never change, and it has never changed throughout time. That is either to buy something old and buy it vintage, where there is a unique example or very few examples, or go have something custom-made for you where you will be the only one who has it. And that is where I feel taste and luxury will come back to a level that we can’t see yet.

CJ: R Gallery is really more than a showroom. Some call it a museum, library, and study center all in one. Was that the original idea?

ZM: Yes, we really wanted to create a place that would bring people. I am just as much interested in the person who has a passion for design, but cannot afford it. What is the difference between what we do and a museum? In my gallery you can touch and feel and buy. We also produce periodicals and have things published in other ways. I want someone to leave with something, because now the value of this furniture is whatever. Yes, I need a wealthy clientele to grow my business at the same time; but I also find that the full circle makes us complete and whole, and one influence gets to the other in both directions.

CJ: In addition to groundbreaking design exhibitions you have also developed a number of publications, as you just mentioned. What would you consider your primary goals for R Gallery?

ZM: To teach, to educate, to collect and to sell, to help make sure institutions or the right people end up with the right pieces that will be in institutions. We are very concerned about who we sell to and why they buy what we have. We want them to love what we have. I don’t want to sell it because it is the right color, I want to sell it because it is the right piece, and it has the right ideas that fit the individual who wants it. So the end goal is to educate as much as possible, to help and give back, to be a philanthropist at the same time as you are making money.

Our type of philanthropy is different of what philanthropy is already known for. I don’t want to make the pile and give a little bit of it away; I’d like to continuously give back to the community that has given to me. There is a saying about New York, that if you give to the city, it should give to you. And I really hope that, particularly right now, with all the passion and the level of depth a lot of retailers have they, will all make it. That is the only way that the city is really interesting, and that is why people want to be there.

CJ: Which historical designers do you feel are undervalued, and which emerging designers would you recommend to collectors now?

ZM: Greta Magnussan Grossman, who is a California designer, is extremely undervalued. She was the first woman who won a design award ever in Sweden. She married a jazz musician and immigrated to Beverly Hills in 1939 via China and Russia. She then built her own home in Beverly Hills and fit into the whole arts and architecture community. She became hugely successful making local furniture design, exactly what we were briefly talking about, how communities need something local to happen to inspire, where it only might be local and be where it is.

After 1945, after the war and the idea of Suburbia, this idea of California design was for the local community; it was not made to be trucked to Chicago or Dallas or New York. It was not built that way, and they used local materials. Her museum show will start in January in Sweden, and will hopefully tour America eventually. She is amazing in what she has accomplished in a short amount of time, working pretty much in a man’s world; and I feel that she will be the next great woman designer.

“Grasshopper” floor lamp in original light green paint. Designed by Greta Magnusson, circa 1947. (Photo: Sherry Griffin for R 20th Century.)

From Brazil, all the Brazilians are underappreciated. Joaquim Tenreiro, Sergio Rodrigues, Jose Zanine Caldas are all masters. But if you look at the difference between the three of them and their work, and they lived in the city of Rio, which had only a couple million or less back in the forties you wonder how they could be so different. Schools of thought normally follow each other. This is how we talk about cities like Paris, this and that school or New York in the fifties or abstract contemporary art.

Stella” sofa in jacaranda. Designed by Sergio Rodrigues, circa 1956. (Photo: Sherry Griffin for R 20th Century.)

In Denmark Poul Kjaerholm had some ideas where Rietvelt and Mies Van Der Rohe left off. He took some of the concepts Mies was using, and took them and uses technology and blew it away. No one has ever compared the two, no one has ever put them together.

Yes, Kjaerholm is hugely appreciated in both areas of design, and some of his work is still being produced, but he was purely a genius at what he did, and the level he took it to; no one has ever caught up to him still to this day, with technology or anything else that is there.

CJ: Money being no object, which modern designs are you craving to have in your own personal collection?

ZM: From America it would be Wendell Castle. He will be the national living treasure for design in America for what he did for woodworking and furniture. I don’t see in my estimation anyone else emerging after he passes who will make anything as interesting as he did and how he revolutionized the world, for years to come. A period of time from Wendell would be from the late fifties to about 1975.

CJ: Can you tell us about some exciting new projects you have in the works?

ZM: One of the things we did early on, we were heavily influenced by the idea of California Design, which I take pretty much most people in California don’t know about yet. Even the museums locally have not paid attention yet. But this is not surprising because there has to be a time line between creation and a secondary market. And what people become influenced by is what the curators and institutions do, and certain institutions would never be interested in this.

So one of the things we did years ago was filming some of the people who were living, like Pierre Koenig as an example, and we are the only ones who have really good footage of what happened in California during that time. There are various other people we have on film. We did it to have the knowledge, which was like buying an antiquarian book in a way that we could always look back upon and take something else from.

The idea of making a documentary about it has become very serious, and it is in the stages of being produced now, which I think is a really good thing. The LACMA (LA County Museum of Art) will be doing its first show on California Design in 2011, and hopefully the film will premiere there.

Also we will publish a book about Greta Magnusson Grossman for her touring worldwide show that will open at the Arkitekturmuseet in Stockholm in February of 2011. The book is basically finished, and the pieces are being collected to be shipped to the museum in the next month or two.

We are also working on a book about the history of Brazilian design, which is a huge undertaking on my part, as it is probably a twenty-five-year project. There is so much to discover. If you think about the wave of immigration, it just so happened that Richard Neutra ended up in America and not in South America. That is really the difference.

But the same school of thoughts ended up in Brazil, or Argentina, or Venezuela, and the same kind of thinking mixed with local culture created something that is absolutely amazing and something the Western world was never exposed to. In Brazil the reason why is that it was a military-ruled dictatorship until the mid eighties when it became a democracy after that. So it is just emerging twenty years later, which is really exciting. Brazil is just booming with fashion, art and culture. All of a sudden the brick countries, Russia, India, China, are emerging, and Brazil will definitely lead the way, and it one of the most resourceful countries on earth.

CJ: What would be the best way for San Franciscans to experience R Gallery without visiting New York?

ZM: On our website. We have started to put up video. We have a video about Hugo Franca who is a contemporary Brazilian designer who is a fantastic buy, who works with these first-growth trees that could not be used by industry and were left behind when they were doing clear-cutting in the early days, because they were too oily and did not burn. A lot of these trees are over a thousand years old, and the pieces he makes from them are amazing, which is something that won’t exist in the future. So the video shows how he makes his work.

On the website we also have over a hundred biographies we have written on different designers to give back to the community. There is also a huge bookstore. Books can be bought online, and we also find hard to find publications for passionate collectors

At the SF 20 show we will exhibit amazing pieces by Wendell Castle from the sixties and early seventies, and work by Joaquim Tenreiro and we are hoping to show one piece by Jeff Zimmerman, who is a contemporary artist who works with glass, and we will feature David Wiseman who lives in Los Angeles. He is an incredible young artist who is only twenty seven, but who has an amazing vocabulary, and who has taken the idea that is bespoke and atelier back to a hundred, a hundred and fifty years ago, of how craftsmen would build things for people.

No one does what he does. He does entire ceilings and walls; he can do a whole house, and everything is hand-made from either porcelain, bronze, brass and other kinds of metals. His skill level is unbelievable, and it is all made by his hands.

Unique large ceiling mounted branch sculpture in bronze with illuminated white porcelain blossoms. Designed and made by David Wiseman, 2008. (Photo: Sherry Griffin for R 20th Century.)

CJ: Thank you Zesty. Anything else you would like to share with us?

ZM: I hope more people want to be involved in design and collecting design, and collect it while they still can. At Sotheby’s, at the best 20th Century design sale, they have about 150 lots, which have an average price range for the whole sale of about four to seven million dollars. So for about five million dollars someone can buy a whole sale. I can’t believe no one has done it yet, when they spend ten, fifty, eighty million dollars on a painting. And here someone can come and buy a whole sale and create a collection instantly. I want to see more collectors of design, in addition to art collectors. We have not been trained that way, but we should have been. SF20 is a great start to expose San Franciscans to great modern design.

Unique single serpentine light sculpture in black hand-blown glass. Designed and made by Jeff Zimmerman, 2009. (Photo: Sherry Griffin for R 20th Century.)

Claudia Juestel Douglas Durkin Evan Snyderman Greta Magnussan Grossman Hugo Franca Joaquim Tenreiro Jose Zanine Caldas Mies Van Der Rohe Poul Kjaerholm Richard Neutra Samovar Sergio Rodrigues Steven Volpe Wendell Castle Zesty Meyers
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