&ldqou;Sean Gerstley: Tile Block” at Superhouse Vitrine. Photography by Sean Davidson
“Dance Around the Pool of Life” (2023) by Alfhild Külper. Photography by Luis Corzo
“Paa Joe: Celestial Cities.” Photography by Brian Ferry

At Superhouse, Stephen Markos Carries a Collectible Design Torch

With a more spacious home straddling two vibrant downtown Manhattan neighborhoods, the design gallery is ready to bring its unorthodox program to even greater heights.

With a more spacious home straddling two vibrant downtown Manhattan neighborhoods, the design gallery is ready to bring its unorthodox program to even greater heights.

A closet-size storefront in a Chinatown mini-mall tucked underneath the rumbling Manhattan Bridge may not seem like the most intuitive place to open a gallery dedicated to collectible design, but it made perfect sense for Stephen Markos. In 2019, he launched an Instagram account dedicated to elevating leftfield contemporary designers and contextualizing them within the work of their forebears from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Two years later, as the industry was starting to come up for air following the early pandemic, he acquired the shoebox space in Chinatown and christened it Superhouse Vitrine. His concept was simple, yet no less radical than his favorite style of furniture—eschew the industry’s tendency to gatekeep collectible design in stuffy showrooms by displaying them in a glass box that anyone can engage with. 

In the years since, Superhouse has emerged as one of New York City’s premier contemporary design galleries to watch, thanks in large part to Markos’s keen ability to identify obscure makers with offbeat ideas that can appeal to discerning collectors and the downtown set. Superhouse’s solo exhibitions have platformed exclusively up-and-comers, helping introduce the market to the fabulous talents of Kim Mupangilaï, Sean Gerstley, Ellen Pong, Alfhild Külper, and Ryan Decker. He occasionally displays their work alongside archival pieces he hand-picked from the past, collapsing decades of design history into an evocative whole united by a maverick, exploratory spirit. One show even tracked down 20 pieces from Art et Industrie, the erstwhile downtown design gallery that helped launch the careers of Michele Oka Doner and Terence Main. Perhaps the torch has been passed.

“Super Group 2” at Superhouse Vitrine. Photography by Sean Davidson

Thanks to Markos’s unorthodox curation, opening nights at Superhouse tend to draw a crowd. Only two or three people can possibly cram inside the 200-square-foot vitrine, so hosting events posed logistical challenges as the gallery’s profile rose. Markos spent the past six months scouring downtown real estate for a more spacious home that would allow his artists to present more ambitious works and accommodate bigger groups. He found it at a 1,500-square-foot gallery on the border of Chinatown and Tribeca, marking the booming art neighborhood’s latest entry and joining fellow design galleries R & Company, Jacqueline Sullivan, and Twenty First. It opens today with “Celestial City,” an exhibition of carved wooden coffins known as abeduu adeka (“proverb boxes”) by acclaimed Ghanaian sculptor Paa Joe that pays homage to the Big Apple. Two human-size coffins are shaped like a Heinz ketchup bottle and a yellow taxi; others recreate Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and an Hermès Birkin bag. 

Markos caught up with Surface ahead of the gallery’s grand opening.

When you first launched the Superhouse Instagram account, did you foresee this much growth and enthusiasm?

Short answer, no. I started the Instagram account to gauge an external reaction to my taste and interests. I started getting positive reinforcement through likes and followers, and then bigger people in the industry started noticing. That gave me confidence to trust my eye, but I didn’t think it would grow as quickly as it has. I started the Instagram account in 2019 and quickly started doing online exhibitions, planning pop-ups, and experimenting with ways to engage with a social media audience that now seem common but four years ago were nascent. 

Operating a physical gallery and curating an Instagram grid are apples and oranges, but how has your curatorial approach evolved since launching Superhouse Vitrine in 2021?

With the Instagram account, I could look out into the world, into the past, and into what other artists were doing, and simply post to my heart’s content. With the gallery, I tried to create a distinct program that aligns with general themes in the industry but are hopefully distinct to Superhouse. There are various practical concerns about going from a social media account to a commercial gallery, too. You need to sell to sustain the business, which requires learning about what the public and collectors like.

Bina Chaise by Kim Mupangilaï. Photography by Luis Corzo
&ldqou;Sean Gerstley: Tile Block” at Superhouse Vitrine. Photography by Sean Davidson

Your openings usually attract a crowd to the point where you almost can’t move in the mall. When did you know that you outgrew the space in Chinatown?

The space in Chinatown was a real experiment. It started off with this 100-square-foot cube, and after a couple of shows I realized it would be great to have more space. An adjoining space was occupied by another gallery called Tramps, but they left maybe six months after I moved in, so I grabbed it. A year into being in the mall, I realized there were various constraints—not only limited square footage, but not having space for people to gather. I did a talk there with Felix Burrichter from Pin-Up and some artists from the 1980s Functional Art Movement. There was a ton of interest in the speakers so a lot of people came, but it was jam-packed! The space just wasn’t conducive to a large talk. 

I called it a vitrine to drive home the fact that you could view these exhibitions from behind the windows, but even then that concept meant putting a barrier between the viewer and the work. There were limits to not only what I could exhibit, but anything that augmented the exhibitions. It was all very purposeful, but there were barriers to building the community. So I started ratcheting up the search for a new home over the past six months. 

Part of why your exhibitions are so well-attended seems to be because you bring so many undiscovered and leftfield talents to the table that perhaps more established galleries are afraid to touch—and how you contextualize new work within avant-garde design history. What has been your greatest discovery throughout this time?

I have a lot of one-on-one time with the artists, and I encourage collaboration and dialogue in terms of how we’re going to approach the exhibitions, show the works, pick the works, and identify which works they should develop. We’re both really hands-on. It’s been wonderful to work with everyone in that way.

Having an exhibition on the Functional Art Movement of the 1980s was really pivotal. I was finally able to show how my interests historically lie with that group. It showed how the legacy of contemporary makers right now is really a legacy from artists and designers working during the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Even though that was only 30 or 40 years ago, there’s this through line. That was a really key and great moment of the past three years. 

Peaks and Valleys coffee table by Ellen Pong. Photography by Luis Corzo
“Dance Around the Pool of Life” (2023) by Alfhild Külper. Photography by Luis Corzo

What are your biggest goals for the new gallery?

First and foremost, serve my artists better by giving them a larger and more centrally located space. There’s an amassing of attention in Tribeca. It feels like Chelsea now, where every block is an art block. In the past month as I’ve been setting up, I’ve spent more time there and noticed artwork constantly being moved in and out of galleries. It’s a nice environment and community. 

Hopefully, a larger space will offer more flexibility in terms of what my artists can show. If they’re working on something larger, we can accommodate that. I want to put on more programming and find different ways to bring people in, whether it’s a film screening, talk, or evening event. The space also has a back room, where I can display something new that my artists are working on but may not necessarily be a full body of work yet. For example, if a work doesn’t sell or a collector misses the show, I can bring it into that back room and they can still view it.

There seems a fervor for collectible design right now among the downtown set. 

There are galleries that are no longer around, like Art et Industrie, which was showing collectible design in the ‘80s, and galleries like Friedman Benda and R & Company that have been doing it for 20-30 years. It feels like there’s a lot more happening today. My impression is the market is getting bigger and people want to expand how they’re living and interacting with aesthetics and narratives. That can go beyond the walls. My bed is this amazing ceramic tile block work by Sean Gerstley. It makes me feel great, and I think people are waking up to that. 

Also, because the work is functional, galleries are presenting it in different ways than a white cube. Design galleries do a great job at creating really dynamic installations, which goes to show that it’s really about an environment instead of an individual piece. 

“Paa Joe: Celestial Cities.” Photography by Brian Ferry
“Paa Joe: Celestial Cities.” Photography by Brian Ferry

Inaugurating this new era with life-size coffins by Paa Joe seems like an apt metaphor for your new space—rebirth, starting anew, honoring the city you call home. How did you discover his work and what compelled you to launch this new era with him?

Paa Joe is in his 80s and not necessarily on Instagram, but his son, Jacob, is a really savvy guy, and is always finding new ways for people to engage with his father’s work. I shot him a DM and he was super friendly. For the past 60 or 70 years, he and Kane Kwei have been making these figurative coffins for their community around Accra. They’ve always been indicative of something important to the deceased. For example, a farmer who made his fortune on onions commissioned a coffin shaped like a giant onion. There are these really nice ways that Paa Joe and his community use images to honor the deceased and celebrate their life. They’re very open to commissioning work and open to whatever type of imagery is important to you.

I’ve lived in New York for almost two decades and feel really connected to the city. I suggested doing something focused on New York, so we started talking about different symbols. Neither Jacob nor Paa Joe have ever been here, so everything they created was through images they might see online, in books, and in their imagination. There are all these fantastic idiosyncratic details that show how they weren’t necessarily familiar with the city. For example, they made a bagel, but it doesn’t have a hole. They made a Guggenheim Museum, but it’s spelled incorrectly. 

You once described Superhouse Vitrine as a “cabinet of curiosities.” How would you describe the new gallery?

The word that comes to mind is “expansive,” and in many different directions!

Portrait photography by Brian Ferry.

“Paa Joe: Celestial Cities” will be on view at Superhouse (120 Walker St, New York) until April 26.

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