A life in objects, with Joel Chen

Joel Chen is one of the most respected, and incurable, antiques and decorative arts dealers in Los Angeles. Next month some of his prize pieces go on sale at Christie’s auction house. Joel and his daughter Bianca talk about their life in objects (no Depeche Mode posters allowed!), and how the Internet has changed the industry.

One day in the 1970s Joel Chen was driving on Melrose and spotted an antique shop selling attractive Chinese antiques. When he knocked on the door the proprietor refused to let him in, saying the shop was for the trade only: “architects, interior designers, and obviously you’re not one.”

Enraged by what he saw then as a racist slight (in retrospect he sees it differently), Chen decided to open his own antiques shop, “and that’s exactly what I did. I opened right behind him.”

He got off to an inauspicious start: “I went to Hong Kong with $6,000 borrowed from the bank and came back with a container full of pure Chinese junk.”

But over 40 years later and following plenty of schooling from magazines, travel and his fellow dealers on Melrose Place, he now owns three spaces totaling around 65,000 square feet on Highland Avenue.

Image from Christie’s catalogue of a portion of JF Chen’s chair collection.

JF Chen contains a huge and eclectic collection of carefully chosen and carefully staged chairs, tables, sofas, armoires, sculptures and artifacts encompassing painted Italian, English Regency, midcentury modern and contemporary.

In Chen’s words, he has “dabbled in 30s, 40s, 50s and all the way to the 80s,” becoming along the way a leading collector of Memphis designer Ettore Sottsass. He also buys today’s objects he believes will be tomorrow’s collectables, by designers including Tanya Aguiñiga, Michael Wilson and Adam Silverman.

Now Chen is thinning his holdings by a tiny amount. This month over 300 of his prize pieces will go on sale at Christie’s auction house.

The “Gold Collection” includes a Sam Maloof rocking chair, an 18th century Chinese blue and white ‘Lotus’ vase, a Carlo Mollino chair, a desk lamp by Greta Magnusson Grossman and two vases by Sottsass.

Bianca Chen, shown here with Joel Chen, hated the antiques business when she was a child but now helps her father run the business, and loves it (photo: Frances Anderton.)

While Chen says he is very flattered by Christie’s interest, this validation comes as no surprise to his longtime followers, who include interior designers, museum curators and entertainment industry collectors, from the late Gene Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor through to Moby, Justin Timberlake, Adele, Robin Williams, Ellen deGeneres and Kanye West.

West, by the way, says Chen, is a fan of 40s and 50s French furniture such as the designer Jean Royère.

Chen talks to DnA about his incurable drive to buy beautiful things, admitting that he’s periodically had a “minimalist urge” although “I’m known to be more is more… and economically, I don’t think [minimalism] works for me.”

A lamp shade designed by contemporary artist Michael Wilson is suspended over a table by Danish midcentury designers Fabricius & Kastholm (photo: Frances Anderton.)

His daughter Bianca, who now co-runs the business, also reflects on growing up with a design connoisseur father who created a beautiful bedroom for her, but “all I wanted was to put up my Depeche Mode posters on my walls and he would not let me,” because he did not want tape on the walls.

They also share their thoughts on how they are adapting to an industry now dominated by the Internet — where you can find everything online and buy something in three seconds, but the thrill of the hunt is gone, and today’s shopper “no longer needs to go anywhere.”

“JF Chen, The Gold Standard,” goes on sale online from 7 February, and in New York on 13 February. Click here for more information.

Chen arranges pieces from different eras and countries in compositions based on how objects “speak to each other” (photo: Frances Anderton.)