Journey to a Center of the Earth

This article is part of our latest Design special report, about creative people finding fresh ways to interpret ideas from the past.


The married founders of the architecture and design firm Roman and Williams, Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, are known for their dramatic room schemes that often use saturated colors and layers of objects to communicate richness and depth.

Their work includes the restaurant Le Coucou at the edge of Chinatown in Manhattan; the Ace Hotel in New York’s NoMad neighborhood; the British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and an indoor-outdoor dining hall for Facebook’s Silicon Valley headquarters. They designed many projects for the actor Ben Stiller, who made the introduction when they won a 2014 National Design Award, regarded as the highest honor in their field. They also did two Goop stores.

Their latest project has them coming down to earth: They are opening the ceramics-focused Guild Gallery on Canal Street in New York that will exhibit works by a dozen artists. The gallery opens on Nov. 11 with a show of the London-based ceramist Akiko Hirai.

The project grew out of Roman and Williams Guild, the couple’s four-year-old design boutique and cafe just a few steps away from the new gallery, though the true source may be “our total object lust,” Ms. Standefer said.

As they worked with ceramists to stock the Guild, where vases and dishes are mixed with furniture, lighting and many other items, the duo started to see the pieces in a new way.

“We realized there weren’t that many places that really housed, really supported these artists, especially in the U.S.,” Ms. Standefer said.

She added, “This is about isolating form, taking it out of context and really experiencing the object.”

Guild Gallery will have six to eight shows a year and may include artists who work with materials other than clay. The space itself, with mostly off-white walls, is restrained in a way that is fairly new for Roman and Williams.

“We’ve been asking, ‘What does it mean to be more distilled?’” Ms. Standefer said, noting that the downtime of the coronavirus pandemic encouraged a new approach. “It took a while to get to a different level of quiet.”

The oak plinths that will hold objects will be a pared-back version of the firm’s signature retro-industrial style, but they will still have details aplenty. Long discussions went into the shadow line, or three-dimensional appearance, of the plinth’s edges, Mr. Alesch said; ditto for the delicate linen scrims that will separate the works.

The gallery’s opening comes at a time of renewed interest in ceramics, as evidenced by exhibitions like the recently opened “Ceramics in the Expanded Field,” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass., until April 2023.

“The revival has been happening for a decade or more,” said Luke Syson, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, in England, and formerly the Met’s curator in charge of European sculpture and decorative arts.

“As we get further into the digital age, those aspects of craft that depend on contact between material and hand have become more prized,” Mr. Syson said.

He added: “There’s always been a connection between pots and people. Just think of the terms we use to describe them, like shoulder, belly and neck.”

Mr. Syson was part of the Met team that worked with Roman and Williams on the British Galleries, which opened in March 2020, only to be temporarily closed a week later because of the pandemic.

“As things evolved, we realized certain artists just required, and deserved, to be seen with more space — and I think the British Galleries had a lot to do with it,” Ms. Standefer said.

The couple received tips on compensating artists and other dynamics from the international art dealer David Zwirner, who operates multiple galleries and is a friend and client. (Mr. Alesch and Ms. Standefer are working on a project for him in Montauk, N.Y., where they also have a home.)

“I egged them on a little,” Mr. Zwirner said. “I warned Robin, be careful what you wish for. Artists tend to be complicated.”

In particular, he thought that Guild could fill a gap in the gallery scene.

“We’re always talking about inclusivity in the art world, and we mean that sociologically,” Mr. Zwirner said. “But we have to be inclusive making-wise, too. We have a brutal hierarchy” — one that tends to devalue craft.

“It’s a diss at Art Basel to say something is decorative,” Mr. Zwirner said.

As Mr. Alesch put it, “It’s a little old-fashioned to think of fine art as always of painting.”

He and Ms. Standefer are known for digging deeply into their interests. They have a kiln in Montauk and have experimented with firing clay there. When their travels over the past few years took them to Tokyo on business more than a dozen times, they explored Japanese ceramics.

“Our recreation on a Tokyo weekend was to walk around and see all the exhibits, all the small galleries with these poetic, perfect shows,” Mr. Alesch said. He noted that the robust British tradition of clay will also be reflected in the gallery’s program.

Ms. Hirai, born in Japan and educated in England, reflects both influences. She will be showing about 40 works, including large “moon jars” standing more than two feet tall. The jars, whose surfaces are covered with cracks, speckles and heaps of messy accretions, are inspired by a Korean example in the British Museum.

As they discussed how to arrange such objects, the newly minted gallerists noted that they had some early résumé qualifications. Ms. Standefer worked reception for the legendary dealer Leo Castelli and as an assistant for the Pop artist James Rosenquist; Mr. Alesch was once a guard at what is now MoMA PS1 in Queens.

Their more recent history with design projects has taught them that people are seeking tactile experiences, an urge that Guild Gallery may be able to satisfy, at least for some collectors (prices will range from $5,000 to $50,000).

“I think people are really interested in material now,” Ms. Standefer said. “With ceramics and clay, it’s from the earth, and there’s a purity. I think people love that tradition and that story.”