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Former Advertising Executive Turns His Stunning Private Loft Home Into a Retail Treasure Trove

The Wild Finds of Russell Brightwell

BY // 03.12.18
photography PÅR BENGTSSON

“Everything I collect is significant,” says Russell Brightwell, a former advertising executive who moved from Houston to Dallas in October, with a valuable and stylish trove amassed from a lifetime of shopping and traveling. “What I collect has to be handsome.

“It’s got to be pretty. But I approach things from a scholarly point of view — I like the stories behind the stuff.”

Unexpectedly, these stories unfold in Brightwell’s one-room Parry Avenue loft — a unique retail setting staged inside a private residence. The interior is impeccably arranged, with roughly 500 decorative objects, works of art, books, and furnishings available to peruse and purchase by appointment.

The inventory ranges from a 1970s Pollo vase by Tapio Wirkkala for Rosenthal to a blanket designed by British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman for Louis Vuitton. And, of course, it is kept “photo shoot ready at all times,” he says.

Brightwell’s penchant for collecting began in the mid-1980s, when he was a student at Parsons School of Design in New York, pinching pennies to buy samples and seconds from Swid Powell — the manufacturer known for its design collaborations with noteworthy architects, including Zaha Hadid and Richard Meier.

Today, Brightwell has several Swid Powell pieces on offer in his loft boutique, including large silver candlesticks designed by Meier and Robert A.M. Stern.

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His retail entrée was a long time coming, beginning 13 years ago when, after working in London and New York, Brightwell returned home to open an ad agency in Houston. After years of success, passion took precedence, and a career switch was on.

But as he began putting together a retail concept last summer, Hurricane Harvey slammed the Gulf Coast. The hurricane’s devastation gave him permission to try something different, and with help from childhood friend and Dallas interior designer Alice Cottrell, Brightwell moved north.

In Dallas, Cottrell helped find Brightwell’s live-work loft, inside a renovated 1900s-era building across from Fair Park. With its 12-foot-high ceilings, exposed-brick walls, concrete floors, and original casement windows, it’s the perfect backdrop for Brightwell’s collections.

Cottrell designed the loft with furniture from Brightwell’s previous residences. Everything has a price tag, including a set of Pierre Cardin dining chairs in their original velvet; a Corbusier dining table; and a 1950s Florence Knoll settee with a rare wood base.

Brightwell took care of the loft’s styling — a talent that has made him a go-to for interior designers, who can purchase entire collections and singular pieces to add a final layer to a job.

Cassina LC6 table from Sunset Settings, Houston. Vintage Pierre Cardin chairs, 1970, from Vinya. Framed, Chapman Brothers’ Garden in Hell blanket for Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2013. Eames side chair for Herman Miller.
Cassina LC6 table from Sunset Settings, Houston. Vintage Pierre Cardin chairs, 1970, from Vinya. Framed, Chapman Brothers’ Garden in Hell blanket for Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2013. Eames side chair for Herman Miller.

Brightwell’s reputation as a resource for distinctive, vintage design objects boils down to his rich knowledge and flawless taste.

“My venture is about the idea of reuse,” he says. “Most of what I have you can’t find in stores, or it’s no longer in production.”

To that end, things needn’t be precious to be special; Brightwell also looks for items that were once mass-produced and now nearly impossible to find. Marcel Wanders vases — made years ago for Target, selling for $30 — are virtually unavailable, and now command upwards of $650 each.

“‘Mass produced’ just means they were made in large numbers,” he says. “But there’s nothing cheap about them. It’s the scarcity and rarity that’s compelling.”

When Dutch industrial designer Hella Jongerius, whose work is in the permanent collection at the V&A museum, designed a collection of vases for IKEA, the price was $80 each. Now, Brightwell owns a pair with an asking price of $750.

Even Tiffany & Co., he says, creates machine-produced collectibles, including a Frank Gehry designed bowl and vase, which rarely come up for sale anymore. “I gave the bowl to my mother, and I’m still trying to finagle a way to get it back from her,” he says.

VIP Treasure Hunting

In a business like this, access is everything — and Brightwell has spent 30 years developing an international network of dealers and sellers to help him land front of line when special items are introduced or when a rare vintage piece becomes available.

It’s a strategy that has proved fruitful. When Louis Vuitton collaborated with British visual artists the Chapman Brothers on a limited-edition blanket, the U.S. market was set to receive only one. As a VIP client, Brightwell was given first dibs — and the artful piece, with its fantastical creatures and garden flowers, now hangs framed in Lucite on his wall.

At right, Stanley Tigerman porcelain candlesticks for Swid Powell. Alice Cottrell-designed sectional and ottomans made by Kisabeth. Artwork by Thurston Hopkins, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kurt Hutton, Ben Eine, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Richard Woods.
At right, Stanley Tigerman porcelain candlesticks for Swid Powell. Alice Cottrell-designed sectional and ottomans made by Kisabeth. Artwork by Thurston Hopkins, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kurt Hutton, Ben Eine, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Richard Woods.

Brightwell’s mix is a visual feast: He is attracted to classical shapes. “I like polished, tailored things,” he says.

One example is a Regency-inspired walnut and inlaid-sycamore fruit bowl, handcrafted by David Linley, the 2nd Earl of Snowdon. And he is wild for vintage white pottery, including his 1970s handled urns by British potter Hornsea. He snatches up glazed-black Wedgwood when he can find it and currently has a pair of Ravenstone urns, circa 1960.

Pieces by the 1980s Milan-based Memphis Group are enjoying a resurgence, and Brightwell has scored a resin Senape vase by the movement’s founder, Ettore Sottsass.

Hundreds of art, photography, and design books are chosen for their cultural significance, beauty, and rarity.

“I have lots of books about David LaChapelle and Mario Testino, and a great selection of Bruce Weber books, including his controversial Abercrombie & Fitch quarterly,” he says. “My Windows of Bergdorf Goodman special edition is already out of print.”

Brightwell started collecting Visionaire publications in the 1990s, and he has a handful in stock, including No. 18, which sports a custom sleeve by Louis Vuitton and goes for $2,500.

Art is also a focus, and Brightwell is a master at locating limited-edition collectables by well-known designers and artists — pieces that often fetch a fraction of the cost of an original work.

Spotting affordable works by museum-collected artists began during his London days. British painter Patrick Caulfield’s works on paper are a favorite of his. Currently hanging in the loft is Caulfield’s Along a Twilighted Sky, 1973.

Australian product designer Marc Newson’s Lockheed lounge broke records when it sold for more than $3 million at auction in 2015 — but his futuristic Sci-Fi vase is a more cost-effective object, and Brightwell has one for $1,800.

Works by Pop artist KAWS typically sell for six figures, but the artist’s toys for MoMA make owning a KAWS within reach. Brightwell bought three before they sold out and encased them in Lucite boxes.

A collection of 10 Swid Powell plates, custom-designed by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Robert Mapplethorpe, hang as an installation. And Brightwell is in the early stages of collaborating with regional artists to design original plates, including Houston’s Randy Twaddle.

While his collection is certainly personal, Brightwell keeps it all professional. “Someone once asked how I felt about selling all these things — if I was attached to them,” he says. “I value them and the story behind them, but it makes me happy to let them go.”

Still, it’s less about making a sale and more about the object, the story, and the pursuit. “People can come and immerse themselves in the space,” he says. “They don’t have to buy anything. I’m more interested in helping people learn.”

The result is a hybrid museum/shopping experience, where items on display are accompanied by a photograph and historic-information sheet; when purchased, they come charmingly wrapped in recycled newsprint and presented in a vintage box or bag — because, naturally, Brightwell collects those, too.

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