In the past months we got in touch with several artists, long-time collaborators and young creatives to talk about their work, how they see self-expression and what the future holds. Let’s inspire each other, be our true selves and do what we love.
On a sunny Wednesday morning we meet Alain Hens in Antwerp, Belgium. For over twenty years Alain has been collecting and dealing 20th-century furniture and modern art. Being part of the first generation of online traders, Alain talks us through the start of his career, his approach and his love for niche and sometimes overlooked vintage design pieces.
You work in a very interesting niche, how did you get started?
I actually get that question a lot. In the past, this type of work was often passed down from father to son. But with me, it was really a matter of chance. An acquaintance of mine told me that he sold items online. That was back in 2003. E-commerce was still a foreign concept. It was at the time when eBay had just come here from America. I was particularly intrigued by the idea of selling things on the internet and then getting payments through PayPal. It was a lot like how many of us now feel about bitcoin and NFTs. You sort of get it, but then you also don’t really – but curiosity drives you. In the beginning, I went to flea markets – this was during my studies at the UA – and started buying and selling. I found items like Ivory Billiard balls and Boch vases. From there, I systematically became more and more design-focused. That’s how I got into it. At one point I bought a van, then a storage unit, and it kept growing.
So you started online and only later opened a brick-and-mortar store?
Oh yeah, I ran the online store for almost 10 years. I’ve been doing this for about 20 years now and the physical store has been going for exactly 10 years too. I was part of that first generation of online traders. It’s crazy to realise that this is my job now because it doesn’t feel like it. I’ve always enjoyed doing this so much.
2003 seems quite early for an online marketplace to take off, what was it like?
Yes, that was a time when the first TomTom came out, it was the advent of the digital camera, which you could buy for 900 euros and had 1 megapixel. That was really a period when time and space were completely pulled apart in a new way. You could suddenly sell products to someone in Tokyo.
People weren’t used to buying online. Was it difficult to earn enough trust from customers for them to make purchases?
Actually no, not at all. That’s the irony. In the beginning, there were only a few offers online, but the demand was high. It was a novelty. People didn’t have smartphones, so they sat behind their computers waiting for auctions to finish – that just shows you the level of interest. There was a lot of bidding, especially the emotional kind. The economy was also good so it was quite lucrative in those years. Later on, it became more difficult to stand out, with the arrival of Marketplace and tweedehands.be, and so on. That was also the reason why I decided to open a physical space 10 years later.
Do you feel that people are now more in tune with design trends thanks to the internet?
In a way, design has become more accessible, but I think a lot of people are under the illusion that they know a lot about it. A good example is the Eames launch chair. If you search that in Google, the first 40 models are fake. The one who pays the most for SEO is at the top, not the one that’s relevant or correct. Think about sofas. There are many “it”-sofas, for example, those Scarpa things. People know those and then think they know a lot about vintage. But there is so much more to discover and that’s what I try to do: to look beyond the big names and the big production houses. I look at small, local names. I look for the overlooked.
Do you think this defines your work?
Yes, definitely. The other day someone came in and asked if there was a market for a certain item. I thought that was an interesting question because in the 20 years of doing this, I myself have never thought much about whether there is a market for my items or not. Never. This may sound strange to many people, but to me it makes sense. I try to surprise myself every time by viewing, purchasing, and studying items that haven’t been noticed yet. Because of the internet you now have the advantage of being able to go a lot more niche and still get picked up. You reach people a lot easier. So it’s also easier for me to find more niche products or artists. It often happens that I work with lesser-known artists who have an exhibition in Paris 4 or 5 years later. I always try to look beyond the horizon. I didn’t start as a collector, but rather as a businessman. I wanted to buy and sell, but now I think I am more of a collector than I was then.
My approach, I think, is very much linked to my personality. Some people approach this profession in a much more detached way which makes it more standardised. For example, if you focus on design classics or collaborate with interior architects, then what you create is confined by certain expectations. I’ve never wanted to do this. I also find it very difficult when people ask me: “oh we are looking for this, can you find it for us?” I don’t want to do that and I don’t. Pieces find me or I come across them and then I can offer them. The internet makes it easy for people to find a specific product themselves. The middle man falls away in this sense. If you want butterfly chairs tomorrow, you can open a site and find them. Who am I to get in the middle of that? In the last year, I’ve been focusing more on niche products and art. My customers are usually people who have experience with design, they are not beginners or people buying a piece for the first time. They also tend to be a little older. But I especially like to look for more niche pieces myself and find one-of-a-kind items. I can’t imagine looking for the same chair every day. That would be sad. I want a challenge.