Art

Koray Duman Is the Go-To Architect for Lower East Side Galleries

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Osman Can Yerebakan

Architect Koray Duman. Photo by Kunning Huang. Courtesy Koray Duman.

Architect Koray Duman’s designs for the art world have taught him that there’s a kinship between artists and architects. “A great aspect of working with artists is that they, like people in my field, obsess over a detail and will not let that be overlooked,” he told Artsy. Perhaps for this very reason, the founder of the Lower East Side firm Büro Koray Duman has compiled an impressive list of clients filled with artists and gallerists, many of whom became aware of his practice through word of mouth.

Candice Madey—the founder of an eponymous space located at a Rivington Street storefront initially designed by Duman in 2016, for her former gallery On Stellar Rays—recommended him to artist Miranda Fengyuan Zhang, who was in search of an architect for her upstate studio-cum-house. Zhang then connected Koray to Mendes Wood DM co-founder Matthew Wood when that Brazilian gallery decided to open up shop in a 7,000-square-foot Tribeca space last fall. Wood again turned to Duman to work on his gallery’s new upstate outpost that will be located in an 18th-century barn in Germantown, New York, and is slated to open in September. This year, Duman also helmed the design of Helena Anrather’s new Bowery storefront, moving from a second-story space in the same neighborhood to a new location and tripling in size.

Mendes Wood DM in Tribeca. Courtesy of Mendes Wood DM.

Duman, 45, believes that the pandemic has led to a shared vulnerability and a “dropping of the guards,” which has “affected the way we engage with interiors,” he said. “Young galleries today want visitors to feel comfortable and even hang out.” He thinks that white cubes and their stereotypically aloof energy (a characteristic associated with Chelsea’s warehouse format) are now evolving into more welcoming spaces with programming—and design—that reflects that and invites the public to stay longer.

“We put a big table and a few stools in front of the gallery for people to hang out at Mendes Wood DM,” he pointed out, “and a bench in front of a window at Helena’s.” The second part of Mendes Wood DM’s Tribeca space, which is also slated to open this September, will have a backyard patio decorated with plants.

“Juilia Wachtel: Fulfillment” at Helena Anrather’s new Bowery space. Courtesy of Helena Arathers and the artist.

Duman’s big break came in 2014, when he was introduced to Richard Prince by the artist’s former studio manager. The Pictures Generation artist quickly hired Duman to transform a four-story, 11,000-square-foot industrialist Harlem building into his studio. The following year, Prince called on the architect again to design his upstate New York foundation, a 5,000-square-foot exhibition and storage space that sits on 250 acres of land.

That relationship would continue to pay dividends. A board member at the Noguchi Museum Happened to be a Prince collector, and suggested the inclusion of Duman’s firm in the select few to be invited in 2016 to propose projects for the museum’s Art and Archive Building. Büro Koray Duman won the competition and is creating a 5,600-square-foot, one-story brick building, which will also include a research room and storage space. (Located adjacent to the polymath Minimalist Isamu Noguchi‘s historic studio, the project faced a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Most recently, when Martos Gallery needed help exhibiting Bob Smith’s intricate box constructions for this summer’s show “Bob Smith: Art Remains A Witness To A Life,” a close mutual friend in the late artist’s estate put them in touch with Duman. The architect proposed a few sketches, including a cabinet of curiosities and a serpentine table, for display of around 40 sculptures that the artist had created mainly in the 1980s in reaction to the AIDS crisis. The mutual agreement between Koray and the show’s curator, Bob Nickas, was on a group of stainless steel pedestals inspired by the tables Smith had designed for his own show in France in 1968—a fitting homage in the first exhibition of this body of work in three families.

This wasn’t the first time Duman had assumed the role of exhibition designer: In 2015, he designed a Frieze fair booth in London for Amie Siegel‘s solo presentation with Simon Preston Gallery. The architect’s very first flirtation with the art world in New York, however, was to help the nonprofit Creative Time pro bono, constructing its Anthony McCall installation on Governors Island in 2009.

Duman moved to the United States from his native Turkey in 1998 to pursue a master’s degree in architecture at UCLA. After graduation, Duman worked for five years at Los Angeles–based Frederick Fisher and Partners, which has overseen design of various cultural projects across the country, including the renovation of MoMA PS1.

“When I moved to New York in 2005, my portfolio heavily included art projects, so I naturally started out with helping young galleries, mainly around the Lower East Side,” Duman explained. One lesson he has learned from working in the city has been to embrace the reality of existing architecture. He approaches gallery design as “a balance between working around the spatial constraints and how the gallery wants to be perceived,” he said.

Historical elements, such as columns or tin ceilings, are characteristics Duman chooses to emphasize, pushing back against the generic white cube designs that are so common. He’s also happy to accommodate nontraditional ideas when galleries have them, as when the Bowery’s Arsenal Contemporary asked him to eschew the typical back office for an open table and reception desk at the entrance. “The important question is to create space for meaningful exhibitions in an oftentimes irregular structure,” he said.

The Lower East Side has been Duman’s main stomping grounds for both life and work, and he feels a deep affection for the downtown scene. “The scale is much more human downtown, and the informality feels less threatening,” he said. “Galleries can operate on a more in-between scale and experiment.” His engagement with the area has always been in this vein, such as the collaboration between Madey and Duman, who at one point moved his firm to the gallerist’s former space. The configuration of an architectural firm in a former exhibition space led to “second-floor salon sessions,” in which the two invited friends in art and design to host casual conversations.

“Art Remains A Witness To A Life,” an exhibition of Bob Smith’s work at Martos Gallery. Image courtesy of Martos Gallery and the artist’s estate.

The series has been a further outgrowth of Duman’s community-based approach to the art world. Through these gatherings, for example, he has connected Protocinema founder Mari Spirito with Lower East Side organization The Clemente, where the Istanbul- and New York-based art nonprofit recently hosted a group exhibition, titled “Now That We Have Established A Common Ground.”

Duman was more than happy to assist, even if it wasn’t with one of his designs. “I like my role to be a help for artists,” he said, “to support them with my time or finances to realize their ideas.”

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