How Moderne Gallery Renews Wooden Relics

Where art, antiques and renewable energy all meet

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At first, the assumption may be that art deco and renewable energy are two dichotomous realms, never to cross paths. Robert Aibel from Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia and Inspire prove otherwise.

Tell us about the path your career took prior to owning Moderne Gallery.

Robert: I had a lot of different careers before I had this one. First, I was a documentary filmmaker completing my masters and PhD at The University of Pennsylvania in Communications. Then, from 1974 to 1992, I was a professor both at the Annenberg School for Communication at UPenn and Drexel in Philadelphia. I taught Aesthetic Communications, which is just exactly that: understanding how art communicates. I also taught film to graduate students.

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How does your academic background in Communications relate to what you do now?

Robert: My focus has always been aesthetics and art. Additionally, I had a specialized interested in a field called Social Communication, and for my dissertation I looked at how art plays a role in communication and people — how do artists communicate to the world, how does the art that you live with or surround yourself affect the type of communication that takes place, or changes it? Specifically, I looked at a small community in central Pennsylvania where there was a surprisingly large amaeteur art scene. Being apart of that art scene was one component of communicating who you were, as well as the the way you painted, the art you hung on your walls, and the furniture you collected.

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Moderne Gallery is primarily a vintage 20th Century furniture gallery. It seems like you were involved with many aspects of aesthetics and art. How did you finally land on furniture?

Robert: In 1984 I decided that I wanted to make my interests in antiques a more substantial part of my life. I bought a new home and was lucky enough to receive a grant to go to Paris to finish my research at the same time. I went there thinking I would possibly buy some pieces for my new house in Philadelphia, but when I started diving into the Art Deco that I found in France, all of a sudden I knew I that needed to do this for a living. So, I purchased more pieces than I had anticipated, went back to Philadelphia and bought a warehouse in Old City. Eventually, I moved into this space in 1989.

As one of the first galleries in Philadelphia, what changes have you noticed in the art scene throughout the years?

Robert: The changes in Philly were slow to develop. In 1984, when I purchased my warehouse, there were about five galleries in Old City and one good restaurant in all of Philly. By 1991, we had about 35. Once the movement gained some momentum, all the gallery owners decided we needed to let people know it had finally happened in a place that was not New York City. As a result, we started First Fridays1 in Old City. I was on the initial committee and the first president of the Old City Arts Association.

Old City was the first artists community. However, as it usually goes, prices increased and the artists have been forced to move further and further away, first to Northern Liberties and now to Fishtown and Kensington. Sometimes I wonder if it’s moving too fast these days.

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In your opinion, where do art and sustainability intersect?

Robert: For what I do specifically, there are a lot of points of intersection. Antiquing itself is a recycling business. All you’re doing is improving upon things that have already been made. I deal with things that were created between 1700 and 1940, and bringing them back to people once more. Antiques themselves are renewable entities.

Additionally, we are the prime gallery in the world for the work of George Nakashima. He was an artist primarily focused on wood; he called it “the second life of the tree.” One of his commitments, in addition to his work being beautiful, was the idea of not harvesting any wood himself. He would gets calls from around the world when natural disasters caused trees to fall. That respect for the second life is a major component to how they run their business and ours.

Tell us why you wanted your gallery to support wind power with Inspire.

Robert: I’m happy to live in a city like Philadelphia that is so interested in sustainability. We do what we can to cut down on costs and our usage, keeping the heat low and the lights off as much as possible. When I found out that Inspire works with wind, it was an easy choice for me. Considering the lack of concern regarding climate change with the current administration, it really is up to us as individuals to do the right thing and execute on these sustainability initiatives.

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Spend an afternoon admiring at:
Moderne Gallery
111 N. 3rd St.
Philadelphia, PA 19106

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