Tuesday, May 8, 2018

"A piece of heart, part of a soul, a private moment in someone's life": Meet Curator Hugo Lai of hugomento

Hugo Lai among his beautiful ceramics and textiles at hugomento in Dogpatch, San Francisco.
Entering the tiny shop of hugomento in the blue building on 22nd Street you can feel your shoulders relax.  Soft music is playing, the faint scent of incense fills the air and your eye rests on various vignettes of ceramics and textiles arranged almost as if the owner had known how you would arrange them in your own home.

Then you hear the rumble of what sounds like an ice machine behind a beautiful walnut Eames screen.  Yes, that is an ice machine and you can also spy a stainless steel work table revealing that this space was previously home to Piccino's coffee bar and most recently, the Recchiuti Chocolate retail space, Little Nib.

But the rumblings don't break the spell of wanting to touch each piece of pottery.  Go ahead, owner Hugo Lai encourages it and is on hand to share with you the artist's story for each piece in his shop.

Why do you do what you do?
I have collected pottery for more than 15 years.  I have met talented artists through the SF Open Studios and also throughout my travels.  I was really drawn to pottery as I got to know the artists.  I liked that you could touch the pieces, unlike a painting or other type of art.  I especially liked hearing the story of the artist who made the piece and discovering what influenced them while they created the piece.  You can feel the soul of each piece as you hold it.

I realized that many of the artists are talented at what they do but not so much at marketing themselves or having a platform to show their work.  This is especially true for emerging or unknown artists.

And telling stories is what I'm good at after having spent 23 years in marketing and advertising in agencies and corporations.  In 2016 I left my position as a partner in a local advertising agency.  I was burnt out and ready for a change.  I decided to travel and think about what my next step would be.  I'm from Hong Kong and my family is still there so I also spent a lot of time there.  (editor's note:  Hugo is the youngest of six children -- he has five sisters!)
Curator Hugo Lai  relaxes at his store hugomento in the blue building on 22nd street in Dogpatch, San Francisco. 

I was always creating art as a kid but realized I wasn't talented enough.  So when I came to the U.S. in 1989 for college, I knew I wanted to pursue something that was both creative and practical and advertising seemed like a good fit for me.

So now that I was ready for a change, I knew in my gut I wanted to do something with art and specifically, pottery. I like to think of my shop as a hybrid gallery and concept shop but that is still evolving.  The original pieces in the shop were from my own collection.  I carry pieces by local artists as well as artists outside the U.S.  --- storied objects from near and far is how I like to describe how I acquire items.  And I want the shop to feel accessible -- not stuffy or off-putting.  I've tried to arrange the pieces as how customers might display them in their own home. And my pricing is also accessible -- my ceramic pieces range right now from $30-$450.

I also have a variety of textile pieces in my shop.  In fact, in collaboration with Jack Fischer Gallery in the Minnesota Street Project, we are presenting an exhibition of textiles that showcase classic sewing techniques and Japanese traditions inspired by travel, fashion, photography.  The exhibition opens May 5 and runs through May 30.

Why Dogpatch?
I never really considered any other neighborhood.  I moved to Dogpatch in 2000 into the then brand new building at 23rd and Minnesota.  I had originally thought that I would start really small and have clients come to my Dogpatch condo by appointment but then two things happened -- the Minnesota Street Project literally opened across the street from me and second, Jacky Recchuiti, whom I have known for a long time from the neighborhood, told me they were moving down the block so their Little Nib space would be available if I wanted it. It almost seemed like the stars were aligning for me to open a real retail space. Dogpatch was becoming a destination for art thanks to the Minnesota Street Project and this perfect space was available. So I decided no more excuses and hugomento opened in 2016.

Why did you name your shop hugomento?
The "mento" part of the name spoke to me as I was brainstorming names for the shop.  One of the main reasons is that I liked the word "momento" to describe the items I have in my shop.  Momento means memory and keepsake.  And that really spoke to me for describing what I hope to do.

What is your advice for novice collectors?
If you see an item you like -- pick it up and hold it. If it speaks to you then it is the piece for you. Don't look at the price. Expensive doesn't mean better.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
Perhaps a filmmaker -- I love hearing and telling people's stories.  So my films would be character studies.  And if money wasn't an issue I would always be traveling! I enjoy meeting people and discovering how they see the world.

Editor's note:  Here are just a few of the artists Hugo works with:

Editor's Note:  The quote in the title of this post is from artist Rebekah Joy Plett

Storied objects from near and far at hugomento in Dogpatch, San Francisco.

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