Los Angeles-based Oculus Gallery consists of a husband-and-wife team with a creative take on product presentation: real-life vignettes that demonstrate how pieces would look together in actual homes. Rather than sit each item on its own as some galleries do, the pair present their curations of furniture and art together in their by-appointment warehouse space. Clients get the opportunity to interact with pieces in more realistic environments and envision how things might look within their own rooms.
It makes perfect sense coming from this particular duo: Husband Dario Diovisalvi owns and operates his own production company, while wife Tara Dewitt is a former design specialist for Phillips and art buyer for Tiffany & Co. We spoke with Tara about how the business started in Brooklyn and then moved to LA, how they’ve managed the transformations that the pandemic has brought with it, and how East Coast and West Coast tastes differ. See what she had to say, and be sure to check out the full offering from Oculus Gallery on Chairish.
First and foremost, when and where did you start your business?
We started out in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2014. We essentially used the front room of our railroad apartment as a showroom. Luckily, it had its own entrance!
Tell us about the transition of Oculus Gallery from New York to LA, and the development of your online sales. When did you realize you wanted to eliminate your brick-and-mortar store?
When we moved to LA in 2015, we tried to be online-only (from our little Venice apartment), but we quickly found that people really wanted to come see and shop the items we offered in person. This led us to the current space, a former meat packaging facility in the Hyde Park area of South Los Angeles. We nabbed the space, which had recently been refurbished, right away for storage and also took a gallery space in the Pacific Design Center. The PDC space was great and allowed us to present our pieces in person but, as luck would have it, shortly before the pandemic, the PDC changed their terms and the majority of its independent fine art and design galleries were priced out of their spaces.
This led us to be perfectly positioned for COVID-minded times in that we took everything in-house and began using our warehouse as a by-appointment showroom. Even though it is a developing neighborhood, certainly not known for its retail or design scene, it has worked well for us so far.
What are the pros and cons of running an appointment-only showroom?
We are a small family-run business so it allows us a lot of flexibility with regard to our schedules. We can also use our space for double-duty around appointments — we do pretty much everything here, from photography to restoration. There are drawbacks to not being continually open to the public, in terms of visibility, but people are so much more comfortable buying online these days that the pros absolutely outweigh the cons.
What’s your specialty in terms of the types of designs you offer?
We started out in Brooklyn focusing on great Italian design and were importing from Italy a lot. It was definitely a learning curve when we moved to LA, though. We found that the smaller proportions and more formal sensibility of mid-century Italian design worked well in New York but doesn’t quite translate in Los Angeles. The more casual lifestyle and approach, along with the larger interior proportions of housing here, demand a whole new and different set of considerations. This has led us to pivot toward more architectural shapes and larger-scale pieces, many from the 1970s and ‘80s. California has so many wonderful interior designers who worked directly with small, local makers on custom pieces, so these are really fun for us to discover and re-offer to our clients.
You do a beautiful job photographing pieces in home-like vignettes… tell us a bit about why that’s so important.
The product photography is, of course, of utmost importance. We never want a client to be surprised when the item arrives, so we take care to portray the item in its truest light, even if that means specific photos of imperfections. Buying vintage furniture online is new to a lot of people so we want to align the shopping experience with what they are used to seeing on larger brands’ websites, as much as possible. The vignettes are fun because we can collaborate heavily on these and mix and match what feels right to us. It also gives some of the stranger — or more adventurous — items a context. Seeing how something can be used is really helpful, especially if you vignette with thoughtful juxtaposition.
When the pandemic started, how did you pivot Oculus Gallery to stay successful?
Thankfully, we didn’t need to pivot very much… since retail was closed, people were more open to “alternative” buying experiences like warehouse showrooms. Since social distancing made shopping by appointment the norm, our approach has only flourished. We have definitely also developed protocols around cleaning and sanitizing items really well before going out, in addition to our usual quality standards.
Where have you been sourcing from during COVID? What are the biggest challenges right now?
Sourcing really hasn’t changed, strangely! The auctions and retail establishments we usually purchase from have found safe ways to operate. Any direct person-to-person transactions are now socially distanced of course, but most everyone is just happy to see another (masked) face and have a little chat about their piece.
Shipping is continually a challenge but it’s been worse during COVID times as regulations and levels of personal comfort have shifted, especially from state to state. Chairish is great because you handle this aspect for us.
What are some of the trends you’ve seen in terms of the things people are collecting these days? Has the move to digital impacted which types of pieces are selling?
The biggest trend of the past year for us has been, unsurprisingly, “the desk.” With so many people working from home, and some lucky ones receiving stipends to build out their home offices, desks sold really well. While this is a blip, we find it really interesting how the pandemic has driven certain furniture types. Stylistically, we have been very interested in materials, shapes, and proportions from the 1970s and 1980s. Rattan has been super popular with us as well. We have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to buy several pieces by Betty Coponbue, who used pencil rattan to produce unbelievable sculptural furniture pieces in the 1980s and 1990s.
What do you see as some upcoming trends that we’re about to see? And are there any styles or trends you’d like to see disappear?
The “Ugly Furniture” trend will continue strong for a while we think… pieces like Mario Bellini’s Camaleonda and Bambole designs and Michel Ducaroy’s Togo pieces for Ligne Roset are appealing right now because they are not only super comfortable, they are also luxurious — which seems like the ideal combination for a pandemic. On the other end of the spectrum, we see traditional antique Americana furniture with simple, sophisticated lines mixed into eclectic interiors. These types of pieces add structure to a room without being too antiseptic, as many of the mid-century pieces that serve the same purpose can be. Nothing should disappear forever but…. full-on mid-century modern slick-designer everything feels unimaginative and a bit boring. If you want to stick to one decade or genre, go deep. Look into less well-known artists and craftsmen of the same time period to add texture with anything handmade… ceramics, textiles, or glass.
Anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to our audience?
Being a husband-and-wife team and a family business has allowed us to display each of our specialties and personalities through Oculus Gallery. For instance, Dario has worked in photography and production for years so now he does all of our product and interior photography and can really relate to designers when they are sourcing for photo shoots. He has built up great relationships with set designers in the movie and television industries so it’s also interesting to shop with these productions in mind.
Our five-year-old son Fox is also a fun addition and he has been fully involved since the pandemic. We turned the warehouse into ware-school and try to balance teaching him schoolwork and having him help clean and organize. He’s learning all kinds of new skills that will hopefully be beneficial to him in the future.
All images courtesy of Oculus Gallery