On a quiet residential street in Arlington, Virginia, one garage is not like the others. Clad in white corrugated steel, the structure is tall and thin with a sharply peaked roof, suggesting a giant pencil poking up through the earth. And while its neighbours might house minivans and power tools, on a grey December afternoon the door to this one, which is not really a garage at all, opens to reveal a cross-shaped plywood table set,
as if for a meal, with brightly coloured wares. At the centre of the spread are a pair of ornately dimpled pastel-glazed earthenware vases by the French ceramist Saraï Delfendahl, each the size and silhouette of a baby elephant’s foot. A chubby-armed sky blue ceramic chandelier by the New York-based artist Braxton Congrove hangs from the ceiling. The 12 unique place settings feature, among other items, an orange tumbler with three spiky legs by the New York-based artist and tableware designer Grace Whiteside and a clay oyster plate inlaid with shells by the ceramist Michele Mirisola of Brooklyn. Surprising even the gallerist Margaret Bakke, the curator of this exhibition, some of the artists had taken her concept of a dinner party-themed show several steps further by contributing unsolicited additions, including two punch bowls and a poodle-topped butter dish.
Bakke established this place, which she named Friends Artspace, in 2021 after unexpectedly discovering that her long-held desire to run a gallery dovetailed with a local zoning law. She and her husband, Jesus Canales, were building a house for themselves and their family on a modest corner lot when they learned its footprint could be expanded, as she recalls it, by erecting a free-standing garage on the property. The two-storey structure they envisioned, some six metres away from their new home, would, Bakke realised, enable her to fulfill her dream of exhibiting artistic work in a familial environment. She inaugurated the 30-square-metre gallery space with a group show comprising 14 fantastical one-of-a-kind mirrors and, though she has a background in fine art — she studied at Columbia University before working at the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, the school’s nonprofit print shop, and later became an art consultant in Washington, DC — the exhibitions she’s mounted since then have mostly emphasised collectible design, often by emerging talents. “Design is so approachable and easy to love,” she says, “because we all benefit from it.”
Despite her training as a painter and printmaker, Bakke prefers seeking out the work of others. As a result, her house — a stark but inviting rectangular box with a black stucco facade and large rear windows overlooking a neat yard — is filled with unusual creations sourced from vintage stores and art collected over the years, often from other small galleries. “I just love objects,” she says, sitting on a bulbous pink velvet-upholstered Mario Bellini sofa in the compact parlour — just off the home’s 65-square-metre, open-plan living area — where she meets with clients, usually over tea. “In a way, the gallery is an extension of my love of collecting, because I don’t want to be a hoarder,” she adds with a laugh. Her home, in turn, sometimes accommodates overflow inventory: on a recessed shelf behind her, arranged among several antiques shop vases, are a pair of delicate candy-coloured ceramic cake stands by the New York artist Francesca DiMattio waiting to be shipped to clients. “People can’t believe kids live here,” says Bakke.
But the couple designed the house as much for their three young children as for themselves. It is just one storey, and thus toddler friendly. A playroom, strewn with spill-concealing patterned Moroccan rugs, sits between the living room and the three bedrooms. The tropical-print sofa in the main room, which Bakke bought on eBay for about $750, arrived already lightly stained. And while her collection contains valuable pieces — a large mirrored one by the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, with whom Bakke worked at the Columbia print shop, is securely fastened to a wall behind a powder blue resin Sabine Marcelis dining table — she tries not to be overly precious about them. In front of the living room fireplace, which is framed by a Brutalist limestone mantelpiece, is an eight-legged coffee table by the Brooklyn-based designer Misha Kahn, whose work Bakke has shown, made from scraps of stainless steel inset with jewel-like glass discs the size of dinner plates — a room-transforming artwork strong enough for her children to dance on, as they sometimes do.
On a practical level, Bakke’s practice of blurring the boundary between work and home allows her to run Friends Artspace; when necessary, her children can be with her during appointments. But the endeavour is also part of her larger vision of a more humane art world in which institutions recognise that creativity can be a collective endeavour strengthened by the ties of family and community — one that, importantly, needn’t take place in a major city. Bakke eventually wants to have a studio above the gallery and a place for artists to stay. For now, though, that dream is most fully realised at her openings. Increasingly, neighbours stop by along with artists and collectors. And there’s always sidewalk chalk for the children, who cover the paved driveway with works of their own.