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Alain Hens

Inside the mystical world of Belgian dealer Alain Hens

For Belgian-Senegalese 20th-century furniture and modern art dealer Alain Hens, it’s his differences that define, rather than hinder, his business. From his heritage – he’s one of the only people of African background in the Belgian dealer community – to his unusual collection of pieces, everything about Galerie Alain Hens is unique.

For Alain, his journey into the industry 15 years ago was unplanned. He wasn’t brought up with a passion for design, nor was he an avid collector, unlike many dealers of today. Instead, he fell into the trade through his fascination with online technology. While studying social politics at university, Alain found himself monitoring the rise of digital marketplaces, most notably eBay. “Now we think it’s normal but back then it was complete science fiction,” he says. “The knowledge that you could sell something online and receive the money online was amazing.”

After watching a friend manage a marketplace, he decided to try it himself and started trading small items like Ivory billiard balls and Wedgewood porcelain. “I was really interested in why some pieces had value over others and I discovered I had a talent for making this distinction and choosing items of value,” he says.

Over time, his passion and knowlegde developed and he launched his own platform showcasing 20th-century collectible vintage design and modern art which he collected from markets, auctions and fairs across Europe. For years, the business was digital-only. In fact, Alain only opened his physical space in Antwerp in 2012 after realising the potential to further educate clients by balancing online and offline worlds.

Galerie Alain Hens
Alain Hens collects distinctive, structural pieces which blur the line between art and furniture

I think that dualism within a piece is amazing. I always go for pieces that can stand in an interior and have a function but also play a purely aesthetic role – Alain Hens

To limit Galerie Alain Hens to one category would be doing it an injustice. While on paper, the gallery’s niche could be defined as vintage, Alain’s collection is unique in that each piece is hand-picked to challenge perceptions or encourage debate. “In the first place, I like to challenge myself, and then the clients will follow. I like to guide my clients to look at something new.”

Alain says there’s a blurred line between furniture and art and is drawn to structural pieces with multiple purposes. “When does a piece of furniture become a sculpture? And if it becomes a sculpture, does it stop being a piece of furniture?” he questions. “I think that dualism within a piece is amazing. I always go for pieces that can stand in an interior and have a function but also play a purely aesthetic role.” One of Alain’s favourite examples of this is a 1970s pair of handmade Italian sculptural side chairs (pictured above) in tropical wood and rattan: “the grass flows out of the back like witchcraft”.

Interestingly, the absence of certain pieces contributes to the gallery’s identity. Alain refuses, for instance, to collect trending items. “Quite often, people come to my gallery and say: ‘don’t you have any Pierre Chapo? Don’t you have an Eames Lounge Chair?’ I don’t, even though these things are immensely popular. It’s not that I intentionally avoid showcasing them, but I think they already have so much exposure and there are so many other things to be shown.”

Galerie Alain Hens
Galerie Alain Hens is a one-stop shop for 20th-century furniture and modern art

Alain treats his storefront as an art gallery, presenting a curated collection of pieces he’s diligently researched and sourced – ranging from 20th-century furniture to the increasingly popular niche of post-war art. “If you put my main talent in a pyramid, it goes research followed by curation followed by buying. Underneath comes the selling, then comes the marketing, then the administration – and I do all of these things myself,” he says. This singular structure has served him quite well during the Covid-19 crisis. “I’m a small structure so I can be very flexible,” he says.

Shortly before the pandemic, Alain completed a relaunch of his business, previously named Alainko, and committed to focusing his efforts on curated collections. “Just before Covid, I finished up a period of soul searching to define what I stand for as a gallery and define the DNA of the company. This made me more secure in my future direction,” he says. “I’m not a dealer that focuses on making turnover every day. I look at it on a longer-term basis and try to establish a collection and educate my clients.”

He achieves this through the use of digital tools such as Instagram and his website as well as carefully considered partnerships – Alain is a founding member of Effetto.

For Alain, the relaunch of Galerie Alain Hens was the final step in a 15-year evolution from a man with something to prove to a man confident in his talents. His sense of ambition is rooted in his background. Born and raised in Antwerp by a Belgian mother and a Senegalese father, Alain is one of the only people of African heritage in the dealing trade – something he views as a mostly positive attribute. “In the business, to have someone of colour is not common – and certainly not in design or post-war art,” he says. “I ask myself a lot: ‘is it an advantage or is it a disadvantage?’ I think it does influence my choices. As a character, I’m quite proud. I’m also competitive. But I think the advantage is my departure from an underdog position. I sometimes catch people by surprise.”

He admits that this competitiveness comes from not being cut from the same cloth as many of his peers. “Having this extra ambition can be very positive but it can also become overwhelming. I think the nice thing about maturing is that the aim to prove myself has become a lot more about myself, rather than other people, which makes me very independent,” he says. “I can steer my own course and, in recent years, this has given me a lot of recognition as a dealer.”

Effect Magazine is brought to you by Effetto