A visit with Basel vintage dealer Reha Okay

Okay Now

By Gretta Louw

Visiting Okay Art’s newly refurbished warehouse-slash-showroom in Basel is a rather unique experience. Press a button next to the large, industrial metal doors and—after a brief wait—the doors swing open to reveal the owner Reha Okay walking up the ramp from an underground carpark to greet his visitor. “Open sesame,” Okay says as he unlocks the interior door. It’s true, there is an Aladdin’s Cave sort of quality to the passage; from the dim carpark one walks into a brightly lit, sprawling space where the freshly painted white walls foreground the plenitude of classic modernist design treasures. Eames armchairs; a matching set of Hans Wegner dining chairs; Kai Kristiansen sideboards; a pair of Alvar Aalto barstools; and an array of postwar ceiling lamps hanging in the centre of the room. This place is a dream come true for any midcentury modern enthusiast.

For Reha Okay, it’s been a long and winding road to end up in this hidden design trove. “I used to be a businessman in suit and tie,” he explains, “and furniture was just a hobby.” But Okay’s father had been an antique restorer and a lover of midcentury furniture. It was practically inevitable that the younger Okay would also catch the vintage bug. “I grew up with modernism, particularly the Scandinavian designers,” he says, adding that by the time he reached adulthood, “it was my passion, and I was always at flea markets."

He began accruing his own collection of choice midcentury pieces for his home; then he ran out of space and began storing the overflow in his garage. When he finally had to park his car on the street because the garage was full of design classics, he realized it was time to start selling some of the pieces he’d collected. Initially, the intention was not to turn the endeavor into a full-time business, but once Okay saw that his side project could support him just as well as his day job, he happily made the switch.

From 2005, Okay had gallery spaces in Basel, but gradually he began noticing that clients would find the piece they were interested in online and then come to the gallery just to view that particular piece. If the piece happened to be in the warehouse, the clients were equally comfortable going there to view the piece. In fact, Okay says, he got the impression that clients assumed they were paying more when they were buying from a chic inner-city gallery—and, let’s be honest, it is expensive to maintain those spaces. So he decided to close down the luxe gallery and cafe space in town and move full-time into the refurbished showroom-warehouse. “My goal is to be independent of the local market and be a global player,” says Okay. He is open about the fact that around 90% of his business is online these days—and he’s savvy to the ever-greater role that social media is playing in the success rate of businesses like his. “It’s a revolution,” he muses, “many people are not even aware how big the change is."

After the war, everything was reinvented. It was a time in which everything was allowed. I can only compare it to the renaissance. Still, while the changing times are interesting for the business side of things, for Okay, it’s all about the furniture in the end. He elucidates his love of modernist forms in the strongest terms: “After the war, everything was reinvented. It was a time in which everything was allowed. I can only compare it to the renaissance.” For Okay, midcentury modernism was “a golden age for forms,” one that is only being reinterpreted or, worse, copied today. He shows some curiosity for contemporary material innovations—particularly what 3D printing might bring to the table—“but the handmade quality is missing,” he insists.

Looking around the Okay Art showroom, with its various restoration corners and workshops, the stacks of original midcentury leathers in a variety of colors that Okay and his team use to repair vintage pieces, it’s understandable that the craftsmanship and the touch of the artisan’s hands means so much to him. “That’s something I have from my father,” he says, “we can repair everything if the original quality is good."

  • Text & Images by

    • Gretta Louw

      Gretta Louw

      A South-African born Australian currently based in Germany, Gretta is a globetrotting multi-disciplinary artist and language lover. She holds a degree in Psychology, and has seriously avant garde leanings.

More to Love