While many entrepreneurs stalled or failed in the recession, Craig Appelbaum defied convention.

He launched his first business — a design gallery — from a most unlikely corner: Trinidad, the hardscrabble neighborhood in Northeast Washington.

Within a year, he managed to shake up the elite world of contemporary design and turn the luxury-furniture market business model on its head.

Appelbaum’s gallery wasn’t the only business to enter the local luxury-furniture market during the downturn. When Room and Board opened on 14th Street NW a year ago, the multifloor store was greeted by many residents as a triumph for design in Washington, which has seen numerous smaller luxury-furniture outlets spring up along the city’s hippest commercial corridor.

But while Room and Board and other outlets hope to capitalize on a preexisting market for modern furniture in Washington, Industry seeks to introduce an elite category of contemporary design to the U.S. and global marketplaces.

“There’s a huge gallery presence out there for mid-century modern. French mid-century, there’s no shortage,” says Appelbaum, owner of Industry Gallery on Northeast Florida Avenue. “But there’s nobody focusing on 21st-century design. I didn’t see it anywhere. I saw a void for emerging, museum-quality design.”

With Industry, Appelbaum is one of a handful of dealers in the world focused specifically on furniture design of the past decade. For many of the designers he represents, Industry is their only U.S. outlet. In a short time, Appelbaum has positioned himself as an exclusive retailer to museums and collectors looking to boost their collections of new design.

The work is often new to the designers themselves. The nine tables, benches and shelves in Jens Praet’s January show at Industry were experiments made from condensed, shredded documents, including magazines such as Fast Company and Art in America. In November, Jerry Mischak exhibited a 36-foot-long table, complete with dining utensils and 12 chairs, all prototypes made using found objects and thousands of yards of colored vinyl tape.

In late April, the Milwaukee Art Museum acquired Danish designer Mathias Bengtsson’s “Slice” chair — a functional chair composed of topographically layered slices of aluminum — through Industry. Milwaukee got the 15th iteration of the chair, which comes in a limited edition of 20. Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum and a private collector based in Washington bought editions 15 and 16, respectively, also through Industry. The sales prices are confidential, Appelbaum says.

Only one other outlet in the world offers Bengtsson’s “Slice” chair: Paris’s Galerie Maria Wettergren, which is devoted solely to Scandinavian design.

“I would call Industry one of the very few galleries worldwide to deal with contemporary design,” says Henry Urbach, former San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curator of architecture and design. Urbach served as curator at SFMOMA when the institution gave Industry its first museum acquisition, announced in November: a prototype chair made from poured concrete by Atelier Remy & Veenhuizen, the subject of Industry’s second show.

“Other design dealers often mix contemporary design with the works of designers from the last century or earlier — which often command high prices and demand higher market value,” Urbach says. “I think what Industry is doing is quite gutsy.”

Urbach, who ran an eponymous gallery in New York focused on the intersection of art and architecture from 1997 to 2005, says that he knows from experience how challenging it is to run a gallery targeting a niche market.

“It’s certainly not a career path to fortune,” he says. “It involves a lot of uncertainty, a lot of variables. There are fewer rules and fewer protocols to follow.”

As with any small business, he says, the rewards stem from risk.

Handcrafted work

Appelbaum says it was a matter of catching the market at the right time — even given the recession. Museums have begun to look at the category of applied arts that came to be known as “design art,” auterdesign (“authored design”) or vrije vormgeving (“free design”) early in the millennium as an important extension to traditional decorative arts collections.

A tax lawyer, Appelbaum works by day as a business development director at Special Counsel, a legal staffing agency in Washington. His background in business and law helped him launch the gallery.

In 2003, Appelbaum and a group of partners considered opening a wine bar in the District, “before they appeared on every street corner.” The costs of entry at that time were prohibitively expensive, he says. But he didn’t blink about opening Industry on his own during the recession.

“Sometimes, it’s even more beneficial to open when economic forces are not working entirely in your favor. The money that you have, you’re forced to use a lot more efficiently,” he says. “For a lot of the little things, you can negotiate the price with your providers.” Also, he says, the build-out costs for Industry’s raw space were very low.

As a collector of contemporary design, Appelbaum says that he sees the market for museum-quality design moving away from mass production and toward handcrafted work — an even more specific specialty at Industry.

“Almost all the designers I work with now produce their own work in their own studios. So, for example, when you go to visit Tejo Remy’s studio, it’s he and his partner [Rene Veenhuizen], and they’re sitting there getting their hands dirty,” Appelbaum says. “Some designers today, while I admire them a lot, work in studios and have staffs of 20 to 30 people.”

Bobbye Tigerman, assistant curator of decorative arts and design at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, echoes Appelbaum’s assessment of the direction in design. “Modes of design distribution have been unlike those for painting and sculpture. Craig is trying to apply the model of a dealer who is supporting a stable of artists,” she says. “It’s a booming field, a growing field, and Craig’s just at the forefront of it.”

Yet within the contemporary-art market, the role of gallery space has changed considerably in the past decade. Some dealers have eschewed the storefront or white-cube model altogether, focusing instead on a calendar-filling schedule of art fairs, from Brussels to Hong Kong.

Appelbaum, like many U.S. dealers, participates in the satellite fairs surrounding the sprawling Art Basel Miami Beach fair (specifically, Design Miami). For Industry’s second show with Atelier Remy & Veenhuizen, he collaborated with the Pacific Design Center to show the work in Los Angeles.

But according to Appelbaum, Industry’s physical presence is crucial to its branding as a destination — nationally and internationally — for design collectors as well as designers. Though he initially considered 14th Street as a home for Industry, he was immediately convinced when he saw the raw, roughly 4,300-square-foot space above Conner Contemporary Art, perhaps Washington’s most visible blue-chip art gallery.

Conner moved from a second-floor Dupont Circle location to a 12,000-square-foot, two-level former auto body shop in Trinidad in 2007, dramatically expanding its exhibition space. The move allowed gallery proprietor Leigh Conner and her business partner, Jamie Smith, greater freedom in exhibition programming — even as Conner participates in art fairs around the world. Industry occupies the second level, which Appelbaum rents from Conner.

Commercial space in Trinidad available for galleries comes at a fraction of the cost of the Class A office space for rent on 14th Street NW. Galleries may pay less than half the price per square foot to rent space on Florida Ave NE than they would on 14th Street NW.

The space “invites them, challenges them, about how they would exhibit their pieces,” Appelbaum says. “I tell them, ‘I don’t want you to just put your pieces on the floor. The space is large enough, I want you to create a context to show your work.’ ”

Appelbaum cites New York’s Murray Moss, a former fashion entrepreneur and founder of Moss — “a candy store for design” — as an inspiration for Industry. Unlike at Moss, Industry hosts only solo exhibitions, and Appelbaum challenges designers to think of the space as a workshop for an installation. The space has persuaded some designers to work with Appelbaum, he says.

“It doesn’t matter anymore in a way whether your gallery is in America or Europe. It gets around anyway,” says Dutch designer Tejo Remy, among the more established designers in Industry’s portfolio. Industry is the exclusive outlet for certain new works by Atelier Remy & Veenhuizen.

Highly experimental

Artists have treated the space almost as set design. For the studio’s first show at Industry, Remy says, “We built this setting of a black house to give the things a place in the gallery, to give a connection between the objects. We haven’t done anything before in that way.”

For his September 2010 exhibition, Antonio Pio Saracino built massive arches made from stacked layers of styrofoam to frame his work. For Industry’s upcoming December show, a Japanese landscape architect will transform the gallery space into a Japanese forest. And in September, designer Tom Price — whose praises have been sung by the likes of Kanye West — will be creating a specific scene within Industry (one that Appelbaum cannot disclose).

The laboratory environment frees designers to experiment, according to Museum of Modern Art senior curator for architecture and design Paola Antonelli.

“These galleries are truly helping designers,” she says, likening Industry to the pop-up Libby Sellers Gallery in London or Galerie Kreo in Paris. “They are creating a market that can be disturbing for institutions like mine, because the market goes up.”

Designers who work for manufacturers cannot take many risks, Antonelli says, because the economies of scale are such that every risk requires a significant investment. “When you are working with the support of a gallery, you can experiment with materials. You can work with a material that is extreme enough that you really have to fine-tune it for it to even stand,” Antonelli says. “You have a certain freedom that many designers leave behind at school.”

While Industry has positioned itself as a destination in an international market for museum-quality design, where prices can run in the tens of thousands of dollars, Appelbaum also features more accessible pieces.

“It’s a mistake to assume that we only cater to people who are looking for design in the $50,000 category,” he says.

He points to the current show, “FlexibleLove,” up through July 2, as an example of an entry point for the curious. The work of Taiwanese designer Chishen Shiu, the FlexibleLove chairs and love seats — accordion-like furniture made from recycled paper and wood waste — cost $200 to $800.

Washington collectors account for 20 percent of Industry’s sales, Appelbaum says. Many more come from New York, California and abroad, institutions and private collectors alike. Yet even given the model of a destination gallery untethered to any geographic identity, Appelbaum says that Washington is the right city for Industry. “I think D.C. is really growing as a center for contemporary art and design,” he says.

Appelbaum cites Washington’s cultural institutions and diplomatic community as factors that make it a compelling market.

“I’m struck by my designers, when they come visit, how surprised they are by how cosmopolitan D.C. is,” Appelbaum says. “Most all of my designers, with the exception of one, live outside the U.S. It just adds to the cosmopolitan feel, in my opinion.”

On display at Industry Gallery The current show, “Flexible Love,” features the work of Taiwanese designer Chishen Shiu. The accordion-like chairs and couches, made from recycled paper and wood waste, can be contrived into many shapes. Pieces range from $200 to $800. The show lasts through July 2.