Visiting the home of L.A. gallery owners Esther Kim Varet and Joseph Varet, in the historic neighborhood of Hancock Park, is surprising from the start—like sipping a drink that looks like cucumber water but turns out to be a vodka gimlet. Despite the house’s strangely plain facade that promises a suburban family home, the interior proves to be beautifully sparse, with carefully considered neo-brutalist touches courtesy of Leong Leong, the New York architecture firm helmed by brothers Chris and Dominic Leong.
Then there are the smartly chosen artworks, planted in key spots not to add splashes of color so much as to provoke thought or spark conversation. Upon entering the house, instead of stepping inside a large foyer or great hall where trophy paintings have pride of place, you immediately come face-to-face with a large aluminum-clad box. It neatly divides the entryway, but it also has a hidden function. Find the concealed doors on each side of the structure, on the way to the social areas, and you’ll slip into the screening theater it contains. To the left of the box, a small video monitor shows an art dealer making a particularly hard sell; it’s May I Help You?, a performance piece from 1991 by Andrea Fraser, who is known for biting the hand of art world power brokers by exposing hierarchies of class and taste. To the right, on the floor, lies a homely green welcome mat that reads esther is in charge, a gift from the 83-year-old self-taught landscape painter Jessie Homer French. “It’s a hooked rug,” says Kim Varet, laughing. “Jessie belonged to a group called the Hookers.” It’s also something of an inside joke, as the artist’s late husband used to remind her to always trust her gallerist.
But like the best jokes, the welcome-mat message has a ring of truth. It’s a motto for a force-of-nature gallerist who has, within the past decade, gone from running an ad hoc space out of her home in Venice Beach while still nominally in grad school at Columbia University—where she wrote her master’s thesis on Andrea Fraser’s brand of institutional critique—to becoming one of L.A.’s most buzzworthy art dealers and tastemakers. She has helped launch the careers of artists such as Homer French, who showed at last year’s Venice Biennale and was the oldest artist exhibited at this year’s “Made in L.A.” biennial; Diedrick Brackens, the weaver extraordinaire whose textiles foregrounding Black bodies are now in LACMA and the Met; and Dyani White Hawk, whose paintings blending modernist and Indigenous traditions earned her a MacArthur “genius grant” this year. Various Small Fires (VSF), the gallery that Kim Varet runs with her husband, Joseph, who oversees business operations, is now an art destination in Hollywood, with branches in Seoul, where she spent summers as a kid, and Dallas, where she grew up.
She’s done it all as a woman of color with few precedents and guides, aside from the actual instruction manual for VSF, currently 95 pages long, that she wrote and that gets regularly updated by her team. A means of quality control, outlining everything from shipping protocols to social media formatting, the manual has been instrumental to VSF’s expansion, Kim Varet says. So has the name of the gallery, which came from Ed Ruscha’s California-cool photo book depicting exactly that—examples of small flames or fires. “I think calling it Various Small Fires,” says Kim Varet, “shows that in my mind the gallery was always going to be in multiple locations.”
Kim Varet, on a Cloverleaf sofa by Verpan, wears a Ferragamo sleeveless coat and Pomellato bracelet; Joseph Varet wears his own clothing and sneakers.
In the dining and coworking area, sleek tables and chairs by Verpan, with greenery by Pretend Plants & Flowers and Josh Kline’s Reality Television 15, 2020.
The pool deck, with custom cushions by Maurice Gadson Interiors.
In the kitchen, a B&B Italia table and an Audo/Norm Architects sofa and chairs, paired with (from left) Mark Yang’s Under the Red Sun, 2021, and Park McArthur’s Gate, 2015.
VSF’s rapid growth has reflected that of the L.A. art world. It has also positioned the gallery somewhere between today’s mega-dealers and the scrappy emerging art spaces that are in the business of discovering (and then too often losing) artists. Christine Messineo, the director of Frieze Americas, has known Kim Varet for nearly 20 years and says she envies “how much she can take on energy-wise and calendar-wise.” She adds that “Esther is now seen as one of the major art players in L.A.—museums are paying attention to her program and the artists she’s working with.”
One of those artists, Diedrick Brackens, calls Kim Varet “the best person to strategize with. She’s very good at seeing what’s coming, how it might affect my career or her career, and pivoting around these things.” She’s cultivated Latin American and Asian collectors, as well as local Hollywood types. “I always felt like I was going to hit the bamboo ceiling because I’m Asian American, and there were no peers. So I leaned way into the Asian market,” says Kim Varet. “I knew we wouldn’t survive long term if we were regional; we’d be too susceptible to local markets.” Her collector base ranges from K-pop singers to Hollywood agents and L.A. “mom friends.”
Kim Varet was sitting in the sleek kitchen of her new home, which has a Forbo linoleum floor that looks like concrete but feels more cushioned. It’s the sort of soft-industrial touch the Leongs are known for and that the couple sought out. The residence is, after all, a family home—the Varets have a 9-year-old son, Julius, and a 6-year-old daughter, Zelda. It was designed for hosting playdates as well as art events. (A mod poolside lounger by Vondom works for both.) The couple were introduced, naturally, at an art event: a Performa board meeting in New York, in 2009. While pursuing her Ph.D. in art history at Columbia, Kim Varet began volunteering at RoseLee Goldberg’s experimental nonprofit and cochairing the Visionaries, its young patrons committee. Varet, meanwhile, had recently sold his first digital media company to NBC—he was a cofounder and CEO of LXTV—and had just joined the board at Performa. In 2011, they were married in Houston, at the Rothko Chapel, by a Korean pastor and a rabbi who was also a Native American shaman. It was followed by a reception on the portico of the Menil Collection—a hard get even by insider standards. “They told us the last time they had done this was for a member of the de Menil family,” says Varet.
The two then moved to Venice Beach, in part for Kim Varet’s dissertation research. She let that slide as she began using the ground floor of their three-story house to show artists such as Liz Magic Laser and Anna Sew Hoy. They soon upped the ante by purchasing a place on Highland Avenue, after analyzing which major galleries in L.A. owned their own buildings. “There was a history in L.A. of all these galleries migrating, but Hollywood was the first place where we saw people like Shaun Regen and Michael Kohn actually buying,” says Varet. “It was very strategic on our end, and we knew we also wanted to invest in the architecture,” adds Kim Varet. By that time, Varet, who has an MBA from Columbia, had taken on the administration, finance, and HR side of the business, because “Esther was too busy to do it, and I have a background in all that.”
The gallery, designed by Johnston Marklee, has some striking features. The main entrance is off the back courtyard, and there is an outdoor corridor equipped for sound art. VSF’s central location also inspired the couple to look for a house to remodel in nearby Hancock Park. “I’m four minutes from the gallery, and I knew I needed to be next to Koreatown,” says Kim Varet.
A modular sofa by Paustian anchors the screening room.
In the front entryway, (from left) Donghoon Rhee’s Attention, 2022, and Andrea Fraser’s May I Help You?, 1991.
Because Hancock Park is a historic neighborhood protected by city regulations intended to prevent teardowns and preserve traditional styles, Leong Leong worked to keep at least 50 percent of the existing footprint of the 1970s neo-Palladian structure intact, while knocking out the interior rooms and building a new outer wall to define the courtyards. They also retained the shape of the original facade, with its pitched roof, but gave the back of the house the edgy geometry they are better known for. The second-story playroom is stacked like a children’s block on top of the first floor. Its exterior is a translucent plastic usually used for greenhouses, so there’s still some of the strong inside-outside connection of the ground floor. The kids’ rooms are more private, set in a separate wing of the house so that they can be tucked into bed during a dinner party.
“The brief was really interesting—the big idea was that they’re a family with two kids who have very domestic needs, but they also run an art gallery and have these institutional needs,” says Chris Leong, mentioning events like the party the couple hosted during Frieze Week, before the house was even complete. Some areas serve several functions, like a “coworking” space off the kitchen with a long table that seats 16—actually four Verpan tables together—that can be used for either meetings or dining. The color palette tends toward neutral beiges and grays, with some pink undertones that warm it up, like what you’d find at a high-end spa. “They wanted it to feel more like a hospitality project,” Dominic Leong says. “At one point, Esther wanted to have an automatic door, like at a grocery store, as the front door.” Asked about that, she says she hasn’t yet given up the idea but is having trouble finding automatic door vendors who are licensed to do residential work: “None of them are willing to go rogue.”
In the main bedroom, Jessie Homer French’s The Hollywood Fault Zone, 2018 (on wall), and Esther Is in Charge, 2023, along with a first edition of the exhibition catalog, designed by Ed Ruscha, for a Billy Al Bengston retrospective at LACMA in 1968.
Alex Foxton’s Cigarette, 2022, in the primary bathroom.
Joshua Nathanson’s Wait…, 2015 (left), and an untitled mural by Lana Gomez, 2023, add bursts of whimsy to the playroom. Varet wears his own clothing and watch. Zelda wears a Milk Teeth sweater; Molo skirt. Julius wears a Milk Teeth T-shirt and shorts. Kim Varet wears a Chanel jacket; Tabayer earrings; Pomellato ring.
In the primary bedroom, (from left) a wool throw by Dyani White Hawk; Jessie Homer French’s Oil Platform Fire, 2019; Diedrick Brackens’s Stealing Dark From the Sky, 2022.
What wasn’t part of the original design plans was having art. Kim Varet says she had no intention of showing any at home, except for video pieces in the media cube. “I told the architects I wanted the house to be a sculpture in and of itself,” she says. The idea of installing art felt fraught somehow. “I didn’t know how to navigate that territory in my own home, like what if we have work up by some artists we represent, but not others? I didn’t want that pressure.”
But, of course, the walls started looking empty when they moved in nearly a year ago, so she found ways to create interesting moments, cleverly hanging a piece by Josh Kline that takes the form of a flat-screen TV wrapped in American flags above the fireplace, or using a Gina Beavers painting of a juicy Korean fried-chicken sandwich to spice up the immaculate kitchen. The main bedroom has become an homage of sorts to the community of VSF artists. On the bed is an esther is in charge pillow by Homer French, and above it is a painted and embroidered tapestry by the artist that maps key features of Hollywood, including fault lines near the VSF gallery. (The latter is part of a series known as “Mapestries,” made to hang over beds in earthquake-prone L.A., where residents are wisely advised never to have paintings under glass.) To the left is a lacquered lozenge painting by Billy Al Bengston, the legendary L.A. artist who originally introduced Kim Varet to Homer French. Works by Brackens and White Hawk are displayed near each other. Above a cart in the bathroom is a moody blue and gold cowboy by the British painter Alex Foxton. As for the issue of playing favorites, Kim Varet says she plans to rotate in different artists.
You can also see her touch on one of the outside courtyards. Near an urban “totem” by Glen Wilson that interweaves photographic imagery and salvaged chain-link mesh, she has positioned seven jagged boulders with the attention usually reserved for prized sculpture. She chose—her architects say “curated”—the statement rocks herself at a landscaping superstore in Fullerton. “We were on FaceTime with her selecting rocks while she was driving in the golf cart in the mud,” says Chris, describing it as a race against time to buy the boulders and lift them into place by crane before the Frieze party. “Esther’s superpower is motivating people to do things that seem to be impossible.”
Varet was more focused on the environmental impact of the house, which has a Tesla solar roof, so it generates more energy than it uses. “Joseph was really the project manager and oversaw a lot of the construction himself,” says Chris. Vetting the construction and securing the eco-friendly and sustainable materials, like lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, took some doing. “I should have hired a local project architect from the beginning, but we didn’t want to pollute the design integrity of a very holistic project, so I stepped in,” he says. As with the gallery, his contributions tend to be less visible, but they’re essential to keeping the day-to-day operations running smoothly. He might not have his own welcome mat or pillow, but Joseph is in charge too.
Interior stylist: Lauren Davis Britvan; hair by Richard Collins for WEN by Chaz Dean at TMG Agency; makeup by Pircilla Pae for U Beauty Skincare and Merit Beauty at A-Frame Agency; florals by Pretend Plants & Flowers; photo assistant: Albert Fu; fashion assistant: Kat Cook.