Loebach amongst his collection at his home, 2011. Photo by © Tom Atwood, TomAtwood.com.

Loebach amongst his collection at his home, 2011. Photo by © Tom Atwood, TomAtwood.com.


Kai Loebach

When Kai Loebach emigrated to Los Angeles 27 years ago, after a brief vacation during which he was blown away by the friendliness of the people and the “visual orgasm” of a clean-as-new supermarket in the San Fernando Valley, he knew no one, had no place to stay and didn’t know the language. Studying of any kind, especially English, was not on the top of his list. As a young man, he was fascinated by the arts, beauty and design—and being more of a hands-on person who learned best by doing, he trained as a chef in his German homeland as a way to connect with those interests.

Starting at $3.25 an hour, working like “a machine” in a subterranean kitchen at the Century Plaza Hotel, Loebach took a second job to make ends meet, assisting a German butcher with his party service. “I never had any problem working 14, 16 hours a day,” Loebach says. When the butcher could only pay him in sausage due to gambling debts, Loebach says he realized, “What I can do for others, I can do for myself.”

One year after arriving in LA, Loebach founded KWL Designs, a catering service whose first customer was the German consulate and which grew by word of mouth to attract clients such as Barbra Streisand, David Hockney, Mick Jagger and Frank Gehry. Called the “caterer to the stars,” Loebach’s flair for party-making finds him, most Wednesdays, hosting a mid-week casual dinner party in his back garden, a kind of salon that includes artists, friends and friends of friends. He became an American citizen six years ago, has little trace of an accent and is known as one of the most adventurous art collectors in Los Angeles, principally of photography. He spoke to me by phone from Nichols Canyon, where he lives in a mid-century home he describes as “all windows, but because of the foliage, it’s protected: there is no direct sunlight going into the house.”

Artillery: How did you start collecting art?
Kai Loebach: Most everybody who collects photography starts with classic black-and-white. I was lucky enough to do a big event for Rolex years ago that enabled me to make a fairly large purchase of black-and-white photography from a local LA gallery, and that’s really how everything started. I was injected with the bug.

What was that first piece?
The first piece was maybe 20 pieces.

You bought a collection!
I’m never the kind of person who is satisfied with just one thing. I love to add a dozen children to the collection. It didn’t start with one piece, but classics from Cartier-Bresson, Berenice Abbott—classic photography. Of course, I was inexperienced. But something I’ve continued until now: I’ve never been influenced by what other people say. If somebody says, ‘You should buy this versus that because it has a higher value and it will be a better investment,’ that’s not my collection. My collection is what represents me. I need to like it, I need to look at it and I need to be satisfied with the image, with the texture—so many things come into play when I decide to buy a piece of art. Sometimes it’s a matter of seconds to make that decision.

Collecting is a drug. Adrenaline runs through your veins when you zoom in on a target, like a hunt. My collection is a little over 600 pieces. They all live harmoniously in storage, between flat files and bubble wrap. Sometimes I go into storage—nothing to write home about, a dark room that’s kept between 64 and 68 degrees—and sit in there and unwrap and look at things.

If I can’t imagine [a piece I’m considering] hanging in the house, and who it would “talk to” of the other pieces—that’s how I decide if I buy the piece or not. I usually have everything framed right away. I’m very particular, even with framing. I’m also very finicky in inspecting things. People know me as high-maintenance. Things have to be perfect. There was one young LA photographer, and when I saw her work I said, “She is extremely talented, but she needs to hone her skills in printing. You don’t need to take my advice, but have the work printed professionally by a reputable printer. You’ll see, it’ll totally make a difference.” When I saw so many imperfections in her work, I knew it’s not what she was striving for. Now she’s been around for a few years and has definitely stepped up her game, and it has made such a difference. I own about 12 or 14 of her pieces.

What does it mean to be called an “adventurous collector”?
Two things: I don’t collect the obvious and I travel a lot for works. I deal with galleries in South Africa, Rio, Buenos Aires, and I go there; I want to see what they have. I love to travel for art, and my collection reflects my personality. It doesn’t have the signature of an art advisor.

What are the phases of being a career collector?
The phases that you go through are really education. The more you find out about artists or work—you basically educate yourself. The work that I started collecting, I still love the pieces, but I wouldn’t buy them any longer. That doesn’t mean that I would sell them, but we evolve. Now I understand the work better, I see different things in the work and I have more knowledge of the artists than when I was green. You’re exposed to a lot more opinions. And nowadays, the Internet’s a giant tool for me. I hear or see the name of an artist who might not be represented by a local gallery, so I start investigating. I see something on Facebook that attracts me, [it’s] this unbelievable tool right at my fingertips. The process of education is something I enjoy tremendously, but it has also enlarged my wish list of works that I desire to own, and that is an addiction!

Any advice for young photographers attempting to enter the art world right now?
Believe in what you do! And don’t let people like me influence you by telling you you’re not printing well enough.