In the waning days of 2020, Hugo Lai had every reason to give up on Hugomento, his San Francisco boutique art gallery showing what he describes as “storied art and objects.” Only one day after he opened the doors in a new Dogpatch space, the city ordered all retail establishments to close in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. “I was open for a single day and then closed for three solid months,” he remembers. Over the ensuing weeks, he watched as several neighboring stores closed for good. With empty buildings on either side of his 22nd Street gallery, Lai decided to expand. “It was risky,” he says. “But I feel a strong connection with this building, and I looked at it as a long-term investment.”
It wasn’t the first time Lai took a risk to follow his passion. “I started this business only four years ago,” he explains, noting the first iteration of the gallery was in a tiny space only a few doors down from his new showroom. “Before that, I had been in advertising and marketing for 23 years.” But after work, Lai pursued his outside interest: collecting art, pottery, furniture and other objects and learning about the artists who created them.
Back then, his work enabled his hobby. “My job provided a lot of travel opportunities,” Lai says. “I was going to Asia several times a year and to Europe often. After work, I would wander the cities and discover new galleries and artists. There was one particular shop in Tokyo, a very small and highly curated ceramics gallery that inspired me. It got me thinking about how there were no places like it here.”
Although he worried that he was getting a bit too old to take career risks, Lai quit the ad world and opened Hugomento— the name is a play on his first name and the word memento. “I wanted to make a gathering place where people can see the art and hear about the artists who created it,” he says. That human element is at the heart of the business. Although Lai does sell online, often fielding orders via social media, he prefers that people come to the gallery to experience items firsthand (something possible in a limited capacity since late summer). “I found that people are hungry for these objects,” he says.
In the gallery, visitors will find ceramics by Mitch Iburg, Dennis O’Leary, Carol Nelson and Marco Minetti. Artwork from around the world hangs on new walls between the building’s original, rusticated beams—a note from Dogpatch’s industrial past. “There’s a simple, Zen-like Japanese sensibility to the gallery,” says Lai. “It reflects many of the things we sell.”
Perhaps it’s the wabi-sabi philosophy Lai subscribes to, one where beauty is found in imperfection, that has allowed him to find opportunity amid a pandemic. “It’s been challenging, and this certainly wasn’t what I was planning,” he says. “But I believe in what I am doing and this neighborhood.”