The lobby of Murray Moss’s new enterprise is a far cry from the white-on-white-on-white minimalist eponymous design emporium over which he presided, on Soho’s Greene Street in New York, for 18 years.
The walls are lined in creamy tile, the ceiling edged with gold paint, the elevator lined in marble-pattern laminate. Moss, dressed as always in a white shirt, black jacket, looks as out of place here as he would on the Garment District street outside, where neighbours include an office furniture mart, a maker of batik maxi-skirts, and a corner kiosk where a rainbow array of rubber iPhone covers sway in the breeze.
But take the elevator to the 10th floor and the view becomes more rarefied. Between a pair of gold-anodised window frames sits a frame worthy of Snow White’s Queen: Studio Job’s 2008 Bavaria marquetry mirror, rosewood doors inlaid with laser-cut barns, bluebirds, roosters and blossoms.
There’s a Bavaria cabinet, too, and a grandfather clock burned by Maarten Baas in 2006 (from Smoke, a collection which literally burned pieces of furniture after which they are preserved in a clear epoxy coating), but in between there are Apple Mac monitors, keyboards, task lamps and desk chairs. Moss, the store, closed on 17 February, and it was born again as Moss Bureau on 1 March.
On the wall is a portrait of the Bureau’s founder, Merton Lyman Moss, dated 1865. “The developers made it up – the name, date, everything. It’s fake,” says Moss of his building’s new-old architecture, but he could just as easily be talking about this founder. “My partner Franklin Getchell and I think the state of affairs in our sector of design is a mess. How far back do you have to go before the mess started? I thought you have to go back to 1865, to a time when people were addressing the same issue: What are we going to do about all this product?”
Eighteen years ago, when Moss opened the store, he had to call it a gallery, since Soho landlords wanted to preserve the neighbourhood as an art district. He accordingly styled it like a museum. If he put a wastebasket in the window it was a wastebasket by Italian designer Enzo Mari: a sculpture that also happens to hide your discarded rough drafts.
When I moved to New York in 1994, I saw the store as a place to see the industrial design greats I had only read about, classic Finns and Italians, new Dutch and Belgians, forever Brits. When I got married in 2003, registering my wedding list there was a rite of passage. I imagined in my new grown-up life I would have only the best things, and Moss seemed like it carried the best of everything for the modern modernist. I could get Iittala homewares and Jasper Morrison’s furniture elsewhere, but the website would be ugly, the wrapping frilly. For design geeks, Moss was Mecca.
“The store was a theatrical metaphor – it was a stage,” says Moss, showing me around the Bureau, where we squeeze past a corridor of young men on computers. The store was never a place of work: objects were in glass cases or on white plinths, one at a time, with detailed labels. Each object seemed to have its own spotlight. He signals at the computers, the filing cabinets, “This always existed. But now, the backstage is where you go. This is the truth of it. Design is a small subject that shrunk. Its audience has gotten smaller. This is what is affordable, we believe, in order to present these works. In order to buy the clock for $44,000 this is where you need to go. It is not shabby, but it is filing cabinets, and this is not a museum.”
The disappearance of Moss from Soho can be seen as a series of largely fortunate events. Unfortunately, it’s fortunate for others. In those early years, Moss sold products at a variety of prices, from one-of-a-kind Hella Jongerius vases to humble Kaj Franck glasses. The industrial design manufacturers saw how well they sold in New York and other homeware designers such as Alessi, Kartell and Cassina opened up down the block, in some cases literally. “When the rents go up to $70,000 a month you can’t afford to sell this glass for $7,” Moss says, gesturing at the two Kartio glasses in front of us. “After you’ve put it in the bag you’ve lost $2.” And, then, there was the internet. “People would come to the store and see the products all elevated, understand these colours were chosen to reflect the multiple lakes in Finland, appreciate that, and then go online and buy it cheaper.” Online vendors, with no overhead and no inventory, could always undersell. He says, “We became a free showroom for internet vendors.”
Meanwhile, at the high end, art patrons discovered design and found it a relative bargain. The New York auction houses began selling not only the work of 20th-century designers such as Charlotte Perriand and George Nakashima, but also of 21st-century designers like Marc Newson and Ron Arad. If Moss had started as a gallery and become a store, now it began selling like a gallery again. “There were new patrons, and they intuitively noticed the non-functional content” of work by design studios Maarten Baas, Studio Job, and the rest. “We were so pleased to have this audience, but the art market is a very volatile and tenuous one. When the recession came this was the first sector to be dropped.”
In 2009, Moss was stung by an article written by former New York Times House & Home section editor, Michael Cannell, which declared, “design loves a depression”. Moss wrote a “middle-of-the-night-in-my-underwear response”, published on website Design Observer, that said, “Design-related businesses, including my own, are suffering… I deeply resent the tone of comeuppance in Mr Cannell’s article, his condescending, parochial-school-matronly, Calvinistic reproach of the design that flourished during what he refers to as the “economic boom”. (I would use the term Renaissance).
“Look at what happened: Steuben closed, Baccarat was sold, Iittala was bought up and is now owned by Fiskars,” Moss says, today. “Our iconic great houses have all become available, through crisis, at the same moment. They were all bought by somebody, it didn’t work, and many have now been transferred to smaller ones willing to make some investment. But they need help. The Bureau needed to take both of our 18 years of experience and make that available as the new goods we are selling, which is our guidance.”
The Bureau is a result of the suffering, but also a new possibility. The brochure isn’t finished yet, but when I ask Moss what he’d like the business to do, the list goes on and on. There will be “a stream” of invitation-only conversations, scheduled to start at 11pm. “This is extracurricular. When do you read? When do you have the conversations? I don’t want to squeeze in the 6pm to 8pm slot any more.” There will be consulting for manufacturers and for designers, the latter on a sliding scale. “If you’re a one-man studio in Long Island City you can buy 15 minutes,” Moss says. “In 15 minutes, I can be extremely useful.” He would like to help retailers buy and collectors collect. He wants in at the best design and architecture schools, and is in discussions to teach a graduate-level seminar. There is curatorial work, with a gallery booked in London for September. He’s signed up with a speakers’ bureau. He’d like to do interior design. “How many times have I put this next to this? Your eyes get tired, so you bring me in to look at what you already have.” And finally, he’d like to fix the deadly dull lobbies of the world: “I can tell you furniture to use that will be as classical as the Mies piece or Le Corbusier reproduction you are currently using.” And he’ll still be selling, from the Bureau and online.
If it wasn’t time for me to leave, he’d probably have more ideas for his newly liberated time. But I have to ask about the white porcelain tree on the conference table, protected by a glass bell. “It’s Nymphenberg,” he says, “a combination of a cast piece, which is the trunk, and then the leaves are made like cookies and put on by hand with tweezers. To me it is like Bonsai – an idealised version of what a perfect tree would be. As soon as you make it you want to remake it because it has led you to a new plateau.” He pauses. “That’s why there are so many chairs.”
Moss Bureau, 10th floor, 256 West 36th Street, New York. Open 11am to 6pm. Mossonline.com
Words by Alexandra Lange
Photos by Anna Schori
This interview was originally published in Disegno No.2, spring/summer 2012