"There Can’t Be Nostalgia": Murray Moss on Closing His SoHo Design Store, and Opening a Garment District Hovel

"There Can’t Be Nostalgia": Murray Moss on Closing His SoHo Design Store, and Opening a Garment District Hovel
Moss's owner Murray Moss
(Photo by Amy Dickerson)

Long ago, in 1994, when SoHo was still saturated with major galleries, the design curator Murray Moss opened a shop, succinctly called Moss, that would grow into a stage for Maarten BaasStudio Job, and other design superstars to make their debut. Along the way, he accomplished such other tastemaking coups as singlehandedly bringing Tupperware back into fashion among chic New York circles. For many in the city — and around the world — Moss became synonymous with high design. 

This week, in an email titled “Moss Metamorphoses 2012,” Moss and his business and life partner Franklin Getchell announced that the store on Greene and Houston would close on February 17, a casualty of the economic crunch. After coming to the hard realization that their much-loved and once lucrative retail location wasn't making any money, becoming what Getchell called an unmaintainable “free museum,” the two decided their business needed to change direction, they explained — and they would be expanding the scope of Moss as we know it. Brick and mortar stores were out, and consulting, public speaking, and think-tanks hosted in the comfort of their own living room would make for a more lucrative future. The new business is called Moss Bureau.

Last night, Moss was preparing salmon toast points for a party of 17 — among them Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Jane Adlin, collectors Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu, and gallerist Asher Edelman and his wife, Michelle — who would be arriving that evening for the first of his living-room salons, a lively discussion on unflattering contemporary jewelry. A piece of bread lodged in the toaster set off the fire alarm. “We’ve never had people over in 40 years,” Moss told BLOUIN ARTINFO. “My friend said I had to serve canapés, and I said, 'I don’t even know how to do that.'”

As the design impresario went about clearing out the smoke from his kitchen, we asked him about the state of the design industry, his romantic visions of what Moss Bureau will be, and why he isn't that sad to leave his SoHo outpost, frankly. 

It's been 18 years now that you've been in SoHo, running what many have come to revere as a design mecca. Why leave?

The world changes. And also things get stale, and the dynamics change, as we know. There can’t be nostalgia. We intentionally never did a book because I wanted it all to be ephemeral. I didn’t want it to be about pictures about display, I wanted it to be live theater where you had to go or you missed it. And when the show ends, it’s passed on through narrative.

How did things get stale?

I feel that the gallery, in my opinion, doesn’t work. Something is wrong. Moss is not, in fact, a museum. It used to support itself very well financially, but people stopped buying things. Our customers, based on empirical evidence, were people who worked in the financial industries, so they just stopped buying. Then a few years went by that were very damaging, and then a few years went by. What I call the art content, where the function of an object didn’t rob it of its possibilities of being seen in a broader light, was very exciting in 2003. I felt we showed it very well, everyone came to the openings, but it was kind of from the inside hollow because people weren’t actually participating.

In Franklin Getchell’s email announcing that Moss would be closing the SoHo store, he said the two of you were deeply "wounded" by the recession. How bad had things gotten that you could come to the decision it was time to call it quits?

I’m never market driven, God knows, so I don’t find out what everyone wants and go do that. I like to say, “Hey everybody, look what I found,” and change everybody’s minds. When the whole system seems to be kind of failing, then somebody has to take responsibility for it. I have no nostalgia over the classic brick-and-mortar — and I hate the term — situation. None whatsoever. It’s a venue. It’s a tool. I could easily write something or give a talk or talk to someone from our apartment. I don’t really care. It’s not interesting to me. 

Where did this concept of the Bureau — the discussions, the consulting services, and so on — arise?

When I looked to see what happened in fashion, the last 15 years — Dior, Lanvin, St. Laurent, Bottega Veneta — I looked to see the equivalent in our sector. I see our sector shrinking and disappearing. I see the fashion model growing and thriving, and I think something is wrong. Steuben closed, Iittala has gone though a mess of buying and selling. Baccarat is in a mess of buying and selling. A lot of our producers are in trouble. I think, what am I going to do about this? Continue to show it in an idealized way, this work, when no one is buying it? Maybe Moss needs to address what is happening in the world, because we can. There’s such turmoil at the iconic companies — imagine what’s happening in the smaller companies. What we need is what we’re trying to do tonight with 17 people. Talk. Organize. The fashion people do. We need to analyze, discuss, and arrive at a better paradigm. At this point of my life, I think I know a lot. I’ve looked for 18 years. I look at so much product every day. I know how to look at something.

Can you talk about some of the products that particularly caught your eye?

I don’t want to toot my own horn, but the first company that I felt I made a contribution to was Tupperware back in ’94 with [Tupperware manufacturer] Morrison Cousins. I was like three minutes old, and I said to him “Morrison, how come you discriminate against Manhattan? There aren’t any Tupperware parties in Manhattan. Don’t you think we need to store our dried noodles?” They allowed me to have a Tupperware party at Moss, and I did a dramatic installation of Tupperware. Looked fabulous. They bussed in, like, 18 killer Tupperware saleswomen. We served margaritas. And, excuse the '80s term, it was like the A-list. I had the editors from Vogue there. You know what the average sale was? Like $2,000! Do you know how much Tupperware you have to buy to spend $2,000?

It proved a point that you can somehow go outside of your target. You can take a vacation from your ideas, and you can go with something without changing the product, or marketing it with smoke and mirrors. Just let it be seen through a different filter or juxtaposed with other things. I had them make a special line with black lids specially for New York.

In Franklin's email, he also said you would be moving elsewhere that didn’t have such a “fat rent.” Have you already been scouting locations?

Yes. First of all, we’re looking for something cheap, because I think that’s a design reality. We’re looking for something instead of say, $70,000 a month, something that’s 4.

Does that mean you’re heading to Brooklyn? Or perhaps Queens?

I’d love to, but Franklin won’t, so we’re looking in the Garment District. I love casement windows and polished concrete floors. I’m looking for a crummy but big space where you need a key to the toilet in the hallways. That’s what it is, because those spaces are available.

And what will you put inside?

What’s my fantasy? We find a space and we don’t decorate it. It’s clean, but it’s a romantic 1968 French hovel in the Garment District. We put desks in there, the people in the Bureau. I have people working, and then I’ll have in the middle of it all a piazza where we have a platform, a little exhibition of Maarten Baas. Over by my ugly black file cabinet will be a white metal box that will have three of these beautiful new Italian vases made out of shellac and leaves. It’s all mixed together, like the conference table isn’t in this private room, but right by a desk where somebody else is talking. It’s also next to a beautiful sculpture, or a painting that I’m representing from Edelman Arts. Maybe we have a 16th-century painting. The door’s open, and you just go in. It would be cool for people to say, “Lets go to the Bureau today!” That’s my movie script version of it.

If you don’t care for brick-and-mortar stores anymore, as you mentioned, what’s the point of a new location?

It’s not going to be a store. Here I’m talking about something that doesn’t exist yet. We know we need a place to sit.

Kind of like Andy Warhol’s Factory. 

The Factory! That’s exactly what it is. It’s another type of manipulation. Theatricality. But you don’t have to do anything! You just let it coexist. What I want is an honest situation where the expenses are in line with what the reality is, but the quality of work remains higher and higher and higher, and that it speaks for itself.

Clearly, running a “free museum” doesn’t benefit you, but it has provided an amazing resource and desination for the design world. When you leave SoHo, will you leave a void behind?

When I say “free museum,” I don’t mean to say that bitterly. I’m not a whiner. Well, not publicly. I whine that my feet hurt. I’m not saying, “Damn you. If you liked us so much, why didn’t you buy things?” Everybody has issues. I felt we did a great job! Repeatedly, consistently, and well. Who pays for that? Will there be a void? I actually think so.

Is leaving that void something you feel bad about?

Do I feel bad about it? I hadn’t thought about it, so I guess I don’t! I don’t feel bad for me. Look at what’s happened through that area. I’ve lived in New York I think 45 years. You know how long it takes for things to change? Even SoHo has gone through so many metamorphoses, of which I was a contributor and a major instigator. Before, when it was artists housing and the galleries were there, the galleries moved because the paradigm changed. The rents got so high they couldn’t afford to stay there. History is repeating itself. That area is so expensive now. We were instrumental, the anchor for creating the design district. And now that it’s become so expensive, we have to move, so I don’t think there’s going to be a void very long. Who would’ve thought that on our block was going to be a Prada? Chanel? It’s sort of crazy. Pace, which is now a Paul Smith, was extremely important to the city. People move on. It becomes part of the history of New York. I don’t feel that the void will remain very long.

I’m excited about the paradigm to be changing to one I truly believe will be correct and vital, and give the industry, through my own small actions a chance to come back. So and I don’t care where I do that. I really don’t feel sentimental about it. I never felt that Moss was about that address. It’s sort of egotistical, but I feel that it’s me. It’s created to be autobiographical, and as I move, it moves. After all, it’s a place, it’s a venue, and it needn’t necessarily be a gallery in a certain district. It’s morphed so many times. I demand that Moss be what I feel it should be and go where I go. I’m not going to follow it. It’s inside of me.