Fit for Queens

A well-designed gift shop demonstrates the Queens Museum of Art’s ability to make a little go a long way.

Being a small municipally funded museum with a smaller-than-average budget doesn’t necessarily preclude a healthy dose of ambition. Under its new director, the normally low-key Queens Museum of Art—located in a structure built for New York’s famous 1939 World’s Fair and later the first home of the United Nations—is embarking on a $40 million expansion by Los Angeles architect Eric Owen Moss. The Queens borough government has already promised half the financing, but whether or not the plan is realized the museum’s accomplishments have already far exceeded its funding. The proof is in its new gift shop, designed by New York firm Openshop Studio.

Given few resources beyond the museum’s in-house wood shop and carpenters, Openshop was charged with designing a temporary new store to help reinvigorate the museum’s image until the more complete makeover becomes possible. “It was a hodgepodge of Sheetrock and Ikea cabinets,” Openshop’s Mark Kroeckel says of the existing gift shop. “There was just stuff everywhere,” partner Adam Hayes agrees. “It was like a lot of noise, and we wanted to create some rhythm out of it.”

The rhythm is most apparent in the plywood shelves—backed by translucent polycarbonate, allowing them to be lit from behind—that wrap around three walls of the 400-square-foot space in a single sweeping gesture. Curved with different radii in a syncopated response to corner columns, the shelves are spaced unevenly to help organize the store’s wares, which include everything from World’s Fair memorabilia and reproduction Tiffany lamps (the museum holds a large Tiffany collection) to crafts from countries representing the diverse ethnic makeup of Queens. “Everything is self-selected in terms of what goes on what shelf,” Kroeckel explains of a system that uses shelf height to order a motley product assortment by tallness rather than type. The new store features a seating alcove, wall-mounted aluminum rails with bungee cords for books, and freestanding custom display units. The budget was just $20,000.

The project has been so well-received that the museum has inaugurated a “Mini-Commission Architecture Series” that will invite other firms to design such new, if also temporary, installations as a café, an entrance desk, and a concession stand. “The store looks so good now,” exhibitions director Valerie Smith says, “we’ve realized we’ve got to keep on going.”

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