Murray’s Next Act

Moss—impresario, provocateur, and inventor of the store-as-museum concept—is the retailer most responsible for transforming Soho and taking high-end design mainstream. Now he embarks on a new adventure. Moss, the iconic shop, is gone. In its place, Moss Bureau, the consultancy. Here, he talks about his decision to “kill” his beloved store and reinvent
the brand as a showcase for the gloriously messy business of design.

Seeing Murray Moss at home in his stocking feet, squeezing out a teabag and putting it in a cup, is touching. This domestic scene stands in contrast with his store, the impeccable Moss. It’s not that his home isn’t impeccable, but that there’s something wrenchingly human about it. In part, it’s because he’s such a novice at this. There’s no small irony in a housewares maven who doesn’t entertain. He doesn’t quite know what to do with my coat or where to stow my gloves, and until about three weeks ago, he’d rarely had anyone over. That was when he announced that his iconic, eponymous store was closing.

It seems he’s trying to use the life change presented by closing the store to expose a more private part of himself, something that’s less the “impeccable Moss store” and more personal, more open. He’s starting by taking people into his home. In the kitchen, he describes his first foray into hosting as something of a trial by fire. He set off the smoke alarm making toast for the hors d’oeuvres. After the toast-burning fiasco, he had a group of journalists and close friends over for coffee (safer than canapés), to explain why he was closing the store. It was, he says, a “jump-out-of-the-airplane moment.”

Murray, 63, is bald and boyish, with a puckish expression that makes him look simultaneously amused, engaged, and welcoming. He’s wearing a black shirt and jeans, and apologizes for having little milk and no cakes. He waves open the cupboard to show how rarely he and his partner (in life, and in the store), Franklin Getchell, cook. There’s one can of Progresso soup and two cans of Campbell’s tomato soup. In anyone else’s apartment they’d just be soup; in his kitchen, though, those two cans look like a Warhol. They’re raised up simply because Moss is Moss, renowned for his ability to arrange objects in a way that creates context and meaning. Some would see in his closing a sense of Greek tragedy, the great brought low, the end of an era, etc., etc. I don’t. Instead, it’s moving to see how unguarded he is as he navigates these changes.

His apartment at 51st Street and Fifth Avenue has the kind of view of Manhattan that makes the city look like canyons and cliffs chiseled from granite and steel. “You know where you are, here,” he says. “You know you’re in Manhattan.” His address, the Olympic Tower, is tony. With its gloved doormen, and elevator attendants, and halls lined with carpeting that creates a dizzying one-point perspective, and doors that have no numbers on them, the place can be so off-putting or expensive as to inspire judgment. But Murray points to Radio City Music Hall, and, like a kid, says his favorite thing is to watch the camels being fed at Christmas before the Rockettes’ shows.

In the living room, Murray tells me to take the black chair (they are all black), and says he’ll “take the low one”—the Jasper Morrison. His not using the names, not saying, “the Citterio sofa,” is remarkably down-
to-earth. The reason this is so poignant is that Moss is no ordinary mortal, but one who has defined the design decade, who helped shape how we see and value and even shop for things, and his store is seminal and powerful. It has launched careers, and now it’s closing. It will have closed by the time you read this.

Its final week, the store had an elegiac quality. There were still the giant Gaetano Pesce vases and a biscuit-porcelain wedding cake with skulls and bows, next to classic Nymphenburg birds and dolls modeled on designs by the Huichol Indians, as well as the Campana brothers’ Panda chair, but a white moving van was parked outside, and Claudy Jongstra felted rugs were folded and stacked on the counter. The techno music played on, and signs continued to admonish people not to touch. A couple of movers in flannel shirts and baggy jeans, their sneakers slouched from their sloping gaits, rolled dollies in and out of the store.

Maarten Baas’s burned grandfather clock stood like a sentinel in the window, as if it were testimony to the passage of time. The few shoppers seemed to be paying their last respects. All wore black and had their hands clutched behind their backs, talking in hushed voices as if at a wake. The posture and dark clothes were as befitting a gallery as they were a funeral, and here Murray had the last word. He hung the landlord’s for-rent notice inside the iconic, white-neon Moss sign, reframing the sentiment of closing. In his kitchen, over our second cup of tea, he laughed. “Someone came in saying, ‘If you’re not careful, people will take you seriously and think you’re really for rent.’”

After a brief notice—barely two paragraphs long—in the New York Times announced the store was closing, word spread wildly across the Internet. Moss was described as an institution. “Influential” and “iconic” were used repeatedly. It was called the end of an era. So, after 18 years, what happened?

In bold strokes: the economy, the recession, rent—and success. The design market had spread. The store created to look like a museum inspired museums to look like stores. Soho changed. Everything started to look more like Moss. As Michael Maharam, who’s worked closely with Murray over the last decade through his family’s textile firm, explains, “If you look around, and I did last weekend, there’s not a lot new or fresh in retail. At Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, the art was being shown in vitrines and on tabletops.
At Partners & Spade, they blend found objects with a gallery feel, and Phillips de Pury has its art shop.”

Benjamin Genocchio, the editor in chief of Art + Auction, says, “Design sales are strong and name recognition terrific. It is kind of counterintuitive to think Murray’s closing is, in part, the product of success, of design going so mainstream. But now there are so many opportunities to buy online and at auction that people really don’t need to go to Murray. His work is done. He’s mainstreamed all this stuff, and is now stuck like an old airline with huge infrastructure costs.”

Murray agrees. He just adds a detail. His collateral became his competition. Many of his vendors opened their own stores not just in Soho, but on Greene Street. “Basically, every major vendor of ours opened up on our block.” Amazingly, he doesn’t sound bitter: “We shot ourselves in the foot. We were the biggest Alessi distributor. I was the biggest Kartell distributor. Ingo Maurer was—is—a close friend of mine, and opened up a couple of blocks down on Greene. We sold Cassina…. So what are you going to do about that?”

His answer: close. He started thinking about it three years ago. Sales had dropped to one twentieth of what they’d been. He thought he’d lost his touch, and would tell Franklin, “I got bad.” Franklin would reassure him. People were still coming in, and talking about how much they loved the store. Then, this January, their landlord wanted to renegotiate the lease—wanted, in fact, to raise the rent (it’s currently $80,000 a month), and he gave Getchell and Moss 24 hours to decide if they wanted out of the lease. They did.

All those reasons, Murray explains, are, “the socio-economic changes. Then there are personal cycles.” He talks about Gail Sheehy, and her book Passages. “You can read all the newspapers, but you’ll never find the deeper explanation. It’s the rosebud. Changes are happening in my life which are the result of multiple”—he sighs and struggles with the word—“scenarios, but then there is also the personal.”

His personal reason, his rosebud? Parkinson’s. He’s not emotional as he talks about it, but he was diagnosed a year ago, and part of the sense of frailty surrounding him this afternoon is his slight limp and small tremor. “The diagnosis isn’t the defining element of my life, but it’s there. It’s not ‘Murray is sick’ ”—his voice rises, and sounds remarkably like Kevin Spacey’s—“I go to the doctor and take the medication and I’m okay, but the deal is, you don’t know where it’s going to go.”

That medication literally keeps him up at night. The doctor said he’d become a gambler. “I told him that I’m Jewish. I don’t play cards. The likelihood of my becoming a gambler is so remote.” Instead, Murray found himself up at 2 a.m. shopping for facecloths and linens—and writing the letter he sent out to his closest friends about the closing. In a sense, though, he’s always been a gambler. You have to be to shape paradigms as he has.

Before opening Moss, Murray tried out the idea in a more limited form. In 1990, after he’d left the fashion business, he had an idea that design could be big. He went to the heads of Saks, Bendel, and Bergdorf, and, he explains, “I said, ‘You know fashion is iffy, and you’ve got ads committed to it and windows on the high street,’ and I said, ‘Shift it. Give me some of the power. Shift it to another sector of design that you can own, and it will blossom and you can have it.’ And no one said yes.”

Finally, Jon Weiser, of the famed Charivari store on Madison Avenue, where Marc Jacobs got his start and Japanese designers were first introduced to American shoppers, gave Murray a floor. The New York Times wrote glowingly of it in 1993, and even hinted that Weiser might open a store in Soho. He didn’t, but Murray did. Back in 1994, who would have thought that a housewares-store-as-gallery would have any truck in Soho, sandwiched between Metro Pictures and Pace Gallery?

This was two years before Steve Jobs went back to Apple, and it predates Wallpaper* and many of the other forces credited with the designing of our world. Back then, Soho had little shopping—no Chanel, or Prada, or Miu Miu, or streets lined with high-end home-goods and monobrand stores. It was still the heart of the art world, and when signing his first lease, Murray had to promise the co-op board that he wasn’t a store but a gallery.

Murray was revolutionary not only in elevating housewares, but also in how he displayed them. He’d move things around every day, creating striking contrasts between objects. He describes it as theater, but says, “Objects have economic, sociological, political baggage, which is why I love them. They’re not in a vacuum. They’re like triggers, like souvenirs, of what’s going on.” He grabs two pairs of baby shoes off a shelf. One is white and “prissy,” as he puts it, the other like a pair of work boots, and they’re his (the prissy ones) and Franklin’s (the butch ones). “They’re like a picture of us, and you can do that with so many things.”

He might describe what he does as theater, but really it’s more like comparative literature, this idea that objects have meanings that can be revealed by their intertextuality. For him, the meanings often outweigh something’s use-value or form-follows-function-ness, and they have been a key tenet of what’s he’s been doing in the store all these years. In a sense, the man who started as an arch modernist evolved into someone at war with modernism.

He talks of fragility, and how precious it is in an era of democratic design. “We are so dishwasher-safed out, which means invulnerable, so we’ve lost our ability to appreciate the humanness of vulnerability. It humanizes these things, because you want to cherish and protect them, and you feel loss if you break them, because they can’t be duplicated exactly.”

I can’t help thinking of my glass of sparkling water on the table before us. It’s Lobmeyr crystal, which translates to me as terrifyingly expensive and delicate, with its thin, exquisite glass. But he’s right, drinking from it is special. It’s thrilling, as is the small detail of a bee etched on the side. You can see the insect only when you’re right up close to it.

Over the years, Moss became the champion of a certain kind of experimental design: first Droog, and the Dutch conceptualists of Eindhoven (everyone from Hella Jongerius and Studio Job to Maarten Baas), as well as the flamboyant Brazilian Campanas and others whose work crossed the boundaries between craft and art and design. He also pioneered the idea that old and new could rub up against each other to create fresh meaning. He did it first with his Nymphenburg exhibit, showing porcelain that wasn’t decades but centuries old. He now describes that exhibit as being as personally transformational for him as is closing the store.

It was 2000, and he decked out the gallery with rococo figurines. There were blushing maids and dashing men in buccaneer boots, which was enough to incite a riot in the world of high design. “I went to Nymphenburg,” Murray shakes his head at the memory, “and I was supposed to look at these Konstantin Grcic pieces taking the electrical parts for wiring and casting them in porcelain. But how can you, when you have Franz Anton Bustelli, the foremost sculptor of rococo porcelain? Here were the most iconic of the hated enemies of modernism, you know, tchotchkes, and I was like, ‘Oh, figurative. Oh, wait, I can breathe again.’”

When the exhibit opened, he got hate mail. “They said you’re making fun of us, you’re jerking us around after calling yourself an industrial design store. People felt I was pulling their chain.” He had place settings from the Bavarian royal palace with birds and figurines.

In the last week of the store, he still showed conceptual design next to porcelains of siskins and sparrows and nuthatches. Such birds have trickled down and become such a staple of hipster chic that they’re parodied on Portlandia, and the punk craft coming from designers in the Netherlands has spread so widely that things like Studio Job’s skull-and-bow wedding cake can seem so very Etsy.

Now he’s ready to give up “the constant cleaning and Glass Plus poisoning,” as he puts it. He’s not ending Moss; he’s morphing it into Moss Bureau, which will be Moss minus the store. “Retail at Moss doesn’t work on the high street. So we’re going to take the retail away. We’re going to close it as a store on Greene Street, and take it to a different environment,” his voice rises, sounding Spacey-like again. “We’re not going to fade it. We’re going to kill it.” Instead, he’ll do what he loves—curating and connecting designers and companies, as well as advising architects on contemporary design. Design is at a turning point, he explains: “Banks have taken over iconic companies, and made a mess of them. Some are being bought back by entrepreneurs. They all need advice.” He uses fashion as an example. It’s gone through booming successes over the past decade. “And how do they do it?” he asks. “They don’t take chances. They don’t open this week without knowing there’s a narrative being presented arm in arm, so the store has a story to tell, and they don’t have to make it up on their own.”

With that analogy, it’s fitting that Murray is moving to the garment district. For him, the change is akin to opening his home to visitors and exposing what goes on behind the scenes. He’s going to post the cost of the rent on the wall, so you can see everything in all its messy glory. There will be exhibits, yes, but also the filing cabinets, the photocopier, and the desks where people work. “I want transparency,” he says. “You’re going to see the chairs we sit in, the phones we use, the person’s pictures of their kids. You’ll see the business of design.”

As he shifts paradigms as well as locations, other design companies have started to get in touch with his broker, and are asking for space in the building. Just as the art world moved to Chelsea, now New York’s design world might decamp en masse to 36th Street. He’s also interviewing for teaching positions at prestigious universities, is lined up to curate an exhibit in London that will juxtapose art and design (“It would be me playing with Jackson Pollock and Marcel Duchamp,” he says, giddy at the idea), and recently met with the head of a London museum to talk about shaping its museum shop. But what’s really on his mind after spending the day painting his new office is how he will close the door at Moss come Friday.

He glances down as he considers having to leave the store behind after 18 years, long enough to have a child and send her to college. “I opened the door, so I should close it, but it won’t be easy. I’m freaked out about it, to be perfectly frank.” It’s one of the life transitions that needs to be marked, he says: “I don’t have to dance in the street or go to a party, but I need to take the key and turn the lock, because those moments are precious.” He does, however, know what he will wear. He laughs as he describes the outfit: a new Lanvin shirt, black jeans, and Louis Vuitton shoe boots.

Recent Programs