Jamie Gray: A Retailer Setting Trends, Finding Talent, Inspiring New York

The retailer is helping to promote a new generation of emerging talent.

Occupation Entrepreneur
Affiliation Matter
Location New York City

When people refer to me as a tastemaker I can’t help but smile,” Jamie Gray says. “Because all I’m really doing on a daily basis is filling a shop with my current collection of favorites.” If that’s the case, he must smile a lot. “Tastemaker” is a word people invariably mention when discussing Matter—Gray’s Soho design store—and MatterMade, the shop’s signature line of furniture and lighting. The shop has become a trusted favorite for many of New York City’s design professionals.

“I turn to Matter over and over,” says the New York City–based interior designer Shawn Henderson. “Gray tends to have product that no one else has. I get so excited to go and see what’s there. It makes my job easier, because there are these things you can really fall in love with, and I can get the client excited about them too. He’s got an eye, a vision for tremendous artisans and for materials in unique combinations.”

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For years, the words “New York design shop” inevitably meant Moss, Murray Moss’s legendary high-end, hyper-curated Soho store. And, perhaps in part because Moss had such a lock on the high end, Matter—which began its life in Brooklyn in 2003, and moved to Manhattan in 2010—had to carve out a more multifaceted presence. Instead of focusing on the screamingly luxurious with merely occasional nods to affordability, the merchandise at Matter reliably spans a genuine range of price points. Bespoke and luxe rub shoulders with craft and thrift. It’s another factor in the store’s popularity with those in the trade—and probably a good strategy for longevity since, by some accounts, the sky-high prices at Moss were one factor in its eventual demise. (Moss closed its doors in February of 2012.)

Like Matter, Gray himself is similarly multifarious. To an unusual extent, he’s involved in the business of furniture and lighting at every level—from manufacturing and distributing to curating and hands-on design. His reputation as an excellent spotter of emerging designers is well-deserved, and the list of solid brands that Matter has launched in the American market is long and impressive: Rich Brilliant Willing, Jonah Takagi, Paul Loebach, Established & Sons, Stephen Burks, Cmmnwlth, and more.

Scouting new designers is something Gray enjoys. “What influences me is ever changing and ever evolving,” he says. “It’s nature, it’s American craft, it’s Bauhaus. I can obsess over a simple Charlotte Perriand stool for days. But mostly it’s the amazing and talented people I work with.” His hands-on approach, which owes something to the DIY movement, evolved during the long and circuitous path that led Gray to open Matter. In the 1990s, while living in Seattle, he owned a café and would visit nearby thrift shops on his way to and from work, buying whatever caught his eye—“midcentury furniture, mostly,” he says, which was a wide-open frontier then, the design market being much less developed in America than in Europe. “Mark Newson’s work wasn’t breaking records at auction back then. Nothing was; eBay was relatively new and George Nakashima studio pieces could be had for next to nothing.”

What began as a hobby became a mild obsession. “I eventually realized I’d accumulated way too much stuff and had thus inadvertently created a new career out of buying and selling. Of all the things I was trading at the time, furniture was the most intriguing. And I totally fell in love with it.”

Infatuated, Gray had the notion to design “at least one great chair” and applied to design school. He was accepted to the industrial design program at Pratt Institute, then switched to sculpture, and considered making a career in fine art. But the lure of furniture was too strong: “I was ultimately drawn back to function and utility.” Matter was born about a year later.

When asked to sum up his aesthetic, Gray demurs. “You’d think after about ten years I’d have a really good answer to that question,” he says. “I simply follow my instinct or intuition most of the time. Aesthetically, I’m drawn to a quiet modernism that incorporates touches of classical and primitive. Nothing too austere—I’m definitely not a purist.”

“Jamie has great taste,” says Alexander Williams, of Rich Brilliant Willing, whose rugged-yet-luxe designs have become a Matter standby. “He has an eye for incredibly beautiful work.” Theo Richardson, one of Williams’s business partners, agrees: “Jamie has a very intuitive sensibility. I like that he doesn’t adhere to any rigid construct but creates his own. He takes this approach with his selection of designers, brands, and products in his showroom. He’ll combine quilts with contemporary design, and the result is quite dynamic.”

Other designers describe feeling that Gray has an instinctive sense of their problems and priorities. “We look at Matter as a store that curates its products in a manner similar to the way we look at spaces,” says Rafael de Cárdenas of interior design firm Architecture at Large. “We use furniture and objects from an architectural perspective. Form, color, material—the innovative application of these elements—can act as simple space-making devices, perfect for resolving smaller New York City environments.” Gray, he says, totally gets that. Asked to summarize the store in three words, he says, “Spatial, innovative, aware.”

Cárdenas cites Bec Brittain, whose Copper-head light fixture combines the warm tone of spun copper with brightly twisted colorful rope for an effect that hovers between playful and classical, as a go-to designer he discovered through Matter. Henderson also cites Brittain as a favorite. “Bec Brittain’s tabletop lighting—I’m obsessed! They look so fresh, completely unexpected. I love the feeling of: ‘Where the hell did that come from? Who had the vision to think of that?’”

Gray’s signature as a curator and tastemaker is his unerring sense for finding designers who maintain an alert, interrogative relationship to both materials and craft. It’s this that imbues Brittain’s fixtures with their signature kick of the unexpected, or the delicate diamond-and-gold creations of jeweler Satomi Kawakita with their memorable tension. In spite of the luxe materials, Kawakita never allows her creations to look overly polished or precious; they’re always slightly raw.

Another thing that sets Gray apart is his ability to spot trends early. Patrick Parrish, interior designer and owner of the Tribeca midcentury shop Mondo Cane, calls Gray “the truffle dog of American contemporary design.” He says, “I saw Thaddeus Wolfe at Matter literally years before I saw his cast-glass work anywhere else—and now he’s everywhere. Jamie always seems to be several strides ahead of what I’m seeing on the design blogs, not to mention eons ahead of what’s in the shows and in the shops.” Wolfe—whose mouth-blown and cast-glass tabletop sculptures have an elemental roughness—breaks each mold to remove the finished work, a fitting metaphor for the indefinable newness that design is always chasing.

Gratified by his store’s success, Gray nevertheless takes it in stride. “I feel so lucky to wake up every day and know that I get to go do something that continues to inspire me. If all goes well, five years from now I’ll be doing exactly what I’m doing today—in a much larger space.”

Game Changers 2013

Game Changers | Architecture: Women’s Opportunity Center

Game Changers | Advocacy: Edward Mazria

Game Changers | Planning: The Great Lakes Century

Game Changers | Patronage: Jamie Gray

Game Changers | Research: Dream:In

Game Changers | History: Vincent Scully

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