Having a product carried by the MoMA Design Store has long been a career-defining achievement for designers, even in a time when cultural relevance seems to be increasingly measured by clicks and likes—but then again, not every museum is known for acquiring digital, immaterial objects like the “@” symbol. The museum’s retail arm is arguably as legendary as its galleries, with a range of inventory that ambitiously covers both the historic and contemporary, the collectible and disposable, the functional and frivolous–and the complete and surprising oddball, like the recent addition of a “beachy-keen” inflatable sailboat by the French company Tiwal.
Seen alongside items from the store’s inventory of canonical design that includes a limited-edition colorway of De Stijl icon Gerrit Rietveld‘s Red and Blue Chair, Issey Miyake’s geometric Bao Bao tote, and a toaster by Gae Aulenti, the inflatable sailboat made me wonder: Just what does it take to get into the MoMA Design Store? What do the high priests of modern museum retail consider to be good design–and to what end?
At MoMA, it’s not a rhetorical exercise, but a serious question that translates to an explicit set of criteria. As MoMA retail’s director of merchandise Emmanuel Plat attests, every item carried at the MoMA Design Store undergoes a rigorous eight-part vetting process. That also involves approvals from the museum’s curatorial team, who together review selections from the buying team to assess if a given item is up to snuff. Those eight criteria act as “design filters” for Plat and his team, who judge each design according to how iconic it is, along with how it relates to MoMA’s collections, and whether it has featured in a past or present exhibition. Aside from cultural significance, there’s also the consideration of a design’s innovative approach to function, materials, textiles, and technology. Finally, they also consider the object’s educational merit for kids. The curatorial heft extends to the store’s buying team, who not only travel to design trade shows around the world to suss out the best new works, but also study up on the museum’s own history to inform their direction.
“There’s always something to learn, and a next horizon we’re looking to build toward,” says Chay Costello, MoMA retail’s associate director of merchandise. “Recently, I went over to our archive department, because they had a couple of boxes dedicated to the store that hadn’t been looked at. They asked if I wanted to take a look, which was, like, my dream activity.” Costello began working at MoMA as a green college grad nearly 20 years ago, and has stayed ever since, accruing a host of institutional knowledge in the process. “It was surprising to note the museum itself opened in 1929, and that within four months of its opening, there were retail operations in the lobby. It was just the front desk, where you could buy an exhibition catalog, or photographs of things that were on view, but there was that need from early on, from people visiting the museum, to want to take some token of the experience home with them.”
With the MoMA Design Store being a retail operation, however, sales trends also inevitably, undeniably drive a lot of buying decisions.
“We are definitely about form and function, but we’ve noticed that over the last few years there’s definitely an appetite for objets that are more decorative—items that are simply nice, really well-crafted products,” said Plat, who joined in 2012 after working for the Conran Group. “When we talk about workspaces now, we don’t think so much about the typical pen holder or letter rack,” he noted, of the store’s current spring/summer 2018 collection, which playfully cross-lists several items across two seemingly polar categories, workspace and kids. “People are not so interested in this anymore: Each time we kind of bring this sort of traditional desk object to the store, the response is fairly quiet.”
On the contrary, conversation pieces and engaging, game-like items have almost always done well with customers, Plat says–as do small gifts and items priced at the lower end—though his team will take care to include these in moderation. “I kind of liken these items to candy,” he says. “They feel good to taste at first, but the more you eat it, the more you damage your teeth, eventually. So it is with upkeeping a brand: We try to keep on the filters that are part of the MoMA’s DNA.”
The term “Good Design,” capital g, capital d, after all, has particularly historic roots at MoMA. In 1932, the institution launched its Department of Architecture and Design—touted as the world’s first curatorial department of its kind—and directly played a hand in shaping (and debating) postwar consumer attitudes with its exhibitions, most notably it famous Good Design series, which ran from 1950 to 1955. Under the direction of curator Edgar J. Kaufman Jr., the annual program selected a variety of the best furniture, products, and domestic items on the basis of “eye appeal, construction, function, and price,” and exhibited them at MoMA and at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, straddling the line between fine-art exhibition and trade show.
The Good Design items, which ranged from iconic furniture, to Tupperware, a hunting bow, and an iron, were listed by name, designer, approximate retail price, and stockists; many of the items could be found at Bloomingdale’s, who also collaborated with MoMA on the exhibition. That brash co-mingling of curatorial and commercial efforts may have been viewed conspicuously then, in the decades following, and perhaps even now—though the taboo may be fading. Or, at the very least, souvenirs are getting much savvier. Last fall, as MoMA mounted Items: Is Fashion Modern?, its first exhibition dedicated to fashion design since 1944, the MoMA Design Store launched a product suite featuring everyday items from the show. Meanwhile, over at the Met Breuer, a monographic Ettore Sottsass show was paired with a Memphis-laden section of works, both original Sottsass pieces and those inspired by them, in its gift shop; this summer, the Whitney Museum will also mount an exhibition on the independent, Brooklyn-based fashion label Eckhaus Latta, under the premise that it will be “shoppable.”
The pendulum of culture requires us to continually step back and take stock, and in 2018, it seems the plinth is no longer precious. Today, themed Instagram photo-op funhouses are touted as “museums,” and art installations and brand activations alike are as interactive as ever. As boundaries continue to blur, MoMA Design Store has continued to evolve, proving that design retail can serve to both entice and educate.
Take the store’s new inflatable sailboat, the Tiwal 3 Inflatable Sailboat. If you can swing the lofty $6,195 price tag, the MoMA store makes a good case for its induction into your hall of personal belongings–as well its own storied inventory collection. Made in France, the compact design features a patented V-shaped hull for two that inflates in 20 minutes and flat-packs to fit in the trunk of a car. It easily checks out under the rubric of “innovative function,” notes Costello, who also references the 1962 MoMA exhibition, Design for Sport, as a historically significant show that celebrated athletic design and ultimately served as impetus for the museum to carry the Tiwal sailboat in its stores. That reference, natch, cleverly accompanies the item’s online catalog copy, which goes on to detail the maker’s story to great length.
And for the less spendy onlooker, browsing invariably offers a lesson in product design—and for less the cost of the museum’s rising admission fees. “It’s design that is so scrupulously made to do something well,” Costello added, “and for utility.”