Beyond Buildings


Moss Etherizes: Thinking Beyond the Retail Box

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Murray Moss. Image via

“Retail is so last century,” Murray Moss, of the eponymous Moss design store in New York told me, only half-jokingly, when we had a drink last week to celebrate the closing of that temple of refined taste. He is moving towards a by-appointment model in which he will, like all great former leaders, concentrate on acting as a consultant through something called Moss Bureau.

The move seems logical to me, not only because Moss’s strength was always his ability to discern great design in everything from deliberately burnt furniture to minimal flatware to Nymphenburg china, but also because stores don’t have the same allure they once did. Etrade is exploding. The physical shop now has two main functions: to act as a showcase that lets you see the product and then buy it online (raise your hands, how many of have looked at architecture books at fine booksellers and then slunk off with a guilty consciousness to buy them for much less on Amazon?), or as a place of convenience that lets you avoid waiting for a day for that UPS truck. The only other reason I go to a store is if there is a sale. On the trip to New York when I saw Moss, I only walked into two retail establishments–I used to cruise by quite a few.

I know retail figures show a slow shift, but my own experience makes me feel this is happening much faster than that data implies. During the holiday period at the end of last year, I spent some time working the kiosk the art museum of which I am director rented at our local upscale mall. I arrived early, fearing the long walk from a remote parking spot and the obstacle course through the crowds. I found the place rather empty, and spent a leisurely few hours two weeks before Christmas chatting with strollers and selling a few tschoskes. Even the Apple store next door was relatively quiet.

The transformation of stores from into full service establishments into accessible warehouses or refined showcases has implications for their design. It means they are either turning into big boxes that pride themselves in their lack of design (think Costco) –though companies such as Uniqlo have figured out how to make that look good, or they are turning into jewel boxes that you are almost afraid to enter. Louis Vuitton is the leader there, spending millions and hiring good designers to create astonishing jigsaw puzzles of spaces that are the architectural equivalent of the valises and trunks that lie at the brand’s core.

It is difficult for an independent retailer such as Moss, who has neither vast warehouses nor a global brand to back up his one outlet, to survive in that environment. For almost 20 years, he thrived by making his store into the one place where you could find then exotic objects such as items by the Droog Design types, and by presenting the material like a museum, in locked glass cases, thus increasing their perceived value.

But it was the choices he made, his eye for design, and his ability to articulate what was so wonderful about seemingly disparate objects like hand-painted tureens and chairs made from stuffed toys that really made Moss a Mecca. That ability is independent of space, and is more like what is on offer on the smart sites and aggregators you can find on the internet. His critical sensibility will now live in the ether, as well as in a loft somewhere, where he intends to show a catalogue of selected items in an atmosphere where potential clients or buyers can see them at work and discuss their uses at leisure. He will fly around the world giving advice and offering his opinions, liberated from having to stand around one store all day. I think Murray Moss has once again seen the future of design, and it does not involve much building.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.