When the MoMA Design Store opened in 1989, it wasn’t the first design museum shop in the country, but in 2013 it became the best. The year before, a new director of merchandising, Emmanuel Plat, came on board, bringing with him 20 years of experience at Conran Shop, the design retailer where he worked his way up to president of the company. With Plat came new concepts, a new strategy, and a fresh personality that would eventually turn the MoMA Design Store from a museum gift shop into an international design destination. But first, he had to convince his new team, many of whom had been with the organization for decades, to trust him—and his first, crazy $6,000 idea.
To see them now, you wouldn’t guess that the tightly knit team had ever been at odds. Working closely, the five lead buyers are responsible for curating a selection of roughly 6,000 products each year, available online and in MoMA’s five locations (three in New York and two in Japan). One buyer handles books, and another personal accessories; furniture, lighting, tabletop, and kitchen are a department all their own, as are kids, desk, tech, and household, and paper goods, holiday items, art reproductions, and artist collaborations. Each buyer works with an assistant, bringing the body count to a lean 11.
Today, in their 11th floor office just steps away from the museum’s midtown location, they gather around a pushcart overflowing with household items to discuss a new product sample that just arrived. Beside this is another pushcart full of children’s games and toys, beside another piled high with tech gadgets, and another stacked with desk accessories. These pushcarts stretch all the way down the aisle of cubicles like cars in a traffic jam. Each buyer gradually adds products to their pushcart as they build out the next season’s collection. These carts are then wheeled around to various product review meetings, culminating in a presentation to the museum’s curatorial staff.
They’re looking at a handy little kitchen tool that purports to age a bottle of wine in less than five seconds. Chay Costello, who works directly with Plat as associate director of merchandising, says she was skeptical until she brought it home for a taste test. She’s still unsure if it’s really “MoMA,” though, as she sets it down on the edge of a cubicle wall—not quite pushcart material yet, it seems.
The difference between what makes a good, quality design product and good, quality MoMA design product is the result of an eight-step “filtration” process and years of experience in the field. Great taste doesn’t hurt, either. Among the many considerations are: Is it useful? Does it solve a problem? Does it use materials or technology in an innovative way? Does it relate to the museum’s design collection? And lastly, will the customer buy it? That’s one reason the team was so surprised when the first product Plat wanted to introduce was a $6,000 kitchen set. Designed by Malle W. Trousseau, the w. Trousseau handmade wooden chest of 43 kitchen essentials easily passes all the design filters, but at a price.
“It was an interesting journey,” says Plat, reflecting on his early years on the job. “This was post-2008, so the product selection was very much what we jokingly call ‘cheap and cheerful,’” meaning colorful items often made of plastic and priced under $50. But when he started, “the strategy was to elevate the product offering and collaborate with artists. At the time, this was not necessarily accepted, and I had to make a lot of headway convincing people to go in that direction. The data we had showed there was a potential appetite for higher price points, and I wanted to experiment with that. Many people from the team thought it was crazy. ‘No one is going to buy your $6,000 kitchen set,’ they said. ‘This is MoMA Design Store, people buy postcards.’ The highest priced item at the time was, I think, a $200 kettle.”
However, when the w. Trousseau debuted at the press preview that season, “all the media outlets there were fighting for the exclusive” says Plat. “And as soon as it hit stores we sold a dozen pieces. That was validation of what we suspected: There aren’t only visitors to the museum who want to take away an affordable souvenir, but also a design-savvy, affluent customer, mostly local New Yorkers, who are interested in more exclusive objects.”
Since then, it’s been the mission of Plat and his merchandising team to establish the MoMA Design Store as a platform for launching brand new products and as a destination in its own right, independent of the museum. Plat’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. “After the economic downturn of 2008,” Costello explains, “we were catering to the market and the pricepoint people felt comfortable with. But as time went on the market changed and the design world in New York City changed. A lot of really terrific design retailers didn’t make it, which left open a great opportunity for us.”
Of course, it’s not as simple as putting gorgeous, expensive items on the shelf and watching the sales tick in. “Sell it and they will come” isn’t anyone’s motto for a reason. After looking at the store’s sales, the cluster of price points in each department, and where there were obvious holes, “We knew people would, say, buy desk accessories at this one specific price point, and furniture at another,” says Costello. “Then it was a matter of trying to raise up the price and the offerings and see how people would respond.”
Another early success is the Lumio Book Lamp, designed by Max Gunawan, which the MoMA team spotted in 2013 after its wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, raising over half a million dollars. Although it quickly became one of the store’s top-sellers, placing a bet on Lumio was something of a risk. At the time, Kickstarter wasn’t the platform of choice for product designers, but MoMA’s merchandisers noticed a growing trend and partnered with the crowdfunding platform on a special launch of 20 products selected from an initial list of hundreds. “It was a challenge,” Costello concedes, “as many of these Kickstarter designers have never sold retail, let alone wholesale, so we were teaching them how to create pricing structure, how to scale, and how to deal with lead time.”
While a lot of product research is done online, trawling Kickstarter as well as a slew of other sites and blogs, much of the search for undiscovered designs happens IRL, often as the result of serendipitous encounters. The team does more than its share of travel to design industry trade shows around the world (London, Paris, and Milan are regular stops on their annual itinerary), but for each major international fair, they make sure to pack in visits to as many local shops as their schedule can accommodate.
Soek-Hee Lee, who oversees the kids, desk, and tech product range, recounts her trip last summer to Berlin for the IFA trade show. After she finished there, she flew to Brussels to meet up with Plat and Alex Glaser, who heads up personal accessories, but they didn’t find anything that piqued their interest, so a few hours later they rented a car and sped off to Antwerp, where they were rewarded with plenty of great shops. The next day the three of them jumped back in the car, this time heading to Eindhoven, where they discovered a selection of products that will be launched at MoMA next season. After sending samples back to the New York office, they flew on to Paris for Maison & Objet, hitting three countries in just three days.
At this point, it’s relatively easy for the team to spot a promising item. “When we walk into a design store we usually know 100% of the products there,” says Costello. “So if we see something we don’t know, it stands out.” Plat agrees, adding, “The mentality we try to spread in the team is to be on constant alert.”
Once the buyers return home from the trade shows, it’s time to whittle down their selections. “We have these major style outs where we have hundreds of products that we put out on a table,” says Costello. They review the mix of items spread before them, considering what’s already on offer in the store. They ask things like: Do we already have too many teapots? Not enough teapots? Is this $10 notebook distinct enough from our other $10 notebook? Then the product testing begins. Every item goes home with a staffer, is used, evaluated, and then brought back into the mix or cut from the running. “We’ll give it to our kids and watch them play with it. Are the pieces too small? Do they seem engaged?” Only about 75% of products meet the criteria.
An obvious, but sometimes elusive criteria is whether something is on-brand for MoMA. One recent on-the-fence item is the classic Kit-Cat Clock. While it’s likely familiar to most Americans, especially Boomers, “I had personally never seen it before,” Plat says. “We thought it was fun and whimsical, but it was a little on the edge of ‘is this MoMA or not MoMA?’ But the box said ‘Made in the U.S. since 1932.’ So we snapped pictures and sent them to the office for research and reviewed it with the museum’s curators.” Despite the kitsch factor, it passed the test because, Costella says, “we thought that when presented in the context of all of the clocks we offer, it did tell a story.” Like Lumio, it’s become another best seller.
But a product doesn’t have to be a money maker in order to have a home at MoMA. “Sometimes we find a product that we think is extraordinary and we fall in love with it. We think it’s important, that it’s documenting something in the world right now.” Take the ClockClock, a series of analogue clock faces that are choreographed together to project the time digitally. Designed by Humans Since 1982, it was originally presented as an installation at Basel in 2013. “When we heard they were producing multiples, we were the first ones!” Plat recalls. “We all fell in love with it, but didn’t have huge hopes for sales. But it’s been a tremendous seller—and it’s a $7,000 clock, so that’s a surprise.”
Another important part of the review process involves the museum’s curators. Every couple of months, the buyers wheel their pushcarts into a meeting room, lay all their items on a table, and review them one by one with a group of curators. About 75% of the products make it past this stage, “but the dialogue and guidance is critical,” says Plat. “We get feedback and direction, and we hear what they’re interested in seeing. Throughout this process we learn a lot.”
A curator’s voice is especially critical when it comes to artist reproductions. If the merchandising team wants to print an artwork on a silk scarf, for instance, the curator might like the concept, but note that the piece in question is not actually from the period the museum is collecting from a given artist. It’s a constant dialogue and, as you might have guessed by now, a lot of meetings. “We’re very meeting intensive. We’re very old-fashioned that way,” says Costello.
Despite its connection to the museum, Plat insists that the MoMA Design Store “is not a museum store, it’s a design store.” Still, the connection is hard to overlook. “Besides generating revenue for the museum, one of our missions is to make good design available to as many people as possible. We can reach people who may not be interested in coming to MoMA, or may be intimidated by it, but the experience of the store can be a point of entry to the museum.” The relationship is reciprocal, too. Unlike a typical retailer, the MoMA Design Store receives natural traffic from museum visitors.
As the MoMA Design Store becomes known as a hub for launching new products and debuting exclusives, it will only continue to stake its claim as a design mecca, regardless of the museum nearby. One essential reason it has real staying power? The store passes its own eight-step “filtration” process, namely: Is it useful? Does it solve a problem? Would the world miss it if it wasn’t there? Yes, yes, and emphatically yes.