Travel the world, buy up great design—yes the life of a MoMA Design Store Buyer really is as exciting as it sounds.
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…
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