Jamie Gray, the owner of MATTER, a conceptual furniture retail space in Brooklyn, set up shop at Capsule as part of the show's Elements of Retail exhibition. We sat down with Jamie to learn more about the art of retail, and also got to take a video tour of his Brooklyn shop.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved with the furniture business?
Yeah, I mean it sort of spans many years but essentially I had a restaurant many years back in Seattle, and used to alternate between working in my restaurant and going back and forth between a few thrift stores in the neighborhood, and started collecting mid-century modern furniture. That led to my interest in studying furniture, which brought me to New York eventually. I studied Industrial Design very briefly at Pratt, moved over to the sculpture department, and was about to segue into being a fine artist, then sort of came back and was drawn back into furniture by the desire to work with utility and function and so I found myself back in this realm.
So when did you launch Matter and how did that process all start?
I opened Matter in 2003 and the whole idea was to create a platform for both local and international designers, to show work in Brooklyn where there was nobody doing anything of the sort at the time. There was really this idea that there was this big hole that nobody was showing so much great work that was happening at the time.
Is there an overarching philosophy that connects the pieces that youre attracted to? Or a philosophy for Matter as a whole?
Honestly theres no overarching philosophy. Its really just been an endless search for great design coming from the world. Looking to both young and up and coming designers to established designers, more then anything work that I relate to or respond to visually, aesthetically, emotionally.
As you know were shifting away from doing the vignettes at Capsule, focusing really on making it a better experience for retailers who come through, which is where what you guys are doing with us comes into play. We know that display and merchandising in particular are really important at a retail level, but I was interested to hear your thoughts about what you think separates a great retail display concept from one thats mediocre or not quite as good.
When I walk in a space and Im taken by a display, I feel like it somehow feels effortless and thats usually what Im drawn to. Something that feels effortless, something that feels visually strong and visually relates to whats going on around it. If the work inside of the space feels incorporated with the displays and the displays feel incorporated with the architecture, then it becomes this unified idea or concept where everything feels like part of the greater whole, then I think it becomes successful.
Do you have any spaces off the top of your head that do that particularly well?
Yeah, I mean there are so many. When I first moved to New York one of the first spaces I was really moved by was Moss. Not a clothing store, but a furniture and lighting design store. It sort of goes against all of my ethos, which is like, human interaction and the interaction with whatever product or goods that are being sold. Murray Moss, who opened the space, basically put everything behind glass or up on pedestals, and it was out of reach and you couldnt touch anything and everything was kind of elevated in terms of the way you perceived it. Museum style. It was genius. It goes against everything I think makes retail successful, but that is what I find so interesting. You can sort of bend ideas to suit your own personality, and I think thats where that space became really successful. It was his personality, it was an extension of his personality and embodied everything he believed, and thats what made that successful. Thats one great example.
I mean in terms of whats going on currently, Opening Ceremony is a great example of successful retail design. It appeals to a young audience, the personality of the space and their interiors and the way they display everything is an extension of the work, the artists, the designers that are showing there.
Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, they all have great spaces and great sensibility for retail.
The first time I walked into Comme des Garcons, up in Chelsea, I was blown away by the space.
But really, I think what makes retail successful what makes displays successful is creating a personality. Creating something larger. You put brands into a space, multiple brands in a space especially, and its like now you have this amalgam of ideas all together and that creates a whole in itself. By default you now have all these ideas coming together and you want to create something that becomes cohesive in terms of the display as well, and again taking into account the architecture, and making that all work together.
Are you a proponent of a refresh on retail display after something has been around for a while, even if its working, just to breathe some new life into a space? Or do you like the consistency that a solid retail display affords?
I think a refresh is an imperative. I dont think you have to reinvent the wheel on a regular basis, but I think part of the experience of walking into a retail space is kind of discovering something new every time you walk in. I think thats what makes a regular customer a regular customer. Every time they come in, they feel like theyve discovered something. Every time I walk into a retail venue I know I missed something, and I may discover it somewhere else in the space and I think its important that you know it, just, maybe its like psychic dust that sort of builds up when a space becomes stagnant. Even if its moving a piece from one side to the other, or even a foot sometimes can make all the difference because it puts it in somebody elses peripheral or direct vision. So I think always maintaining a certain amount of freshness is imperative.
Are there any common things that you see at a retail display level that you think are getting a little tired, and you dont necessarily recommend?
No, I think its all about developing your own visual language. I think there are tried and true methods of display that work, that have been around for years and years for a reason. I think the whole idea of display came from window display initially and thats slowly moved to the interior. There are reasons why certain things just work; you put something at eye level and someones going to see it, and its just how you do it, the language, the displays themselves that create the story. So, I dont think theres anything tired that needs to be put to rest. More then anything I think its just, deviate from the norm, deviate from the obvious, dont get stuck in a rut. Do something fresh, create something thats all your own.
So, if I were opening a store do you have anything thats a starting off point? What would be the first step when youre thinking about display?
My take is always: youre telling a story. Everything is about creating this entity thats a combination of different elements. Start putting it on paper, start developing your idea. Are you a clothing store? So, what are your brands? Start looking at the brands as your story. Or is it your own brand? And then you know, whats the story of your brand? I guess growing it out from, in the case of clothing makes the most sense, you know youre growing from the actual garment or the object. Youre growing from furniture, or whatever it is, out to the displays. To me thats the most logical way to work, from the macro to the bigger picture. Put together a board of heres the beginning of my story and you sort of build it out from there.
Do you want to tell us a little about what youre putting together for Capsule?
Our work for Capsule has been sort of an ongoing investigation into developing retail display concepts. And, to our own interest and intrigue with structure and geometry and dimension, and just ourselves as well. Learning about different ways display can function. More then anything its been an exploration.
Is it starting to take shape yet, the actual physical piece?
Yeah, like I said, its an ongoing thing, its like as we keep growing this relationship with Capsule then this thing keeps growing all by itself. Every few weeks or every month or so were revisiting this idea, and it keeps evolving into this greater thing. It started as really just this idea of a dressing lounge, a very private space, and its slowly developed into this more open public space. Now its going to become even larger, to present this idea of showroom and displays and wide open, like, what would a dream retail space begin to look like?
This whole series that were doing, of which youll be the first, is called Elements of Retail. If you had to sum it up in a sentence or a few words, what is a key element of display at a retail level?
I think getting back to the idea of personality, the first thing you want to do when a customer walks through the doors is engage them. If youre not engaging them theyre going to turn around and walk out. You can have a store full of great merchandise but if you havent engaged the customer visually, or engaged their senses in some way, theyre going to turn around and walk out. Again, taking into consideration every part of the space, every part of your display is imperative. Thats to me the key, engaging the customer senses and imbuing that personality into every portion of a space.