“I had no agenda to pass off fruit bowls as art,” says design impresario Murray Moss as he reflects on Moss, the legendary Manhattan emporium that made his name and revolutionized the retail game over the course of a lauded, 18-year run. “What I did want to do, however, was take advantage of the open mindset people have when looking at art,” he continues. “Art has no ‘baggage’—fruit bowls are loaded with expectations.”
Few Manhattan storefronts would veritably warrant the status of a local design institution. Moss, with its sharply curatorial eye and immaculate, museum-level displays that included wall texts, inarguably did. Founded in 1994 on SoHo’s Greene Street (and later joined by a Hollywood outpost at the peak of its success), the gallery, as the story goes, was said to be inspired in part by MoMA’s design galleries, only to be later referenced by them.
That mythos has continued to revolve around Moss, who evades such comparisons. He characterizes his vernacular as “part actor and part fashionista,” in which customers were regarded as audiences, the notion of a store was framed as a revolving stage, and its actors were design objects, often teeming with narratives of their own making and use. (By no coincidence, Moss and his partner, Franklin Getchell, a former television executive who joined the business in 1999, share a background in acting and theater.)
Whether priced at 10 or 10,000 dollars, at Moss, no object was too expensive or too pedestrian to elevate and consider in another light. Taste and self-seriousness didn’t always go hand in hand, and context—in the form of exacting displays that were often changed, artfully and obsessively, on a daily basis—was everything.
Importantly, the gallery provided a platform for narrative designs that didn’t eschew function so much as acknowledge that utility was but one raison d’être. This was a gallery that equally championed the limited-edition sculptural works of Dutch designer Maarten Baas—at that time an emerging talent just beginning to experiment with his now-iconic charred works—alongside everyday objects like Tupperware (which the gallery sold, as one does, by hosting a Tupperware party). It championed Hella Jongerius, Ted Muehling, and the Campana Brothers as earnestly as it did Nymphenburg figurines. In the world of Moss, high and low became equally hot-ticket items and made for a social destination for a generation of design aficionados.
Moss and Getchell revisit these tales and more in the thoroughly entertaining compendium Please Do Not Touch (and other things you could not do at the design store that changed design), published by Rizzoli and coming out this April. The cheeky title is a nod to the signs that peppered the gallery’s vitrines and displays, and later, various merchandise and staff uniforms, in a performative bent fitting of their personalities.
“Having been an actor, one may stop acting, but one doesn’t stop being an actor,” Moss says. “In television, you never, ever have to do something as awful as ship a sofa,” Getchell adds wryly. “Everything else is the same. It’s all managing people.”
Since the gallery’s closure, in 2012, Moss and Getchell have continued to consult under the auspices of Moss Bureau. After nearly five decades of city living, the duo currently resides in a leafy Connecticut suburb, where their 1929 Colonial Revival home—exquisitely furnished and decorated with objects from their personal collection—has taken on the character of a live-in gallery among their new neighbors, who couldn’t care less about design.
“We moved from Manhattan to America,” Moss says, noting that he’s taken up a recent interest in collecting photographs and, after years of avoiding it, Instagram, on which he keeps two steady accounts (@murray_moss for personal items, and @torpedo_house_photoinventory for his growing visual collection). “I’m less materialistic day by day,” he says. “That is not to say I don’t covet objects—rather, I relate to them more abstractly now—as ideas, as emotions, as personal expression, more than as ‘things.’” Moss continues to seek out the narratives of things, regardless of how many dimensions they may occupy.
“I know now that ‘design’ has many heads,” Moss continues. “It is a Lernaean Hydra with many expressions. Now, I’m exploring all new directions.”