Murray Moss Loves Kitschy Souvenirs

The cultural arbiter and Surface Travel Awards juror on the power of mementos.

Moss’s Stonehenge eraser. (Photo: Murray Moss)

Murray Moss is a design entrepreneur, founder of Moss Bureau, and juror for the Surface Travel Awards. The deadline for entries is June 15; submit projects here

Murray Moss’s renown was cultivated while running his eponymous SoHo shop, which is credited with reigniting New York’s passion for design during its 18-year run before shuttering in 2012. (Even Kanye West, in typically self-referential fashion, has dubbed Moss “the Kanye West of the furniture market.”) Now, through his company Moss Bureau, the celebrated curator, retailer, and consultant champions ornamental objets d’art, though he still has an affinity for an item decidedly less highbrow: the humble souvenir.

When did your interest in souvenirs begin?

A long time ago, when I was kid, we used to travel a lot. What seemed most important to my parents, more important than the actual in-the-moment experience, was to have an artifact that would embody a remembrance. On my first trip to Europe, my mother decided that she would buy espresso spoons as souvenirs. I remember that because we never drank espresso.

What have you collected over the years? I’m guessing not espresso spoons.

Well, a lot of things. I’ll tell you about a couple. Stonehenge was one of my favorite souvenir shops. Have you ever been?

I haven’t.

There’s a great souvenir shop. Everything in it was basically conceptual, so there was room to customize your memories. I bought a gum eraser that simply had STONEHENGE printed on it. I thought that was amazing because Stonehenge is indelible. The whole point of it is that it’s there forever, and someone had the idea to make it into an eraser—after used and worn down, the name Stonehenge goes away.


Another one that I don’t have, because I ate it, was Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” cast in chocolate. I was overwhelmed by the painting when I saw it in the Rijksmuseum. It’s stupendous. And when I ate the chocolate version, I ate “Night Watch.” It was brilliant, I thought, because like the painting, it puts weight on you. It never goes away, it gives you a sugar rush, and it’s part of you.

It seems you like souvenirs that reinterpret the objects they reference.

Well yes, that’s a good point. But in some cases, it’s good idea to not be abstract because you want a recollection of an image. So you put the image on something that you use everyday, like a magnet. That way, you take it out of a museum and put it in your laundry room or kitchen or closet.

“Night Watch” on display in the Rijksmuseum. (Photo: Courtesy Rijksmuseum)

Your company, Moss Bureau, helps museums create souvenirs. Do you have any favorites?

I look to find the smallest trigger, the Rosebud, the Citizen Kane Rosebud, which would be the least invasive, the most abstract.

What about favorite shops? That’s another area Moss Bureau is involved in.

There’s one I remember in Milan that no longer exists. It was glass fronted with no product visible and no indication to what it sold, but there was a counter and a rather stern woman standing behind it. I went in and asked what they were selling and she told me handbags, but there was nothing on display. For fun, I told her I was looking for a black alligator handbag with nickel fittings. After asking questions to fill in the blanks—“clutch or strap?”—she opened an unmarked cupboard and took out exactly that bag. At that point it was up to me to either buy it or leave.

Do you think globalization has changed the way we buy souvenirs?

We like the availability of everything. What I don’t think people like is how globalization affects travel, because I think we yearn to be somewhere genuine, untouched by global standardization. Like in the Houston airport, they sell cowboy boots and big buckles—things that are no longer applicable. But the souvenirs of what used to be suggest a kind of regionalism, something that you couldn’t experience anywhere else. That’s what I like about souvenirs: they exaggerate the differences between places.

The other technological development that’s really changing travel and how we keep our memories is social media. I was wondering how you thought that figured in.

The good thing is, it certainly beats the hell out of my old travel brochures, because my brochures lied.

Souvenirs in a shop. (Photo: Wikimedia)
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