The MoMA Design Store has been a retail destination for design lovers for years, but many people don't realize that MoMA Store has their own wholesale product brand developed in-house to accompany many of the classic design items they have available.
Around five or so years ago, the MoMA Store team was seeking fresh ways to connect with new designers and finding new products to produce under their brand. The team began researching new ways to connect with fresh design talent, and during a conversation with their curators came to the decision to start a dialogue with some of the design schools right here in New York City.
Paola Antonelli was on the Products of Design faculty at SVA at the time, so she was able to directly introduce the MoMA Design Store team to SVA's Products of Design chair, Allan Chochinov. From there, the two sides of the collaboration began a speculative discussion around what the structure of this new program could be. "We decided to have it be a more casual option for the students. We would come in and do a presentation about what we think modern art is, what MoMA's design story is and what wholesale is, and then issue the students a challenge or inspiration to design around," said Chay Costello, Associate Director of Merchandising at MoMA Design Store.
Now, every Spring, Costello and Gabrielle Zola, Manager of Business Development at MoMA Design Store, work closely with SVA's Chochinov and Sinclair Smith to define a brief for the students. After the brief is decided, Costello and Zola host a kickoff meeting at SVA to present MoMA's wholesale model and the project brief to the students. Costello and Zola then return a few times over the course of the semester to view product development and to provide feedback.
"The first meeting is almost like speed dating. I meet with each student, and they have three minutes to go over all the designs they have in their heads while I give them rapid fire feedback," notes Costello. "In the next meeting," she continues, "they share the results of that, which is a more circumscribed product proposal. We give them more feedback from there, and then they make a prototype." At the final presentation, representatives from MoMA select products that they could see themselves manufacturing. They then work directly with the students over the following months to refine the product and bring it to market.
"It can be surprisingly difficult to get students to shift gears and just create the most beautiful products possible with simple functionality."
On SVA's side, Smith and Chochinov work with the students to create as many products as possible that they believe can get into MoMA's catalog. "My role in all of this is to guide the students and help them with product development," says Smith. "If this were a credit course, I suppose myself and Allan would be the instructors. We meet with the students in groups and individually to review their sketches and to help refine the product concepts to best suit MoMA's needs."
Smith notes that leading this process is very different than how he and Chochinov typically teach product design at SVA. "Our approach to product design has a strong focus on asking questions about the role and relevance of our output as product designers," he says. "Working with MoMA is the closest we get to good old-fashioned industrial design. It can be surprisingly difficult to get students to shift gears and just create the most beautiful products possible with simple functionality."
The collaboration is currently in fourth year, and MoMA has selected around 15 products for development, six of which have already been produced and released on the market.
One of the main bestsellers to come out of this collaboration so far are the Geo Stacking Coasters by Panisa Khunprasert, which are a set of multicolored silicone coasters with different geometric shapes as edging. "Panisa originally designed this as a series of snack bowls, but we were talking about the practicality of how often they would be used and where they would be stored," explains Costello. "She then redesigned them to be coasters, which was super reproducible because we already had a source for silicone coasters."
"The Tic-Tac-Trivet by Alexa Forney was something that the second you saw it you knew it was a great idea," she continues. "I love that it solves three problems—it functions as a coaster, a trivet and it's just something fun to do."
Josh Corn's Multi-ccino Mug is also popular because it takes some of the most common coffee recipes and puts them together on one comprehensive cup. "Josh was a very interesting student to work with because he has a background in performance magic, which was fun to see tie into his designs," notes Costello."Even with something as common as coffee—there's a recipe and a solution to it, but this mug makes it seem like you created something magnificent."
LESSONS LEARNED FROM BOTH SIDES
The MoMA Design Store Team is exposed to thousands of products every year, but they are rarely involved in the actual design process, and with this new perspective comes valuable lessons. "Sometimes we give feedback and the students challenge our feedback, but I think that's one of the most valuable parts of the experience. It allows me to re-think some of the assumptions I have about what good design is and what it could be in the future," says Costello.
"Sometimes there is no room or time for explanations—a product just has to sell itself."
And from the students' perspective, they have the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of designing wholesale products through the eyes of the well-established MoMA Design Store. "Our students frequently hear Chay and Gabrielle respond to their product proposals with, 'We would sell that, but we wouldn't make it,'" Smith explains. "The first time the students hear that they are baffled—What's the difference? But they need to learn that MoMA retail can buy and sell a few thousand units of a quirky product from a brand like Kikkerland, and if the products don't sell, there's not much at stake. But they cannot manufacture tens of thousands of those units under its own name—there's too much risk."
"Just because the MoMA store will sell a product, doesn't mean the MoMA wholesale brand will make it," he continues. "The students learn a lot about sales and business structures through this collaboration, and they learn from trial and error that sometimes there is no room or time for explanations—a product just has to sell itself."
View more from the SVA x MoMA Design Store collaboration here.
Starting tomorrow night, stop by either NYC MoMA Design Store (on 53rd Street or in SoHo) to check out the newly-designed window displays by participating SVA PoD students.