FLIP-FLOPPING FICTIONS AND THE INTERFACE OF SOME SPACES
Interviews with retail anthropologist Paco Underhill; store owners Gina Alvarez and Stefan Boublil; and gallerist Gavin Brown
by Dike Blair
As we accelerate down time's highway, the cultural landscape is usually seen as a side-window blur. This article was initially proposed as an examination of how stores had co-opted the gallery's white-box look, but this phenomenon strikes me as something now seen in our rearview mirror. Over the last couple of decades, New York stores like Comme des Garçons and Helmut Lang mimicked the interior design of art galleries, which had, in turn, spiffed up the basic architectural proportions of the artists' studios located in the same neighborhoods of Soho and Tribeca.1 There were at least three layers of fiction between the artist's studio and the store with shoes laid out on minimalist Formica slabs. Over the last five or so years (coinciding with the development of Chelsea and the rise of the postindustrial economy), I think we've seen both a shift in this paradigm and at least one more additional layer of fiction added to the mix. On one level the hierarchy of hand-me-down style has inverted. Museums and high-end galleries now look to retail and entertainment architecture, rather than artists' living/work spaces, for their proportions and style. It's more obvious in museum architecture-think Bilbao and the Getty. With galleries it's less obvious, but when galleries like Paula Cooper and Andrea Rosen first opened their relatively cavernous spaces in Chelsea, it struck me that artists were having a difficult time filling spatial volumes that were radically different than those of their studios. With time, video projections and media-driven installations provided one solution to coping with these theater-scaled galleries. In this respect I think the gallerists intuited the cultures' demand to be entertained. . . . They built the spaces, and artists and audiences came. On another level there seems to be a longing for, and a return to, the more intimately scaled space in both galleries and stores. To some degree, this patchwork of interviews is directed at unraveling what that may be about. So, returning to the automotive metaphor, I've invited four curious passengers to go for a drive. They are "retail anthropologist" Paco Underhill, store owners Gina Alvarez and Stefan Boublil, and gallerist Gavin Brown. They're all looking out of different windows, but I think that all their views will be of interest.
Paco Underhill has been described as a "retail anthropologist" and the founder of the science of shopping.2 Underhill studied with William H. Whyte, an esteemed social scientist whose work centered on the creative improvement of public spaces. So, with the ever-increasing privatization of public spaces, it is not surprising that Whyte's student became an observer/improver of retail spaces and the founder of the tremendously successful consulting firm Envirosell. I wish I had the space to convey some of Underhill's discoveries, like le facteur bousculade.3 Instead, I will simply recommend his book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, a French translation of which will be published by Village Mondiale this year. I admire Underhill's passion for his work and his desire to make stores better environments for his clients as well as those who use them.
-Gina Alvarez and Stefan Boublil-
Alvarez and Boublil are about to open a retail store called The Apartment, which takes a downtown NYC loft space and converts it into a fictionalized apartment in which every object, from the toothbrush to the coffee table, is for sale.4 We're familiar with stores like Colette in Paris and Zao in New York, which display selected goods with ultimate lifestyle cachet (both stores also feature art galleries). The Apartment one-ups this approach by displaying its handpicked selections in a "real-life" apartment. On weekends the store will be occupied by actors playing the roles of The Apartment's dwellers. Gina Alvarez attended the Wharton School of Business and then went into corporate marketing and consulting research. Her partner, Stefan Boublil, studied filmmaking and interior design, and their store reflects the marriage of their respective interests.
In 1994 Gavin Brown's Enterprise opened in a storefront space west of Soho. The modest space ran counter to Soho's more elegant and sizable galleries, but its scale and Brown's vision may have been part of the reason for the success of the younger artists he represented, like Elizabeth Peyton. In 1997 Brown moved to a larger space somewhat south of Chelsea.5 Then, in 1999 he did two things, coincidentally, at roughly the same time: he opened a bar, Passerby, adjacent to his gallery, and he exhibited Rirkrit Tiravanija's piece Untitled (tomorrow can shut up and Go away), which consisted of an apartment within the gallery where the public was free to live (cook, have parties, write on the walls). In the evenings this apartment was open concurrently with the bar and created an especially inspiring confusion between art and life.6 Brown remains dedicated to showing innovative art, and his approach to art and context keeps his gallery one of the freshest in the city.7
INTERVIEW: Paco Underhill/Gina Alvarez/Stefan Boublil
Dike Blair: What was the inspiration for The Apartment?
Gina Alvarez/Stefan Boublil: People always go to other peoples' homes and ask, "Where can I get this or that?" At The Apartment they can actually leave with it. Another inspiration was that we both traveled a lot for work, so we were staying in these boutique hotels, which were much more like being at home. And, if you wanted to, you could buy the lamp, the robe, the slippers, and the curtains--either in the room or at a store in the lobby. We've brought that approach to the retail store.
Paco Underhill: There are a number of stores that have done this "you can buy anything approach" successfully. The concept works well in principle, but there have been huge headaches in terms of its operation because part of what you're selling is immediate gratification. And this will be a challenge for The Apartment. Someone is going to come in, get into the mood of it, and want something like the sofa. To convert that "I want it" into getting the customer to buy, to pick the fabric, etc., gets into a whole other range of retailing, which is based on service.
The Apartment's concept is, in part, based in theater. Other people have tried this, and you should consider their successes and failures. Harris Teeter, a supermarket, recently won an award because they didn't use an Uzi filled with gold doubloons to build a workable store. They did things with cloth, theatrical flats, lighting, and a printing press on which they made "homey" kinds of labels. That's one aspect of the theatrical. Another is the "cast" idea, which has its roots in Disney. The Viacom store, which was originally in Chicago, started with the premise of having actors on the floor--they'd have somebody dressed up as Mr. Spock, and part of the experience was to interact with that character. Conceptually great, but difficult to pull off day after day. The interactions were repetitive, which meant, for the people in costume, that it was really fun for six weeks, then it got tiring.
Gina Alvarez/Stefan Boublil: Initially, we're going to use actors only on the weekends to get across the point that this is a home you're coming to visit. One week it might be a couple, another a single man. There's no script for them. They interact only if they want to.
Paco Underhill: Another thing that's interesting here is that we go through historical cycles where the durability of objects is more, then less, desirable. At the moment durability isn't a big issue, and that's one of the reasons why someone like you has a wonderful chance to succeed. The challenge is to convert what's cool into something that makes some money.
Gina Alvarez/Stefan Boublil: One of our models for the store is Colette, where you have only the best of the best. Probably 80 percent of the things in The Apartment are things that have never been seen in the States--stuff we've found in the back streets of Finland. We'll have one-of-a-kind pieces from designers no one has ever heard of.
Dike Blair: I know people who are repulsed by places like Colette.
Gina Alvarez/Stefan Boublil: The Apartment is also a response to those kinds of stores. The problem with Colette or Moss or places like that is that they're more like museums. We want to go against that--make it comfortable for people and not have white walls and polished concrete floors. I've always thought that minimalism was rejected by the majority of people because it's intimidating, because it doesn't feel like the way people live and they recognize that. What looks good at the Guggenheim doesn't always look good in a store. We want to show people that this furniture can work in people's homes.
Paco Underhill: One of the things to look at here when we look at Colette and Commes des Garçons and others is that those places serve a dual role, one part store and one part showroom. It goes back to the model of Nike Town, with the store as advertising. The only problem with that model has been how to make the fifth visit as exciting as the fourth.
Dike Blair: I understand that the interior architecture, the walls and stuff, will shift?
Gina Alvarez/Stefan Boublil: The architect, Belmont Freeman, made this wonderful space that we can physically change once a month. We can have a big living room, a small study, and a big kitchen, and the next month we can have a loft space. It will change a lot, and people won't get bored. And very little of the space will be allocated to storage--we will stock only the accessories--all the large items, like furniture and appliances, you will have to order.
Dike Blair: Paco, one of your big things is touch--the more the customer touches, the more likely they are to buy. So, Gina and Stefan, with your limited inventory, aren't things going to get grubby?
Gina Alvarez/Stefan Boublil: We've allowed for one of each item to get dirty and touched.
Paco Underhill: Typically, a CD is touched by between eight and 12 people before it gets sold. I think there are three real challenges here: damage, dirt, and shrink.
Dike Blair: Shrink? Like shrink-wrap?
Paco Underhill: In the world of retail, "shrink" is theft. Walmart has under 1 percent shrink--that's between $400 and $500 million in theft. And they do a pretty good job of monitoring. So how are you going to handle that?
Gina Alvarez/Stefan Boublil: In terms of usage, we think that the usage we're allowing the customer will increase our sales. For security we have only one exit door, and the magnetic sensor will be under a mat by the door. What else?
Paco Underhill: Any store has a problem making money the moment it opens its doors--you'll need some capital as a buffer. Then the tactical issues of maximizing your opportunities are going to test your patience. What happens when your inventory of item X runs out in a day and it will take six weeks to restock? This gets back to the evolution of our marketing culture. For most of the 20th century, the obsessive concept has been "strategy." In the 21st century I think the operative concept is going to be "tactics." We are desperately interested in new retail models, and what's going to be fun for you is to explode the way things are supposed to be done. And, remember, if it all works perfectly when you open the doors, you haven't stretched the envelope. I can tell you that it's much more fun getting it up-and-going than keeping it going. The upstairs tenant will come home drunk and leave the water running, which will flood and leak downstairs, ruining your $8,000 Sony flat screen, and you'll find that it's not covered by insurance.
Dike Blair: Incorporate that into the fiction.
Gina Alvarez/Stefan Boublil: We can't lose [laughter].
INTERVIEW: Gavin Brown
(After conducting the preceding interview, I remembered experiencing the aforementioned Tiravanija piece and Passerby. I knew that Brown's speculations as to how gallerists may, or may not, be responding to our consumerist landscape would be perceptive.)
Dike Blair: I'm postulating that the relationship in which retail stores imitated and followed the look of galleries has reversed; the retail store cart is now in front of the gallery horse. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Gavin Brown: First off, hostility [laughter]. Clearly, from the eighties on, there was inspirational traffic from the galleries to the stores, Comme des Garçons being the classic example. But I don't think that the gallery and the store are the same breed of horse or even the same species. A store has a specific function; it's there to move a lot of the same units. I don't know what a gallery is, and that's the point. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the gallery is a strange phenomenon. And, if it's used to its full potential, it's an entirely unknowable, ever-expansive, ever-versatile situation. I'm not sure we are learning from stores. I think stores are chasing their tails--looking for other ways to present a sense of authenticity and surprise--and galleries are too. I think our "idea" of the gallery is collapsing. How are galleries going to redefine themselves? I don't know, but I don't see retail as being the inspiration.
Dike Blair: What was the inspiration for the bar?
Gavin Brown: I don't see the bar as being that different from a gallery. In a sense I think it was the limb that was cut off many years ago--and we've reattached it.
Dike Blair: The element of social interaction?
Gavin Brown: I'm not sure it's that. I think it's more about a sense of oblivion that you're not getting in the galleries. For me, that oblivion had always been the point of art--art, drugs, and alcohol.
Dike Blair: The wonderfully flawed interface between transcendence and escapism. You've made a subtly attractive bar, Piotr Uklanski's Dance Floor, the beat-up Saarinen tables . . .
Gavin Brown: That's just the decoration. I wanted to make a beautiful space, and I'm proud of how beautiful it is. But it's really about what happens here now that it's built--bars are what you bring to them--potentially, anything could happen.
This store you mentioned [The Apartment], it sounds like the owners are dreaming of getting to another place, but they won't know what to do when they get there. I dream of it too--this secret garden where you can have retail and art combined. If I could have made Rirkrit's apartment into that kind of store, that would have been beautiful, but it was chaos, and you couldn't sell things out of it. And it certainly wasn't fun all the time--it was dire and boring. When I did the bar, I thought building it was the whole job. Actually, that was just 10 percent of it. If that store is really trying to set up a lifelike situation, they should make 90 percent of it very boring. Unless they want to make Disney World, which is the other extreme.
Dike Blair: I think the grandiose Chelsea gallery space is Disneyesque and shows that the artist's studio is no longer the architectural model for the exhibition space.
Gavin Brown: That relationship has been interrupted. Gallerists have formed a partnership with their clients instead of with the artists, which was always what they were aiming for, really. Since the economy has been so great, nobody wants to take any risks, and it's all very homogenized and dull. And maybe the bar is a response to that. It's not exactly the traditional killing room.
Dike Blair: There's obviously a financial incentive for the bar, but is it art as well?
Gavin Brown: In the beginning I thought I was going to get rich [laughter]. But I'm not, which is fine. This is a business, and I'm not claiming it's anything else. Having said that, I would note that the art world's definition of art is painfully narrow. I do think that art exists in a much wider sphere, and I did this bar to prove that. There is a relationship between the bar and the gallery, and if you want to call that a creative thing, fine. And I'm willing to see it all collapse.
Dike Blair: Is there an element of fiction to the bar?
Gavin Brown: At this moment in time, people don't believe anything unless it's a lie or a fiction, and that's part of the "marketing," to use a retail term. But I come at it from the other direction. And that's what Rirkrit's apartment piece was about--you were drawn in by the fiction of it being art, and then he pulled the rug of fiction out from under you. People would come to the bar, with no idea the gallery existed, and they'd go back into this apartment and would take it all in. For a few months there was no gallery here. There's probably a fiction like that behind the bar, and I kind of knew it would work, but I really just wanted to open it and see what happened without having a specific story in place.
In their own spaces and manners, what Alvarez and Boublil, and Brown and Tiravanija, are tapping into is the flip side of entertainment architecture. They are creating intimate and/or domestic fictions. The Apartment feels like a place designed to sell domestic trappings to customers whose lifestyles allow them to spend very little time at home. I imagine (perhaps because I'm buying a fictional subtext) those customers to be people who spend their cell-phoned, laptopped lives in homey hotels (like the ones Alvarez and Boublil describe staying in). When they do touch ground, inhabit their pad, they will be living part of the fiction created by The Apartment.
Gavin Brown doesn't see his gallery as being of the same species as a retail store, and I agree with him to the extent that I don't really think of Brown, himself, as a gallerist. I think he represents a newish species-a kind of "managerial artist." 8 Creating Passerby is possibly, by extension, an artistic gesture (although it wouldn't be in Brown's interest or nature to name it so). If it is, it may be the kind of "tactical" rather than "strategic" gesture that Underhill foresees as the future of retailing. In any case, Passerby is also wrapped in the mystique of being a neighborhood art bar-what's new is that the neighborhood is the globe. Tiravanija may have anticipated all of this, years ago.9 Employing ambiguity, as only artists are able to, he takes the art/life trope to the edge, creating "real life" domestic situations and, ironically, entertaining his audience by forcing them to entertain themselves. At the same time, his denial of artistic illusion forces the supposedly neutral context of the museum or gallery space into showing its hand, into revealing its fictive expectations.
Galleries and stores will continue to exist in the many forms they already do. Old forms, seemingly on the brink of petering out, have a habit of being revived. New gallery and retail spaces have opened in Brooklyn that have a scale and feel that more closely resembles the artist's studios in the same neighborhood. At this instant, the familiar fiction (and partial truth) behind those venues is that they haven't been consumed and digested, branded and fictionalized, by media and market. Meanwhile, the high-end galleries and retail stores seem to be evolving together toward maximal WOW designs that entertain while they cater to customers making bigger purchases-in the gallery world those would be either institutions or deep-pocketed collectors. The galleries, like Matthew Marks and Robert Miller, get progressively more stylized and impressive, as do the retail shops. The interior design of the Comme des Garçons store, which opened last year in Chelsea, references the Serra/Gehry torqued slab, but the effect is more whimsical caricature than sober white-box homage.
Consciously or not, all these spaces exchange concepts. And they can suddenly end up in similar place via opposite approaches (as with the superficial resemblance and antipodal approach of Tiravanija's art and The Apartment). What I find particularly interesting about this resemblance is that both employ fictions that revolve around something more intimate or domestic than they actually are. This must be a reaction to how distant and homeless many of us are feeling-and, perhaps not surprisingly, both the problem and the solution spring from the revved up economy. And if it keeps revving, we'll see a proliferation of soothing solutions to this jazzed-up alienation.10
The one model that seems to be least exploited at the moment is the modernist ideal of the neutral space, which may well mean that this concept is soon to be developed and packaged within one more layer of fiction. In any case, this story doesn't have an end.
1 In the 1980s there was also a parallel relationship between the low-budget East Village storefront gallery and artists' housing there. The boutiques that replaced the galleries in the East Village weren't creating a fiction, however, they were simply returned to being storefronts-albeit hipper ones.
2 For a great profile of Underhill, which was my initial exposure to him and the source for the term "retail anthropologist," see Malcolm Gladwell, "The Science of Shopping," New Yorker, 4 November 1996.
3 Also known as the "brush butt" theory. Basically the idea is that the store needs to provide female shoppers with generous aisle space because Underhill's studies revealed that when a woman is accidentally brushed from behind while examining merchandise, she will usually exit the store within minutes.
4 The Apartment is scheduled to open in June 00. You can get the flavor of the store by going to its site (http://www.theapt.com/), which may have actual images of the space by the time this is published.
5 Brown explained that part of the reason for his move/expansion was a familiar art world story; he had to do so to keep his artists from moving to greener pastures.
6 Tiravanija's art is not without precedent, but he has taken the art/life relationship closer to the edge than most of his predecessors and his increasingly numerous imitators.
7 Brown's wife, Lucy Barnes, has a boutique, which is also adjacent to the gallery and bar. Unlike the bar, however, it does not share an entrance with the gallery, and my sense of the arrangement is that the boutique is meant to be a discrete entity. Given the general collusion and confusion between art and fashion over the last decade, that in itself may be a kind of statement.
8 Even though this isn't a new idea, I'd define this managerial artist as a conductor who orchestrates individual artists into something greater and different, and would group publishers and/or organizers of certain kinds of zines, web sites, artistic events, etc., into this species.
9 Tiravanija's first "meal" preparation installation pieces are now about a decade old.
10 My friend editor Karen Jacobson suggested this idea and helped me organize this admittedly fragile and tangled thesis. I'd been wondering why Pottery Barn and other retailers seemed to be offering such retro wares when we are in the midst of a fairly innovative period in contemporary design.