Creative Tastemakers are the ones who, through commitment to their own styles and work, emerge beyond “we” thinking and stake claims to their own unique ideologies or aesthetics. New York City was once the mecca for these aspirants. Today, the city’s creative landscape is cataclysmically shifting, and the beacon of untapped space and economy that other cities offer is beckoning.
Posts tagged: design talk
Why cry over spilt paint? Just paint the floor with it! I have my mom to thank for the compulsion to make the most of my resources, and for an über-DIY approach to life and to business. Very early on, she taught my sisters and me that no one was going to swoop in and do the tough stuff for us, regardless of us being women.
Once when my sisters and I were quite young, when we were beginning to feel “girly,” we saw a spider on the kitchen table. We began squealing, pointing, and screaming, “SOMEBODY, get rid of it!”
My Mom came in and drew a hard line: “If you want to get along in this world, you better figure out how to get rid of that spider yourselves. No one is going to swoop in and do it for you.” And that was that.
Growing up the way I grew up in Detroit instilled in me a particular resourcefulness. My family didn’t have the means to hire people to fix things around the house, so I learned how to do all that alongside my parents. With my Dad, I did electrical work and patched leaks. With my Mom, I put up drywall and became skilled at “puttying” the seams. As a kid I was looking at floor plans and elevations, and poring over “how-to” instructions from the Time Series (I highly recommend getting a set of these books; they’re the modern day Encyclopedia for any “maker”).
When I later moved to New York City, I was surprised by how little handiwork people did themselves. This “tool belt” of knowledge seemed absent from the intellect of so many of the incredibly brilliant, talented people around me. I realized that, different from most of my peers, I tended to look at things and think about how I could fix, make or mend them, versus whom I should hire to do so.
This was invaluable when I first moved in with Brad, my now-husband. His loft, the same one we now share, was a bachelor pad for the musician ilk. It definitely needed some finessing to become a “home.” I got to work in my tool belt and painter’s pants*. First, I opened up the walls connecting the front half of the loft to the back by adding salvaged windows along the top of the partition; light could now move through the full space more fluidly. I then added large 4’x8’ mirrors in a couple different spots to reflect light toward the center of the apartment. I framed them against the wall, and left the lag bolts exposed to the effect of “intentional industrialism,” a sensibility that I continue to weave into my designs.
I put in a huge bookshelf for Brad, and added a banquette in the window of the kitchen area. I’ve always loved a window seat, and putting one in the kitchen made it a more social, approachable space.
I partitioned off a corner of the open living room with floor-to-ceiling, hand-cut tree patterned muslin scrims, creating an office space that was both intimate and, à la the kitchen strategy, approachable. This idea for the home (like so many of mine do!) trickled into the store. I put up different styles of these translucent room dividers to create new spaces within the larger one, allowing light and air to filter through uncompromised. Other SoHo business friendlies began picking up the idea, too, and incorporating my gauzy scrims into their own layout designs; solving my own spatial problems had led directly to a new design product.
The most attractive aspect of this metaphoric toolkit of knowledge – that is, the DIY approach to life – isn’t just the “getting it done;” it’s the “how” of getting it done. Exercising this precise type of creative problem solving makes me a better, more thoughtful, and more resourceful businesswoman.
How am I going to get people into the store? How am I going to get the aesthetics of the in-store experience to cooperate with one another, and resonant properly with my customers? How am I going to craft a memorable online UX? How will I rise above the noise and vocalize my differentiation in an increasingly competition-saturated market? It’s these sorts of questions that the DIY life prepares me to answer creatively and uniquely.
One thing to emphasize is that I can’t always finagle my way through those questions alone. There’s no shortage of teamwork, composited creativities, shared responsibility, and combined personpower behind the evolving responses to these questions. But they’re always tethered to a mindset – dare I say an intrinsic compulsion – to DIY that sh**.
I’ve never been afraid to get my hands dirty with my handiwork, nor with my business strategy. I don’t cry over spilt paint. In fact, I paint the floor with it. And I don’t cry over risks or creative retail solutions that don’t pan out. I learn from them, add that new knowledge to my mental toolkit, and use that on the next go-around to get rid of that spider myself.
As told to Emily R. Pellerin
* Friends have asked me numerous times where I get my artfully paint-splattered jeans. Each time I surprise them: the look is not contrived, I’m just wearing them while I make stuff!
For next week...
I was walking through a design show with a friend once when she commented on there being no shortage of “characters” at these trade events. She’s right, and I attribute that quality to the utter commitment that creatives have to their personal brand and style. Sure, some of us are funky, but that's what makes the “me” special in relation to the “we.” In next week’s Design Talk, I’ll explore this trait and track my own emergence from the “we,” citing examples of other prominent design world “characters” along the way.
One thing I’ve always held true is that, as much love as I have for the things around me and as much joy as they may give me, they’re still things. It’s just stuff. I don’t attribute preciousness to, or feel unnecessarily protective of, the objects in my life. I carry incredibly valuable things at the store, but I’ve always wanted people to experience those things. I want to open them up to people, to share them, to make space for tactile relationships. The same goes for the items in my home.
For years and years I’ve accumulated complete sets of mismatched china, glasses, silver, and napkins, selecting a common element that is incorporated into all the pieces. I’ve been collecting turquoise and blue wine glasses, and I buy anywhere from one to six of a style that I like; that characteristic color stays true for the whole “collection” even though the styles differ. They’re old, new, from the flea market, gallery pieces, travel finds, and from local shops; they make up a constantly changing, aesthetically related collection of glasses. It’s not only that the eclecticism is fun and reflects my personality; it’s also pragmatic! If one glass breaks, the set won’t seem imbalanced. I have the freedom to fill its spot with another glass, from another place, with another story.
This eclecticism is part of my personal beauty. I want to liberate my customers with that ideal, and transfer creative courage to them through the eclecticism of my shop. The wonderful thing is, once you’ve found comfort in the unconventional, in the mismatched, in the aesthetically diverse, it’s all the more comfortable to recognize that your taste is going to change over time. Life is long, and we have so much stimulation now than we’ve ever had before. We don’t need to box in our aesthetic identity; rather, we can enjoy the opportunity to go and explore and evolve, to bring new things into our lives, and to appreciate the evolution of our creativity.
With this ethos in mind, I curate my shop to be a cornucopia of curio, and to function as a springboard for people’s own curatorial visions and aesthetic self-expression.
People carry things away from the storefront and combine them with their own curio, décor, or art, all in different ways than I’d ever have presented them. In a beautiful transference of creativity, this forges their story, paints their character, and contributes to their own environment of comfort.
Outside the home, that “environment of comfort” is really important as a business owner. In the name of hospitality, I approach customer service the same way I throw a party: I work my a** off to make sure things are ready for my guests to enjoy themselves, and once the first person steps through the door, I wipe my hands of the prep work and I’m right in the festivities with them, turquoise glass in hand. In my home, my guests have free rein. They can help themselves. They know where the food and booze are, so the party’s in their hands to enjoy. In my shop, I want people to enjoy their experience the same way. My team and I put a ton of hard work into the store for our guests to experience and discover things for themselves. We’ve made room for self-guided exploration, but we’re always in earshot.
As a business owner, a conscious aesthetics of hospitality is crucial to establishing relationships with your customers. All of these considerations, both visual and behavioral, are part of that, and lend to an environment that titillates, inspires, bemuses, tickles, and, most important, is comfortable and easy to enjoy.
I’ll close out by saying that as much as I love celebrating my customers by throwing parties in the store, I’ve yet to do a big sit-down dinner. The dinner table, as that fabled instrument of unification, feels like the next step in bringing together my loved ones and new friends alike. I can feel it coming down the pipeline! Comment below if you want to be added to the invite list. I’d love to host you.
As told to Emily R. Pellerin
“This Wild Child’s Wildest Dreams – And the Risks I’ve Taken to Follow Them.”
Not too long after graduating Parsons and working in the fashion industry for several years, I decided to take a leap of faith: I cashed in my 401K, twenty grand, and put all of my money into starting my own business.
Taking things into my own hands was a dream come true, but it wasn’t by any means a smooth or easy ride. I began making textiles and pillows, designing, stitching, and running operations out of my loft on Grand Street in Soho. When I could finally afford to, I brought on another woman and, in my home, we worked side-by-side doing the sewing of every single one of the products in our orders. I developed great buyer relationships and landed a couple big accounts selling to Neiman Marcus and Barneys. I had just received that ever-memorable first big check. Being an entrepreneur was wonderful.
Then on September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers fell. Downtown New York was covered in smoggy clouds of debris and the malaise of unexpected vulnerability. It was a painful time.
Separately, the city’s industries were thrown off kilter, which offered its own set of confusions. The design fairs were cancelled and no trade people were coming to town; I was cutoff from my buyers.
Owning a store had never been a plan. But, walking back and forth so often from my place on Grand to my now-husband’s loft on Broadway, passing the “for rent” sign in the window of a former bike messenger service… it just felt too right. I couldn’t access my buyers, so I may as well sell direct to my consumers. I cashed that first big check and, reprising my earlier strategy, I went all in. On December 1, 2001, I moved in.
Back then, SoHo was a wild west for artists, creatives, and the retailers scattered between them. I never conceived of the possibility of having to ask anyone to do anything – I didn’t get permits, there was no formality. I didn’t even consider not doing whatever I needed to, or having to get permission for anything. I was able to make it completely my own.
This first storefront on Crosby, as the next step for my business, was an un-dreamt dream come beautifully true; I soon outgrew this space, thought, and moved just down the block. Eventually, I outgrew that space too, and moved my shop from that second tiny little spot to my current space at 27 Howard, again just down the street.
I was incredibly excited… And I was incredibly scared. With the required ten-year lease, I was signing on to a cumulative $3.3 million in rent cost alone. It’s worth saying again: I was INCREDIBLY scared.
The new store, which I’m still in today, is three times larger than the last footprint (with a way larger overhead to match) with a mezzanine level and full basement. I had taken out a studio space nearby to do my design and fabrication, but with this new space, I was able to bring all the operations under one roof. It was great for me, my staff, and for my customers and visitors.
Throughout the years, when people come by they have often expressed surprised at how different the space looks from the last time they were there. I’m constantly re-arranging and shifting the visual lexicon of the storefront. As I watched SoHo begin to change more and more quickly around me, I realized that opening up my space to other shops that had been out-priced from the neighborhood was one way to continue the dynamism of that visual lexicon.
Birdie and the Boy, a concept shop by Jessica Fish (a partner in the iconic Erica Tanov Shop on Elizabeth Street, which had lost its lease), was the first to come in and share my space as a “pop-up” shop-in-shop. (Now, this concept of “Guest Shops” has turned into a full business, in which I’m a partner. I’ll be sharing more about how I got officially involved in the retail-matchmaking platform Guesst in a future Design Talk, but in the meantime, click through to check it out!) With the always shifting merchandise and a rotating roster of designer brands to share my store with, people experienced – and still do experience –the shop as a discovery.
Like in the good old days, things are still wonderful. Being open to shifting my expectations of my space, my vision, my design and myself has proven invaluable. Through some major risks, a lot of creative problem solving, and a still-growing capacity for amenability, I’ve been able to follow my dreams.
Also like in the good old days, things can still be scary. I still consult my dad when I’m making big financial decisions about my company; I still have doubts and insecurities, and am still crutching on serendipity in things both business and personal. But exercising nimbleness in my decision-making, points of view, and responses to outcomes has gotten me here thus far. I’d say it’s fair to trust in that by now.
As told to Emily R. Pellerin
Stay tuned for next week, when I’ll address some of retail’s “deadliest sins” and the hopeful trends repenting for them.
So first of all – spoiler alert – I’m a real person! For those of you who already know me, this is of course no surprise. However, at least once a day someone walks into the store and is surprised to hear that Michele Varian is a real person, responsible for the world that they’ve stepped into.
I moved to New York City to attend Parsons School of Design from Detroit’s East Side in 1986. I became a fashion designer, then when I started my own company, a home textile and pillow designer. I now make lighting, design furniture, create wallpaper, do licensing projects for other companies and am still producing my own line of textiles; I am an independent and self-financed design, manufacturing, distribution and retail shop owner, and… I’m a tenants’ rights advocate, micro–manufacturing advocate, mentor, and a partner in other companies (Detroit Built, and retail-sharing platform Guesst).
I am my brand – Michele Varian – and I am more than my brand.
I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot (A LOT!) over the years. From witnessing the evolution of industry, “small” entrepreneurship, and craftsmanship in both Detroit and in my longtime neighborhood of SoHo, to witnessing my own company grow, there’s been an inevitable thread of changing climates: social, political, ethical, corporate, creative.
In today’s – ahem – “distinct” climate, we’re all ripe for more growth. You don’t know what you don’t know; and what you do know, you should share.
With all this in mind, I’m beginning a new, permanent series of online posts. This is Design Talk by MV. The actual Michele Varian: the shop owner and businesswoman, the tenants’ rights advocate, the business partner, and the designer.
These thoughts will extend beyond just design. I want to share the knowledge I’ve been privileged with by experience, folly, success, and mentorship. I knew the design industry before the digital disruption and am flourishing in it afterwards. Design Talk by MV is for the creator, the ideas person, the entrepreneur, the retailer, the big thinker, the pragmatist, and the artist in all of us alike.
It’s back to school time not just for the students. We all have learning to do, and my hope is for these musings, tales of my personal growth, and pointers for retail etiquette can provide a guide for every aimless, fledgling, and growing self-starter out there.
Step into my world and inside my head! This business is my passion. I look forward to sharing that passion with you.
As told to Emily R. PellerinStay tuned for next week, when I’ll recount a tale of major risk-taking earlier on in my career, and reveal the takeaways I carry with me still today.