Oct 7, 2007

21st century Design Zone: the Meatpacking District

At the far west of West 14th Street, between the West Village and Chelsea, lies the Meatpacking District. This area of low-rise brick and iron industrial buildings around Gansevoort and Hudson streets, once the distribution center for New York’s meat industry, has recently been transformed into a designer zone. A strip of West 14th Street between 9th and 10th Aves entered the 21st century as one of New York’s hot spots of fashion and design, with a growing congregation of fashion boutiques, designer furniture stores, restaurants, bars and the looming threat of luxury condo towers. With its cobbled streets and occassional passing meat truck from diehard remainders of the meatpacking industry, West 14th Street now houses a collection of flagship stores of late 90s and early 21st century fashion stars such as Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Diana von Furstenberg and Carlos Miele. Far from stuffy Madison Avenue or touristy Fifth Avenue, the Meatpacking District feels more exclusive because it is still somewhat isolated, although this seems to be changing fast. It is the new block for the new stars of global fashion, and who can resist the semantic slippage between meatpacking and fashion?

While the area became fashionable from the early 1990s, perhaps the first seeds of its designer future were sown with the opening of Restaurant
Florent in 1985. The restaurant opened in a transformed American diner on Ganesvoort Street when, apart from a few gay nightclubs, the Meatpacking District was still very much about packing meat. While Florent was famous for its opening hours (24/7), French bistro-style menu and celebrity clientele, it lives on in designer legend due to its innovative graphic identity and advertisements by Tibor Kalman’s M&Co. In retrospect, Florent’s graphic program looks like copybook mid-80s postmodernism. Menu designs, matchbooks and postcards (see below) featured images appropriated from Yellow Pages ads, line drawings culled from clip art catalogues or stock photography. The most memorable graphics, often reproduced in design anthologies, are a series of Florent advertisments in which Kalman appropriated a diner menu-board, complete with “amateur” improvised design which included “bad” spelling and grammar, letters dropping off the grid, and campy visual and verbal puns – in short, breaking all the rules of a stifling modernist aesthetic built on strict grids and the clear, rational communication of “information”.

The Meatpacking District has also made significant cameos on film. In Adrian Lyne’s anti-feminist classic of 1987, “Fatal Attraction”, the dangerous nature of the neighborhood provides a visual metaphor for Glenn Close’s psychotic character, Alex. In one memorable scene, she entered her pristine white loft via a dark, smoky alley with men hauling meat carcasses in the background. However, by the turn of the century, when “Sex in the City”’s Samantha moved to a loft in the Meatpacking District (Season 3, 2000), its cinematic allusions seemed to have shifted from evil to merely edgy – but Samantha still had to contend with the occasional burglar as well as the loud trannie prostitutes outside her window. When I was there recently, the cameras and film crews were all over West 14th Street, perhaps filming a fashion-friendly Olsen twins movie next?

Today, the Meatpacking District’s nouveau boutiques of designer consumption inhabit former working-class spaces of warehouses, meatworks and diners. New stores feature exteriors of aged raw bricks and iron columns, stripped to reveal various layers of paint – an aesthetic best characterized as retro-fitted industrial chic. In 2003, the area was designated the Ganesvoort Historic District, with Florent Morellet of Restaurant Florent involved in the campaign for its historic preservation. Beyond the historic veneer, there is little of the old working class sensibility left, as these former industrial spaces are redefined by brand names and images. Like a series of installations, each store is differentiated by unique interior design. No longer the 1990s of Madison Avenue minimalism, in the 21st century, the creation of a distinct identity via design and image is the key. In this sense, touring the Meatpacking District stores and bars is akin to touring the nearby congregation of Chelsea galleries, also in former industrial warehouses and factories – and the audience for both zones may well be the same. My focus here is to analyze the close conjunction of 21st century design and fashion in the Meatpacking District by looking at three examples – fashion designer Carlos Miele’s flagship store and the designer furniture stores Design Within Reach and Vitra – all conveniently situated only steps away from one another around West 14th Street.

Virtual fantasy-land: Carlos Miele

Brazilian designer Carlos Miele, based in Sao Paolo, made his global fashion breakthrough with a 2002 show in London, and in 2003, with the opening of his New York flagship store. The store was designed by rising New York-based starchitects, Aysmptote, whose principles are husband and wife Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture. Founded in 1989, the appropriately named Aysmptote built a reputation in their first decade via digital projects and temporary installations, but created little in the way of physical buildings. Installations focused on the application of digital technologies to architecture, and included a spot in the high-profile Venice Biennale in 2000. Their 1999
3D Virtual Trading Floor for the New York Stock Exchange raised the possibilities of architects working with virtual spaces (though I’ve read mixed reports about its practical success). More recently, high-profile commissions have begun to flow in from around the world – from Mexico to Korea, Malaysia to the Czech Republic – and even include another Carlos Miele store to open this year in Paris. As aspiring starchitects, Aysmptote are currently at work on a luxury condo building in downtown Manhattan, 166 Perry Street (apartments starting from $2 million).

With the Carlos Miele store, the crisp lines and sharp angles of 1990s minimalism seem to have melted into a fluid,
sculpted white cavern. The structural columns (originally iron columns, I presume) have been incorporated into the continuous sculptural surface that flows from ceiling to columns to floor (think: a Barbara Hepworth sculpture as an installation). Headless mannequins, clothed in Miele’s colorful dresses, seem to float in both the window display and within the space, hovering over embedded haloes of neon light in the floor. The restraint and blank walls of minimalist interiors are surpassed here, with a carefully constructed stage set for virtual fantasies – this is fashion framed and staged via architecture and image. The seamless space is at once suggestive of a pristine virtual world but also feels retro, in a 1960s sci-fi kind of way.

While fashion commentators often associate Miele’s clothes with stereotypical ideas about Latin sexiness, it’s hard to see anything sexy about the way his clothes have been framed here (unless Second Life avatars turn you on). Miele’s emphasis on colorful Brazilian fabrics and traditional production methods are also hard to envisage. But the sanitary, cavern-like space with sparsely hung with dresses certainly uses the language of contemporary fashion retail design, continuing minimalism’s equation between wasted space and luxury. It certainly feels like a self-consciously artificial space that creates the fantasy of an immersion into an uncontaminated virtual realm. The design certainly looks digital – as if it has been translated directly from AutoCad – but what’s interesting is that the surfaces are made from bent plywood, lacquered with high-gloss epoxy paint, hardly the latest technologically-advanced materials. In this sense, the interior is a digital skin made of conventional materials applied to an old-fashioned retail experience. Ultimately, the image of the digital world is the most important – a virtual fantasy-land – although ultimately it’s all created with wood and wires.

Finally, the mobile desk and chairs for staff towards the back of the store do ruin the effect somewhat, and return us abruptly from the digital realm to the retail realm (turning over a price tag can have the same effect). And despite my initial point about the importance of differentiation in 21st century retail design, a visit to former “bad boy” Alexander McQueen’s flagship store across the street reveals similar white organic molded forms and clothes displayed on similar floating mannequins. Perhaps the key to fashion retail design is different, but not too different.

Video of Carlos Miele store:

Store, Studio or Gallery: Design Within Reach and Vitra

The nearby furniture store Design Within Reach (
DWR) is part of a recent American design phenomenon. Founded in 1999, DWR began in San Francisco with the idea of a store that could sell difficult-to-find classic modernist furniture to American consumers. With 66 stores now open across the U.S., they must be onto something. Interestingly, the stores are not only located in major metropolises, but in wealthy resort towns such as East Hampton and Santa Barbara. Just as form follows function, modernism follows money. With a Barcelona Chair retailing at just under $4000, an Eames La Chaise for $8430 or a Le Corbusier L4 Chaise for just under $3000, the “Within Reach” part of Design Within Reach apparently refers to physical rather than economic reach. While classic modernist furniture stands as the ideal – Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Jean ProuvĂ© (a certified classic now with tables going for $4000) – postwar moderns such as Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and Verner Panton feature prominently too. However, cheaper furniture by contemporary designers such as Jasper Morrison and a host of less-known designers are also available (within reach after all?).

Design Within Reach stores are not, in fact stores, but studios. As well as suggesting a creative space that cleanses the store from mere consumerism, DWR’s studios are also supposed to serve as sources of information about design (see also their website which includes designer and furniture biographies). Inside the studio, you are surrounded not only by furniture, but by design discourse – large black and white photographs of the modernist masters, scattered quotes about design on walls and pillars by Mies, Eames, and even some contemporaries like Jasper Morrison. You are not just buying a chair, but an icon you’ve seen in a book by a certified famous designer, in short, you are buying a piece of history. And part of the DWR mission, intentional or not, seems to be an educational one – raising American consumer awareness about “good design”. On this point, with 66 stores all around the country, they may now be doing a better job of educating the public about “good design” than MoMA ever did.

The chairs and tables in DWR are not antiques, however, such as you might buy at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. DWR sell “fully licensed classics” – contemporary furniture “manufactured by the company holding the license to the original design” (Herman Miller, Knoll, Cassina, Fritz Hansen, Vitra, etc). So while an “original” Mies or Corbu chair made the 1920s might sell at auction for tens of thousands of dollars, DWR’s “authentic” Mies or Corbu chair made in the 21st century chair retails for only three or four thousand dollars. Not an “original”, nor a “copy”, but “authentic” – get it? While only your Hedge Fund manager can afford to buy an original Mies chair, here is the chance to buy an authentic version instead. By buying the “copy” cheaply online, what you really miss out on is the discourse of authenticity surrounding the DWR chair – the photos of the masters, the quotations, the biography, the analysis of materials and choice of colors – and of course, the chat with the friendly and knowledgeable salesperson (“studio assistant”?) about all of this.

Meanwhile, around the corner at Vitra, retailing designer furniture shifts ever more into the realm of the museum. The Vitra store is neither a “store” nor a “studio” but a “store + gallery”. The sparsely furnished gallery/retail spaces are on three levels with old iron columns and raw concrete steps that adopt the local retro-fitted industrial chic aesthetic. As a combination retail space/museum, it is compulsory to include a section for museum-like design books for sale (mainly monographs and Vitra Design Museum catalogues). The emphasis in the Vitra store is less on modernist classics and more on postwar and contemporary designs, though again, these are designs with a capital “D” and a capital “$”. The focus in this particular store when I was last there was on Verner Panton’s plastic furniture, though the Eames’s plywood furniture and Frank Gehry’s cardboard furniture also featured prominently. Originally designed by Gehry in the 1970s, his cardboard furniture has been recently reissued, which presumably has less to do with a return to 1970s lifestyles and more to do with Gehry’s celebrity status.

Both of these designer furniture stores perpetuate an image of design as the fetishization of luxury objects – iconic furniture with designer pricetags. Modernism has been narrowed to a brand rather than a complex set of ideas and practices that happened at particular places at particular times. The attempted shift from a retail store to a studio/gallery tries to blur the boundary between retail and museum spaces in a similar way that contemporary museums do by including prominent giftstores. Vitra takes this to logical endpoint with a design museum in Germany that features regular touring exhibitions and a steady flow of glossy catalogues. Thus Vitra control the manufacturing and retail business of design as well as its supporting discourse and imaging. Which means they can canonize design classics in the Vitra Museum, touring exhibitions and attendent publications, then sell you “authentic” versions retail. Thus buying your “authentic” classic becomes less about buying a 21st century mass produced chair (which it is) and more about buying an icon of “design history”. Furthermore, it is important to note the irony of modernist classics being so expensive – modernism is confirmed by both DWR and Vitra as a movement about luxury and exclusivity rather than a movement about affordable mass produced design for everyone. The positioning of design stores within the context of a nouveau fashion strip further cements the close connection by association between designer fashion, designer furniture, designer interiors and wealth. A final irony is that these stores also reinforce the idea of modernism’s timelessness and universality – modernism never went “out of fashion” – but here in the Meatpacking District, modernism is intimately linked to high fashion.

The Future is the Aestheticized Past

In the past few weeks, new street furniture has appeared around West 14th and Hudson Streets – large potted plants and blocks of stone (a suggestion of public seating, in New York!). Which suggests that the Meatpacking District is well and truly established as a destination worth beautifying. Alongside the designer fashion and furniture stores are a host of attendant bars, cafes and restaurants (and in this company old Florent comes out as pretty reasonably priced). The designer experience here is distinctly postmodern. Rather than the modernist tabula rasa, recycling is the vogue in the Meatpacking District, with retro-fitted fashion stores, Florent’s retro graphics program and DWR and Vitra’s reframing modernist design classics. The “next big thing” for the area is the reuse of a section of long-abandoned elevated railway line known as the High Line. Designs for the
High Line project have been completed by New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro – a further draw for the design-conscious flaneur and an elevated spot from which to survey the growing traffic.

Film crew on Hudson Street

All photos by D.J. Huppatz

No comments: