“Form follows function” has been the go-to paradigm for evaluating good design since American architect Louis Sullivan articulated the idea more than a century ago. For Murray Moss, a former actor and fashion executive who opened his eponymous design shop in New York’s SoHo district in 1994, industrial objects are far more than merely the sum of those parts. “My job is to illuminate someone else’s ideas,” Moss says. Visitors to his carefully curated store-cum-gallery can view one-of-a-kind conceptual commissions alongside traditional crafts and a selection of mass produced pieces. By incorporating the narrative of theater and the drama of couture, he has assumed the role of arbiter, shining a spotlight on modern design’s growing imperative to both show and tell.
How did you get your start in design?
Well, Moss was my third career. What I’ve learned is you never start at the beginning; And even if you think that you can, it’s never a good idea. What happens is you take what your previous work and experiences and apply them as best you can to your next focus. I went to NYU’s School of the Arts, and I was a professional actor until I was 28. Then I came into a little bit of money and I wanted to start my own business, so I—very impetuously—started a fashion company. When I sold the fashion company in 1990, I was then an actor who was also a fashion executive, then four years later I opened up Moss so I was also operating a design store. I was 45 years old at the time and thought, rather than try to become a newborn and imagine myself as a clean slate, that I would apply whatever talents I might have had in those fields to shape a particular kind of design shop. That’s what I had to work with; Those were my resources and my assets.
What differentiates Moss from other design stores?
I’m interested in conveying the hidden agenda of the designer—their secret or private brief. It was unfashionable to talk about that when I opened Moss, but now, storytelling has became critical.
What spurred this evolution?
Since 2004, there’s been a grassroots progression within design schools that has encouraged a breakdown of the guild system, where master and apprentice in a particular field must stay in it and never leave. Today, graduating students have the freedom to do limited editions and one-off studio projects; they can become their own laboratories. They are able to create pieces that are functionless and tell a narrative about the object.
So the main purpose of a chair is not necessarily for sitting on?
It’s not my decision. There can be other aspects of the chair that are not so obvious, which I try to articulate through the presentations at Moss. And ultimately, nobody’s going to make a mistake and end up buying a chair when they meant to buy a table.
Do you see more people embracing that way of thinking?
Absolutely. And I say that because it’s understood now as it was in clothing about 20 years ago. If someone designs a jacket with three sleeves—the anti-jacket—some people find that very threatening. We as an audience need to be flexible, and first ask what is this person trying to do before we decide whether it’s good or bad. When the narrative of certain objects intensified, those pieces started to attract an art audience. That audience wasn’t even necessarily interested in the function at all, and they were there with their money to encourage this progression, which began to expand exponentially.
How do you establish your opinion about a particular object?
I research it a bit, explore it, think about it, talk to the designer, talk to the producer. Then, I may change my mind—in most cases that information will impact my initial impression.
Are you ever tempted by your wares?
I get obsessed with the objects in the store. At one point or another most things find themselves at my home, which means that I get an intimate few days with something to sort of regard it in my underwear with a glass of wine.
Is there an object that changed the way you think about design?
One of my favorite series is the Long Neck and Groove Bottles by Hella Jongerius. There is no way for a manufacturer to industrially fuse glass with porcelain as required for these vases, and she didn’t wait for this process to be invented. Instead, she took packing tape from her studio and taped those two materials together.
That doesn’t feel incomplete?
We’re so accustomed to something being fully resolved before it comes to the marketplace, but I know that we can handle limitations in a vase. We don’t need to be protected from these ideas that are not completely developed. They’re a piece of the pie, and it’s a privilege to experience them in that state.
Whose work are you watching now?
Peter Marigold, a British designer and relative newcomer to the scene. I just commissioned two small stools from his Palindrome series for my home. Half of the stool is made from wood, which serves as the mold to cast the other half in white acrylic-gypsum. When they’re joined, the two opposites come together to make a whole. I like these, I think—without being too analytical—because I’m a twin.
How do you define “good design”?
I want to fight for the fact that design is not inherently good or bad and cannot be reduced to one objective truth. An object’s success depends on what the designer is trying to do, and what each individual’s needs and desires are.