Emmanuel Plat has been the Director of Merchandising for the Museum of Modern Art for just 18 months. In that short time, he's developed a multi-point plan to overhaul the museum's retail division. Along with helping consumers make a stronger connection between purchasing products from the MoMA Design Store and supporting the museum's mission, Plat is also intent on elevating the store's offerings. With a mix of affordable commodity objects and more iconic pieces of design, Plat is pushing to launch new products and showcase emerging designers and new talent. Before joining MoMA last year, he worked for the Conran Group both in his native France and in the U.S. as head of the company's New York shop.
How do you find out about new designers?
We travel a lot. We probably spend about 60 days a year on the road. We go to trade shows: Maison et Objet in Paris, Ambiente in Frankfurt, 100% Design in London, and Salone del Mobile in Milan. This year I also plan to attend the New York Gift Show and Tokyo Design Week. We do what other people do as well, we scour the world to look for product. We have a very strong relationship with Japanese companies, and we spend two weeks a year there. Whenever we travel, we have an agent locally who has connections in the field. We meet with both companies that we currently work with and new people and designers. For instance, next week we're going to Paris. We have two days of meetings, some of them with designers we've never met before. Sometimes you immediately find something that suits you. Most of the time we meet with them and have a great conversation, but it doesn't necessarily end up in a business relationship.
One of the best examples we have is the long history of MoMA wholesale products. For 25 or 30 years, we have been developing products under the MoMA brand. The most iconic one is the Sky Umbrella developed by Tibor Kalman and Emanuela Frattini Magnusson, which has been a bestseller for 20 years. Fifteen years ago in Milan, in the Satellite section of the furniture fair, which showcases young talent, we found the designer Carlo Contin. He had this fruit bowl called the Satellite Bowl. We were immediately interested and placed an order of 50 units. It sold very fast, and we reordered. After a few months he called us in panic and said, "Look I'm making this product in the garage of my mom and dad. You guys are ordering too many and I cannot keep up!" So, long story short, we ended up taking over the production and over 15 years we've sold probably 75,000 pieces. We are definitely hungry for these kinds of stories, but it's more difficult than it seems to find what fits with this assortment.
The Destination series we've done for the past 11 years has been another great way to find new talent. Traditionally, we will go to a market—Argentina, Mexico, Berlin, Helsinki, Portugal—and work with a local design school or other connections we may have, to find products that are not available in the U.S. Each time we end up with somewhere between 100 to 150 products. Beyond the six to eight weeks of installation around these products, there's always one or two from a destination that will remain. The last series we had was about New York designers; it was called Destination: NYC. It just finished a few weeks ago, and there are a few products from that collection now featured in our fall catalog that will stay in the store for years to come. The beauty of a program like this is it enables you to take risks or showcase things that would not make sense otherwise.
What kinds of design are you looking for at the moment?
We're always looking for innovation. Design is about bringing a solution to a problem. Or making your life better. When we find a product that fits that bill, we've found something that's definitely a candidate for MoMA. It has to have the right aesthetic, interesting materials—and then there's the question of commerciality and price point. It's a mix of a lot of elements. You can find a beautiful object and it can be so unaffordable that it can be very difficult to appeal to more than a niche segment of our demographic.
Having said that, we have a number of examples in the fall catalog where we are taking more risks, pushing the boundaries a bit further. One is this beautiful bike we're bringing from Sweden, from a company called BIKEID. We discovered BIKEID through the designer Robert Nightingale, who approached us to submit some products. We did not end up developing anything with him, but we discovered his work for BIKE ID and selected it for the fall catalog. We were not specifically looking for a bike, but we saw it and said, "OK, we have to have it." It's just so beautiful. Made for men, it's all black with a matte finish; absolutely exquisite to look at. It costs almost $990, but we believe it's one of these products that you don't need, but you want. An object of desire.
What's the best way for a designer to approach you?
We always want designers to approach us. On our website you can actually submit products directly, and around ten percent of submissions end up in the store. We try to foster these relationships, and we always want new people to work with. A number of established companies do the same thing. If you take companies like Umbra and Kikkerland and Areaware, there's a bit of competition in the marketplace because we really want to find these new talents. We buy from all these companies; they have a different perspective than we do, and they have a different distribution model. So sometimes rather than investing in the number of units you need to make the product viable, we prefer to buy from one of these companies where they have a much greater oeuvre of designers.
And what should he or she not do?
When you're a young designer, you put a lot of love and energy in what you do. You probably believe that this product is perfect for MoMA and we should absolutely take it. Sometimes we say "Thank you, but no thank you" because it doesn't really fit our plans, or it's a redo of something we had, or it's too close to the spirit of a product we're currently selling. Sometimes there's a lot of disappointment on the other end. Designers should not be discouraged. Keep working. Just because it doesn't work one day doesn't mean it's not going to work another day. It's difficult. I have a lot of respect for all these designers that spend a lot of time and savings trying to get their product out there. At the same time, it's wonderful to see the change in the last few years with platforms like Kickstarter or Etsy or 3-D printing, because that's definitely a new way for designers to showcase their work.
The Doodle and Scratch placemats and coasters by Naoki Ono and Yuuki Yamamoto
Can you tell us about a recent successful collaboration with a young or emerging designer?
Just before Destination: NYC, we introduced a product we found at Milan last year at Salone Satellite by two young Japanese designers. We didn't know them, we had never seen them in Japan before, but they had a booth in Milan and they had these scribble placemats and coasters. One is a scribble, one is a doodle, and they're made of silicone. We said this is a great idea and we asked them if they'd let us consider producing them on their behalf. We took over the production and we work with a company that we thought was suitable to develop the product at a fair price, and now it's featured in our wholesale catalog, it's featured in our fall catalog, it's doing extremely well. We had to reorder more units last week because they're selling fast. These guys, now their product may be distributed around the world because that wholesale collection is sold through our partner in the U.S. and internationally. For them, it was great exposure. I saw them again this year, with a new booth and a new range of products. It was very encouraging, very good to see that they are able to exist and live from their work.
Bryn Smith is a writer, graphic designer, and critic based in Brooklyn. She is currently at work on a collection of interviews with legendary designers, and a book about the design studio Open. She teaches in the graduate graphic design program at RISD.