The Arts: Don’t Leave Empty-Handed
Mugs, T-shirts, notecards, jewelry, Judaica—the shops at New York’s Jewish Museum will soon offer a new range of items based on the institution’s fabulous collections.
It is an average day in the life of Debbie Dorfman, director of business development for the shops at The Jewish Museum in New York.
She goes over the almost final design of a poster to accompany the Sarah Bernhardt exhibit. Then there is an “assortment plan” to do (that’s deciding what merchandise goes where for several off-site fairs), followed by a meeting with the legendary industrial designer Lella Vignelli, whom Dorfman has commissioned to produce an exclusive line of Judaica in sterling silver. Finally, Dorfman takes some time to explain the mysteries of her job to a writer who has fallen in love with a photograph of a geometric-patterned, many-colored atara and thinks it would make an incredible long wool scarf.
“Well, we’re on the same wavelength with that,” Dorfman says and laughs.
The atara is from the museum’s textiles archives, where Dorfman recently spent a day unearthing inspiration for a line of products that will take the museum’s shops in a whole new direction.
When dorfman came here in 1996 after more than 20 years in retail that took her from Gimbel’s to the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, The Cooper Shop was the museum’s only store and its merchandise was almost all from outside sources. In 1997, the museum opened Celebrations–The Jewish Museum Design Shop; now there’s a third shop at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.
Most major museums don’t offer their own products— the jewelry, sculpture or objets d’art that come with those little educational cards describing the piece and its source in the museum collection—because they cannot afford to commission the large quantities manufacturers require and sell all that merchandise, let alone license and wholesale their products. But Dorfman and her team have more than doubled their volume in the last 10 years.
“Our goal now,” she says, “is to do what, for instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has done. Almost all their three-dimensional objects and jewelry are their own.”
The Met stores (and other big museum retail operations) tend to make whole families of iconic products based on famous objects in their collections. For instance, the Met owns a charming 4,000-some year-old Egyptian faience hippopotamus that has been named William. It has been reproduced not only as a sculpture but on a bookmark, a magnet, a tote bag, a T-shirt, a baseball cap and a tie. “We want The Jewish Museum to have that same sort of instantly recognizable identity,” Dorfman explains.
She and Stacey Zaleski, director of merchandising, have been slowly developing products from the collection, among them the enchanting Vienna Seder plate and Pine Cone Kiddush cup, while doing merchandise for exhibitions. For “Sarah Bernhardt: The Art of High Drama” (see exhibit review, page 29), the fans will mainly be women, probably of a certain age and level of sophistication. This means “purse stuff—a pill box, mirror—stuff Sarah would have liked,” Dorfman says.
And the motif? Bernhardt’s motto, of course, emblazoned on her stationery and silver: quand meme, which means, as the little educational card will explain, no matter what, against all odds or through it all.
It could well be Dorfman’s motto, too. “Look at this,” she says, pointing to Andy Warhol’s image of Bernhardt on a book cover. “We’re trying to do a card of it for the exhibition. So I have to talk to its owners and to the Warhol Foundation, which turned us down, but I’m going to try again. When you’re working with a piece that requires rights, sometimes those rights are elusive. Sometimes even if we get permission to reproduce a work on paper, we can’t reproduce it on a mug or anything else three-dimensional.”
Products from exhibitions seldom become part of the permanent inventory. Either they sell out or travel with the exhibition or get marked down “just like in a regular store,” Dorfman says. Most of the other “developed goods” originate when a perusal of the shops reveals a need for, say, a new Kiddush cup. Then Dorfman will search the collections for a cup to reproduce and Zaleski will determine how many cups to make and at what price point, and so forth. “We’re a good team,” Dorfman says. “We have the same eye for what sells.”
Despite the museum’s three shops and dorfman’s efforts to expand their merchandise, as of October 2005 only around 20 percent of their products were from the collections. Raising that percentage means creating product families, like the Met’s William the Hippo. “From a merchandising point of view,” Zaleski says, “instead of having this one’s address book and that one’s wrapping paper, whole lines of coordinated products that are all ours not only provide our own identity but will look very nice in the shops.”
But where to find the inspiration? Dorfman thought of the wealth of textiles in storage, most of which have never been on display. She convinced the curators to take her, along with four designer-manufacturers who would be making the products, into the archives. They spent an entire day there. Two curators wearing white gloves opened drawer after drawer in the floor-to-ceiling stacks, revealing Torah binders and covers, matza, halla and readers’ desk covers, Shabbat tablecloths, wimples, Ikat jackets, tefilin bags and talitot—embroidered, appliquéd, lace-trimmed, block-printed and otherwise embellished swatches of Jewish history from every place and era.
“Whatever anyone liked…we took pictures of it,” Dorfman recalls. “Then I wrote down any suggestion, whoever thought it was great and for what usage.”
“The most exciting part,” says David Howell, one of the designers who came on the archives field trip, “is finding these pieces that are really exceptional, not by a known artisan….” Howell’s eponymous company produces jewelry and other metal objects for dozens of museums (his mizrah picture frame, a translation of a papercut fantasy of vines, birds and animals into metal, is a best seller).
Looking through the 216 photos of textile treasures from the day in the archives, Dorfman’s excitement is palpable. “These give me goosebumps,” she says, displaying images of embroidered halla and matza covers of ethereal beauty: fields of delicate wildflowers on linen, white foliage encircling white silk. “The tiny stitches! How did they do that?”
She and Zaleski are thinking that these pieces could be copied literally for Celebrations, whose products range in the thousands of dollars; moderately priced versions (in the hundreds or under) could be made for the other shops. “But we were looking not only for items we can directly reproduce,” Dorfman says, “but all-over designs or border designs or a piece of something that we might extract.” In other words, patterns or details Howell could translate into metal goods and Leslie Thomas, of the London-based Museum and Galleries Marketing, Ltd., makers of paper goods, could adapt into a theme for everything from address books to wrapping paper.
One of 30 pieces that spoke to Thomas was “a Torah binding in purples and golds, very Arts and Crafts, very ‘in,’” she says. Seven small, dreidel-shaped drawstring bags, each in a different jewel tone and imprinted with Jewish symbols, spoke to everyone, although nobody was quite sure what they were saying at first. They turned out to be Mishloah Manot bags used on Purim. Dorfman is well aware that there’s no market for such bags these days, but perhaps the bags could be adapted as pouches for museum jewelry. “Find use for these!” she had in her notes.
Another enchanting item was a long narrow banner—a wimple—with Hebrew words marching across it, the folk-art letters brilliantly embellished, the lamed of the word nolad (was born) sprouting a stork, another lamed, in selah, proudly bearing an American flag. “Debbie had a fabulous idea,” Howell recalls, “to use all those letters which are so decorative and have lots of color….”
“I saw a tumbling alef bet,” Dorfman says. “I was thinking—umbrella! It’d be great, right? I’m thinking a whole line of alef-bet stuff with the letters from this wimple.”
Five or six hundred textile pieces later, Dorfman took the group into the museum to view “the centerpiece of our collection,” a 16th-century faience-tile synagogue wall from Isfahan, Persia.
“Everyone saw something in the wall,” Thomas recalls. “David saw jewelry. I’m going to do the whole range of [paper] products. The turquoises and blues, the colors are timeless, phenomenal.”
And so some anonymous Persian artisans are about to take their place in decorative-arts history with the Arts and Crafts master William Morris. He arguably tops the list of designers whose works have provided museum shop ties and scarves and tote bags the world over with some of their most endearing patterns—a wonderful irony since among Morris’s major sources of inspiration were Persian motifs.
The week after the trip into the archives, the 216 images were burned onto a CD for museum staff and manufacturers. The textiles curators got Dorfman’s wish list. Nothing can be reproduced or adapted without their approval. This requires research (to confirm provenance, for instance) and can take a while. In the meantime, Dorfman moves ahead with the Sarah Bernhardt poster, a reproduction of one by Mucha, which goes into production along with a Quand Meme/Against All Odds mug. The Isfahan Wall, already immortalized on a tote bag and in digitally manipulated form on the museum’s shopping bag, is on its way to having a whole line, including ties and scarves, made in its image. It will be a full year, Dorfman says, before any products generated from the day in the archives hit the shelves. Innumerable roadblocks lie ahead. Not all of the ideas will come to fruition. But a lot will.