How Do You Make MoMA's Retail Store as Artful as MoMA Itself?

Callum Lumsden on a tricky design challenge

Photography by Noah Kalina

Any design job for the Museum of Modern Art is daunting, given the world-class art and design in MoMA's own collection. Designing MoMA's retail store has its own challenges—not just in how to make it aesthetically elevated, but in how to balance the artistic DNA of the museum with the commerce-driven purpose of the store. 

London-based Lumsden Design faced these challenges over the past year, as it toiled to design a brand-new MoMA retail store that opened last month in New York, in tandem with the expanded museum itself.

Architecture firms Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Gensler (which led the renovation and expansion of the museum as a whole) handled the design of the 5,200-square-foot store space itself; Lumsden did the retail design. 

The museum has a dramatically remodeled front elevation, featuring an off-street entrance leading to a mezzanine bridge overlooking the new museum store adjacent to the lobby of the museum. A central staircase and a circular glazed elevator both lead down into the store. Visitors will immediately see an impressive 30-foot-tall floor-to-ceiling wall display of art-related publications, selected by the retail merchandising team along with counterparts from all six curatorial departments. 

The foreground of the store features high-quality design objects displayed on low-density fixtures cast in solid aluminium for a distinctive and refined finish. Each product was handpicked by the retail team and approved by MoMA curators, reflecting the internationally renowned design vision of the institution. The north side of the store features a selection of art-reproduction products such as prints, postcards, stationery and gifts as well as desk accessories, personal products and apparel. 

Muse spoke with Callum Lumsden, director of Lumsden Design—which has designed other MoMA stores in the past—about the process of creating this one. 

How does a project for MoMA differ from other projects? Is there added pressure to deliver something with world-class design?

I wouldn't describe it as "pressure," but there was an aspiration as well as an expectation from our clients at MoMA to deliver a world-class design. After all, MoMA in NYC is a world-class, iconic institution with a highly regarded retail offer that is the envy of the majority of the international cultural sector. 

Lumsden has worked with MoMA before. What have you learned about the MoMA brand and how to bring it to life in a retail environment?

The most important principle of the MoMA brand is the incredible art collection which it is responsible for in its institution. The exhibitions, the research, the new hanging criteria, the educational programs and the communication with its visitors are what makes the museum such an incredible success. Retail, therefore, has to reflect that philosophy and must never detract from that mantra; it has to enhance it. 

Is there a tension—useful or otherwise—between the art focus of the museum and the commerce focus of the store? 

That tension was the biggest challenge for us, as well as for the museum management. However, the success of the retail operation in MoMA can be attributed to its highly successful relationship with the curators in the museum. Every product which is sold in the museum stores has been vetted and assessed for its design and aesthetic credentials by the curator teams who work alongside the buying team. This ensures that not only is the art in the museum curated, but so is the retail merchandise. This helped enormously to reassure the museum management team that the retail design presentation which we developed for the new store had a real purpose as well as creative design credibility.

Can you talk about some of the more important design choices for the store and how they reflect the MoMA brand?

The concept of locating the new store below ground level, while ensuring that it was visible and attractive to museum visitors and the general public at large, meant that the main design choices had to relentlessly answer those challenges. 

The creation of the 30-foot-high "Book Wall" was designed to grab visitors' attention with its monumentality while subtly referencing the academic standing of MoMA. It has provided an iconic design solution to the look and feel of the store and the store's USP. I like to call it the sprinkling of "pixie dust," which all of our store designs try to incorporate.

The design of the low-density tables was highly considered to enable the merchandise presentations of the curatorial groupings of products in the store. They are positioned in the most visible location of the store, as they are the ones which everyone can view as they enter the store as well as looking down on from the sidewalk on West 53rd Street.

The high-density tables are located to the underside of the mezzanine area of the store and were designed to be highly adaptable, as the products for this zone are consistently changing to match the buying strategy of the retail team.     

Another important design choice was the integration of efficient and effective lighting and data within the floor and wall bay fixtures, which was also a major design recommendation from us, and the sparkle of all of the products in the store is testament to the success of that aspect of our design approach.  

What effect did the expansion of MoMA itself have on the design of the store? Do the new philosophies at play in the museum—such a presenting more works by women and people of color—also present themselves in the store?

The new philosophies of MoMA, as you describe them, are not in any way "new." They are just being focused upon more vocally—and quite rightly—to reflect the changing philosophies of the outside world. This philosophy was not reflected in the design of the store itself, as it would be impossible to achieve in a sensitive way; however, it is highly apparent in the products for sale in the store, where it really matters. 

What is the process of collaborating with Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Gensler on the overall design of the store?

The architectural clout of DS+R, the technical know-how of Gensler and the retail design acumen of Lumsden provided a heady alliance of talent, which is testament to all concerned in the project. The collaboration was never straightforward but always stimulating and challenging, and the completed design solution for the client is the proof of that collaborative approach. 

How do you judge the effectiveness of a store's design after it opens?

My favorite part of the job is to walk anonymously around the store when it first opens to observe and listen to the reactions of the customers and the staff to our design. That is always the best way to learn what works and what doesn't.

And of course I am judged as much by the aesthetics and the functionality of the store as I am by the commercial performance of its sales. That won't be available for some months, as it has just opened to the public, but in the end that's what will matter most to the retail team in MoMA. What cannot be communicated just by looking at the images of the store is the ambience of the space we have created. The combination of daylight washing into the store and the feel and spirit of the space has been positively commented on by the majority of the people who have visited.  

Is there anything else we should know about how innovative this store design is?

The major innovation is in the scale and architectural confidence of the retail space. This design is a real challenge to every museum and visitor destination serious about commerce, as to how creative they can be with their retail offer.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards and the founding editor of Muse by Clio.

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