If you ever found yourself ambling around Greene Street in Manhattan's SoHo district from, say, the mid-‘90s to 2012, you might’ve noticed something strange afoot. Toward the street’s northern end, sandwiched between what is now a perennial sample sale store and a Paul Smith outlet, was a space that happily slid between shop, gallery and museum on a daily procession, revolutionizing the future of design in the process.
Born in an era preceding the cults of attention and experience economy ruling the digital age, MOSS was a physical destination—a site of pilgrimage for the design-conscious denizens of New York—but also something mythical: an immaterial place of desire. “Did you ever catch that show? If not, you missed out,” taunts MOSS co-founder Murray Moss in the introduction to Please Do Not Touch, a new memoir on the store, published by Rizzoli and co-authored with Moss's business and life partner, Franklin Getchell.
It’s unclear which show, exactly, Moss is referring to: Is it “Fertile Garden,” which featured eight early 20th-century monumental garden figures by Joseph Wackerle, imported directly from the gardens of the Nymphenburg Palace and priced without precedent? Or “Never Felt Before,” where Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra's talismanic felt trees, bed coverings (plus beds) and monumental geometric tapestries temporarily converted MOSS into an impossibly sensual feltscape? However mythologized the life of MOSS may be, some things are clear. It lasted eighteen years. Its interiors were entirely redone every Sunday (including a fresh coat of paint). It spread like wildfire to Vegas and L.A., and met its untimely demise at the hands of the New York tax authorities. It was a slow death beginning in 2009, with the plastering of the now-infamous tax seizure sign upon the building’s front windows—a violent act that has come to symbolize the end of an era in the collective conscious of New York. When Moss founded MOSS, he was well into his forties and bore the weight of several professional past lives. Following his studies at NYU, Moss was first an actor, a mime, and a tap dancer; after exiting the stage, he milled about Europe for the next eight years, spending most of his time in Italy as a fashion designer before returning to New York to pitch a cunning vision for a design department inside of high street retail outlets. Thanks in part to his connections in the fashion industry, Moss was able to cut his teeth on projects like Bar Oggetti—an Italian-inspired coffee bar/design shop embedded on Madison Avenue—before moving on to the main act. By 1998, Getchell had retired from his post-acting gig as steward of Sesame Street in London and returned to New York, where he quickly came onboard the back-end of MOSS and oversaw its expansion into the adjacent retail space. <figure><img src="https://alicebucknell.com/content/articles/5-please-do-not-touch/moss_campana_candle_products.jpg" alt=""></figure> This brave new world featured such architectural and design delights as endless acres of Corian countertops, twelve-foot-tall sliding glass doors, and a secret shrunken portal. The three Joseph Cornell-inspired “dioramas” would fully take shape as MOSS grew into its third consecutive space, forming an intriguing parallel narrative to the increasingly expansive worlds contained within the window displays. But there were also more apocalyptic visions afoot, such as the Elevator, a monitor installation conceived in 1997that enabled visitors to virtually browse products that were impossible to fit into the store's modest real estate. Like a proto-Amazon, the Elevator was a shocking prophecy for the future of online retail that ultimately ruined MOSS—among a slew of other hiccups unwittingly committed by the idealistic company, including building permits and tax liabilities. “Every day when we unlocked the door at 11am, it was show time, it was Opening Night,” Moss decrees in the opening lines of the memoir. Every day was a fresh start. That mentality cemented MOSS’s dissenting and at times schizophrenic narrative. Murray Moss and Franklin Getchell both tell the story: sometimes their recollections form a perfect overlap; at other, more frequent moments in the book, they part ways to reveal two contrasting understandings of the same event, or differing opinions on the same show. <figure><img src="https://alicebucknell.com/content/articles/5-please-do-not-touch/murray-moss-please-do-not-touch-book-store-counter-card-0218.jpg" alt=""></figure> But it is precisely the chaotic slippage between fantasy and reality, commerce and spectacle, and high and low culture that made MOSS so irrevocably, unmistakably influential. Ever the dramaturge, MOSS set a new stage for the most daring designers of today, and its fabulously dissenting energy can be felt across cities and cultures, nudging us to reframe our understanding of the discipline and what it is capable of.