News
10.08.2010
Review> Ben Thompson's Retail Love Affair
Kenneth Caldwell basks in the modern mystique of this definitive and nuanced Design Research biography
The iconic D/R store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, opened in 1969, made a powerful urban statement while signaling the future of seductive retail design.
Ezra Stoller/Esto

Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes
Jane Thompson and Alexandra Lange
Chronicle Books
$50.00

The name of the store, Design Research, suggested that the project was vast. By its very nature, design is a never-ending process of inquiry. Like most large ideas, the name got condensed to something bite-sized: D/R.

This new book is about architect Ben Thompson as much as the store he created. Call it Big Ben, Part 1. One of the authors of this volume, his widow Jane Thompson, is at work on a memoir, Big Ben, Part 2. Thompson is one of those architects that mostly only other architects know about, but his impact went far beyond the converted.

Thompson’s early houses and academic buildings in the 1940s followed the quiet modernist lead of his partner at The Architects’ Collaborative, Walter Gropius. Thompson didn’t produce his most significant architectural work until he struck out on his own in the 1960s, integrating retail into the fabric of the city. He did this most famously at Faneuil Hall in Boston, South Street Seaport in Manhattan, and Harborplace in Boston. His abilities in this area no doubt grew in part because of his hands-on retail experience at D/R, which he founded in 1953.

Design Research educated generations of Marimekko-loving modernists who would go on to shop at Design Within Reach, Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, and Conran, as well as at smaller modernist shops across the country. Even the D/R price tags would inform the shopper of the item’s design provenance. Thompson created some great shops, but more profoundly, he also changed the culture. New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger outlines this accomplishment in his afterword.

Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes
MARIMEKKO DRESSES CAPTIVATED THE FASHION NATION AFTER D/R INTRODUCED THEM IN 1959.
Courtesy chronicle books
 
 

Rob Forbes, founder of Design Within Reach, perhaps the most famous recent domestic design emporium, writes a foreword that discusses his own debt to Thompson and D/R. In between the two essays, Jane Thompson and her coauthor, architecture and design journalist Alexandra Lange, have built a structure for the book as transparent yet nuanced as Thompson’s own concrete masterpiece of a building for D/R in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In some ways, it is a tragic narrative about a creative man, his vision, his success, his zenith, his loss, and his legacy—one that is told, oddly enough, through the lens of a small chain of cutting-edge design stores.

The authors quote Thompson’s unpublished memoirs throughout, yet they also went to a lot of trouble to find several former D/R employees (including the late New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp) and weave their viewpoints into an ongoing oral history that peppers the more formal essays. (Speaking of pepper, it was Thompson who brought us those great Peugeot pepper mills.) This parallels the way Thompson worked, asking the staff for their input and giving them a strong voice in the store’s look and direction. There are also reproductions of significant articles about D/R, including Janet Malcolm’s fine essay from the November 7, 1970, issue of The New Yorker.

The book reproduces the excellent professional photos of the store on Brattle Street in Cambridge, but there are few professional shots of the other locations. To compensate for this, the graphic designers at Pentagram use a lot of yellow type, yellow pages, and white space. Other than the hairstyles and automobiles in the photos, the layout of the book and the designs contained within are perfectly matched and timeless, which speaks to Thompson’s prescience.

Of course, it wasn’t just his good taste that made the store bloom so brightly. Thompson had a few lucky breaks, like Jackie Kennedy sporting a Marimekko dress on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Julia Child asking the store for help with cookware and set design when she launched her cooking show. Media helps. But as the book points out, Thompson hired talented people and let them fulfill his vision. The authors are to be commended for allowing some of the negative aspects to be told, like other more outmoded hiring policies that Thompson employed. It’s part of the history.

In his own retail environment, Thompson was able to create a complete environment where interiors and architecture could come together, and it lasted a quarter of a century. His genius was for creating the armature for all kinds of creative reinvention, whether it was as chairman of Harvard’s Department of Architecture, as the father of festival retail, or as the creator of Design Research.

A key part of the history is tucked away on the last page of the book, before the list of contributors, telling of the chain’s demise. The opening of Thompson’s great architectural achievement at 48 Brattle Street in 1969 took place under a cloud of litigation that resulted from a hostile takeover. No doubt there is a larger tale yet to be told. Can a business that prioritizes a creative vision of excellence over quarterly earnings survive? Or are all businesses now short-lived until the next takeover and eventual bankruptcy? That isn’t the tale of this volume. But perhaps Jane Thompson’s memoirs will tell us more about how her husband created a successful business where design came first. One former employee told me that the book should have been titled “D/R: A Love Story.” You can feel the love on every page.

Read all of AN's Friday Reviews here.

Kenneth Caldwell

Kenneth Caldwell is a writer and communications consultant based in San Francisco.