Did someone say that American culture is submerged in a river of kitsch? Go to the New York International Gift Fair, on view Aug. 14-19, 1999, at the Jacob Javits Center and Passenger Ship Terminal Piers 92 and 94. It's not a river, it's an ocean.
With 2,600 exhibitors spread over almost 600,000 square feet, the experience is dizzying, so extreme that the general public is not even invited -- only shopkeepers. The entire world, every single thing you ever owned or wanted to own, is turned into a commodity that is either hyper-designed or cloyingly cute.
Here are the categories. General Gifts. Tabletops and Housewares. Personal Accessories. At Home. Floral and Garden Accessories. New and Distinctive Resources. Just Kidstuff. Handmade. Accent on Design. Those last three are trademarked.
As is the Museum Source. That's the one we're interested in. Could some of our favorite museum shops be here, swimming with the shiny fish?
Yes, indeed. Step off the escalator and there's the Guggenheim Museum, hawking motorcycle ties and a set of plates, mugs and an umbrella printed with photocollages by Robert Rauschenberg. The plates wholesale for $40, the mugs for $15 and the umbrellas for $50. The tie, well….
The Museum Source category actually includes about 40 or 50 manufacturers and retailers, ranging from Facsimilies Ltd. of Nashua, N.H., to Swahili Imports of Eugene, Ore. Only a handful of actual museums are crossing over.
One company, Art Objects Unlimited, carries an assortment of arty items. A pillow with a Picasso on it. Nikki de Saint Phalle figurines. William Wegman alphabet cards. Several people were working the booth, including Mark Weissberg, proprietor of Fliptomania. He makes small flip books that picture amusing things like the Leonardo's Measure of Man figure striking a bodybuilding pose and Grant Wood's American Gothic morphing into Edvard Munch's The Scream. Weissberg was doing a booming business.
What's the biggest name in museum gifts? "It's the Metropolitan Museum," said Art Objects Unlimited chief Leta Stathacos, who seemed to know what she was talking about. The Met isn't at the gift fair, she added. With its many satellite stores and its mail-order catalogue operation, it's one museum that doesn't need the wholesale world.
"I've always believed you educate through product," said Stahacos. "That's why provenance is so important." She showed us the latest production of the Cleveland Museum gift department, a set of lovely hand-made glass ornaments based on flowers and insects pictured in a 17th-century Dutch still life in the museum collection, Abrosius Bosschaert's Flowers in a Vase. A light blue iris, a pink rose, a gold tulip -- all are only $15 wholesale. Who made them? "It's a secret," said Cleveland's Diana Borcz. How much money does the shop generate for the museum? "Millions," she said. "We have stores at the mall and at the airport, too."
Another exhibitor is the Frank Lloyd Wright Gift Collection, which manufactures a classy assortment of stained-glass windows, etched glassware, carved wood boxes and scarves and throw blankets patterned with Wright's art deco waterlily. A silver eyeglass case with a low-relief design from the gate of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is $10 wholesale, while "exhibition typeface house numbers," originally made in 1931, are priced at $7.50 each. They're very popular.
Still more creative museum gifts were on offer at the booth of the Philadelphia Museum, whose director of retail, Stuart Gerstein, is widely considered a visionary in the field. He made his mark with pasta shaped like Rodin's The Thinker. Other original items in Philadelphia's booth include an "Artist All-Stars" baseball with facsimile signatures of artists from the "international league" -- Cassatt, Rubens, Pippen and Homer among them -- for $4.75 wholesale, and wine bottles holding puzzle pieces bearing images of works by Cézanne, Monet and Thiebaud, priced at $6.48 wholesale.
Philadelphia also has an assortment of CDs offering "Art in Concert" -- music associated with artists ranging from Hopper and Picasso to Kandinsky and Kahlo. They're $5.40 wholesale. A t-shirt with a cartoon by Raymond Pettibon -- "I always want to hug a locomotive" -- is $10. What's the artist's cut? "I don't know!" said the woman in the booth.
As it happens, the Museum of Modern Art and the Isamu Noguchi Foundation have opted out of the Museum Source section, and are downstairs in the Accent on Design area. From Noguchi is a selection of the late sculptor's lovely Akari lamps. At MoMA's booth are the various objects familiar to most museum goers. Some new attractions are the clocks, watches, paper weights and other items from M&Co., the design firm of the late Tibor Kalman, now part of the MoMA line. Our favorite is a five-inch-tall paper weight made of a copy of the 1040 tax form, silk-screened on rigid vinyl and hand crumpled around a steel weight. It's $9 wholesale.