Friday, December 7, 2018

Michele Varian

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Designer Michele Varian opened her first store in SoHo very shortly after 9/11 when she had money burning in her pocket from the sale of her gorgeous pillows to big name stores like Barneys and Neiman Marcus. Ultimately, she says, it was because she wanted complete control of the product—“I wanted something I could be proud of.” She can also be proud of the fact that she’s still holding on in this current climate of retail oddness.  Originally trained as a fashion designer, she sold only her pillows but as eventually expanded into the jewelry, accent pieces and ceramics that can be found at her current store on Howard Street. It’s still a treat, and an affordable one too, but much of our discussion centered on the strange future of retail in our new digital world and her own involvement with keeping small businesses such as her own alive. She credits her civic activism towards a childhood spent in Detroit, raised by socially conscious parents who put her and her sisters (they are triplets) through the Detroit public school system because, as she puts it, they wanted them “to have a robust social experience.” It seems to have stood her in good stead.


I was reading up on you and someone described your store as a “modern curiosity shop” and I can see here in your own home you have Victorian-influenced objects and photos—what is about that era that appeals to you?

Well I was lucky enough to grow up in a historical home in a landmarked neighborhood in Detroit, called Indian Village. It’s now become a very desirable neighborhood because it is these old, beautiful turn-of-the-century homes where the lumber and auto barons moved to in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But it is the inner city, sort of about how far the Financial District is from 14th Street in New York.
The front door of Michele and her husband Brad's Soho loft is an old metal loft door, which they use as a magnet board with sketches mainly by Brad. "Besides hanging things that we need to remember to pop in the mail, it ends up being where we put things that we don't want to forget — like Brad's upcoming shows (Brad Roberts is the lead singer for the Canadian folk-rock band Crash Test Dummies — playing in NYC this Saturday, December 9th).
Leaning on top of the electrical box is a small painting that was a gift from and by Penine Hart. The loft has multiple roosters sprinkled around. "When Brad and I eloped in Reno, there was a stuffed rooster in the 'Southwestern' room where we sealed the deal. When asked what we wanted as a wedding gift, we said, "a stuffed rooster." Well, we got everything but!" explains Michele.
Before Michele started designing her own wallpaper, she sold Neisha Crosland's wallpaper at her shop. "I still love it. And, yes, I covered the electrical pipes and utility boxes with it too."
The dining nook next to the kitchen. The copper, hanging fixture was designed by Michele and is sold in her shop.
That’s not really how people see Detroit now, is it? They think of the broken city and poverty.

Yes, the blight, and it is very real. My sisters and I—I am one of triplets—while we grew up, the city decayed and slowly atrophied. My parents chose to stay. They wanted my sisters and I to have a robust social experience. They didn’t want us to have a homogenized experience. We stayed in the city and we went through the Detroit public school system. By the third grade, we were the only white kids in our school. And within that year, we were the only kids not on welfare.

So how would you say that informed the rest of your life?

Hugely. My Dad grew up in Larchmont in Westchester, so he was part of swim team, the club life and that kind of thing and he felt that it was extremely important for us to have a team experience. We lived near Belle Isle, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead who designed Central Park, and they have two private clubs, a yacht club and a boat club. We were members of the boat club and all of the members were white and from the suburbs. So we had access and exposure to radically different social circles.  It made us super sensitive to both sides and made us realize how lucky we were relative to the kids we went to school with and again how lucky we were relative to the suburbanites who weren’t as socially sophisticated.
The main seating area is a mix of furnishings and objects found or bought over the years. Michele and Brad's casual approach to living means sometimes leaving decorations in place. "I didn't realize we left stuff (the red pompom) we hung for a Day of the Dead party that we had ..."

On the left is "Brad's Chair." "We tried to get rid of it, because it has stuffing coming out of it. The replacement wasn't as comfy, so had to call the delivery guys to bring this one back!"
Whenever Michele finds a good frame, she drags it home and often hangs them to frame the other frames. The paintings and antlers have been found at flea markets and vintage shops and during travels.
A leather sofa is covered with a mix of Michele's pillows and an Indonesian Ikat throw. The walls are covered in Neisha Crosland wallpaper. "I have no fear of mixing patterns."
Michele's "party shoes."
Did you maintain the friendships you made at school?

Absolutely. Very long, strong friendships from both sides.

It is relatively unusual to have life-long friendships across what I can only call a race barrier.

Yes, it’s super-unusual. But that’s what Detroit breeds.

Did you feel any racism directed towards you at school?

Well ... yes but it wasn’t an issue until the third grade when all the kids’ home lives were devastated because their parents lost their jobs. It really drove home that circumstances are a more of a driving force than race.
The kitchen is separated visually from the "den" and "dining" room by a hanging pot rack, some glass fly-catchers and a wooden bar door. "We are lucky enough to have a wood burning stove in our kitchen."
The fridge is another poster board displaying old photos of Michele, magnets of cartoon characters and a calendar. A pastel portrait of Queen Elizabeth hangs above the door to the bath.
Showing the pot rack as divider between kitchen and den. The kitchen peninsula is an old concrete top lab table Michele bought when there was still an outdoor flea market in Soho.
Michele and Brad built their own kitchen counters in order to ensure that they fit into the available nooks as well as to keep things open. "We like to look at all of the things we've collected over the years."
Another of Penine Hart's paintings and part of Michele's chopstick collection. "I used to go to Japan a lot when I designed for Seibu. Chopsticks were pretty much all I could afford and could always fit them into my suitcase!"
[Sian] Now your store is in SoHo and I have to admit, I never come to SoHo shopping—I’m hoping that plenty of other people come?

Sadly what makes SoHo so charming is rapidly being diminished. So I’ve gotten really involved in trying to advocate for small businesses. In Little Italy there are tons and in NoLita there are plenty. In fact if you include freelancers, there are supposedly 67,000 small businesses below 14th Street.

Sixty-seven thousand!?

Yes, according to the city. The law states that businesses should not exceed 10,000 square feet in SoHo but obviously, there are a lot of  ... “non-conforming” businesses.

[Lesley] When I occasionally walk around SoHo, what I see are tourists who are carrying packages from the usual name brands like Zara and Adidas, which they can buy in their own countries. So what does that say about SoHo retail and small business?

So, part of why I fought so hard to not allow the large retail was that there’s already tons of empty spaces and when I first opened my store, I was paying $30 a square foot. Now, until recently, it’s almost $150 a square foot but I negotiated a massive rent reduction.
Paintings Brad collected from second hand shops when he still lived in Canada. A photo of a young Queen Elizabeth and family hangs among mostly landscapes.
"One of the best places to sit and daydream in our apartment is the kitchen window seat. " The pillows are all printed from Michele's paintings.
Michele and Brad refer to this end of the loft as their urban cabin. "We don't get out of the city as often as we like, so we pretend by having idyllic images and other country estate ephemera and again, some left over Day of the Dead party decor."
The hanging pots and fly catchers, allows a visual separation of the kitchen while still allowing whoever is busy with food prep to always be part of the conversation.
How did you get that?

Because there’s so many empty spaces and brick-and-mortar is never going to create the return it once did. There’s too much of it. There’s six times as much retail square footage in the US than in the UK.

And that came from a shopping habit that doesn’t exist anymore?

Exactly. And the internet is only part of the story because as of August last year, internet sales as a percentage of gross retail sales was only 8.9 percent.

And that’s because people aren’t shopping as much?

Yes. I mean do you guys shop as much as you used to? I don’t.
Michele and Brad's bedroom. The bed frame is from India via ABC Carpet & Home. While Michele was selling her collection at ABC, the buyer, who once saw a photo of her bed was excited to tell her that she was the one who picked it out and bought it in India. "She had wanted to keep it for herself. Lucky for us, she didn't."
A Wurlitzer stands against the bedroom wall. It traveled all around the world with Brad's band, The Crash Test Dummies.
What do you attribute that to?

People don’t leave their homes as much. And soon we’re all just going to be wearing t-shirts and jeans.

But why?

Because everyone is doing this [mimics going on her phone] and people get all their ya-ya-s out without any actual social interaction, no physical interaction. We have fundamentally changed our habits. It used to be you met a friend for brunch and then you went shopping afterwards. It’s not really talked about because let’s face it, we get our information from the internet and it’s not in the interests of the internet to inform us of this.

Who shops in your shop? Sorry, I say “shop” because I’m British.

I didn’t even think of it as a British thing, but I hate it when people say “boutique.” We get a fair number of tourists and one of the things that’s an issue with tourists is that now that there is such a restriction on the amount of baggage you can travel with, they can’t really shop! One of the things I suggested to the city is that sponsor a program for hotels to partner with airlines and let guests submit receipts—if they spend a $1000 they get an allowance for a free bag to check in.
Michele and Brad refer to the front space of their loft the "Big Room. "It's my favorite room, because it is bright and light all day long. It also faces onto Broadway, and I like the hum of activity from the street."
The couple chose to hold on to their large vintage TV because they couldn't find anyone to carry it down four flights of stairs.
"This is where we hang out the most with friends, when we aren't having dinner." Again, they have no fear of layering patterns and color. The unusually vibrant long shag rugs are vintage from a selection that Michele used to sell in her shop. All of the pillows are made in NYC and sold at her shop.
Michele and Brad do yoga in front of the big mirror (Michele built the frame for the mirror). The soft shaggy vintage rugs and pillows allow for sitting on the floor in large groups.
Built-in shelves display favorite objects collected over the years. "Brad and I are in a constant battle for shelf space. Brad wants our next home to have a library. I want to have shelves to showcase all of the objects that I've collected. Everything in our house is a mix of high/low. There are Chinese ornaments that cost only a few dollars to collectable pieces." The ceramic dog was purchased from another shop owner cleaning out their Soho loft. The ceramic eye is by Michele Quan, whose work can be found at the Michele Varian store.
Isn’t the orthodoxy now that people spend on experiences rather than stuff, particularly younger people?

That’s interesting to me because when people say that, I think, well, I must have been a pre-millennial [laughs] because me and my friends fell into that category and always were that. If you lived in New York, wasn’t that the way you lived? Didn’t we all go out, all of the time?

Apart from tourists, who else comes in to your store?

When I opened my store [in 2001], the people who came were people who lived in SoHo. There were architecture firms, design firms and branding companies—they’ve all been pushed out. In the beginning, like Roman and Williams were early clients. Believe it or not, it was more male shoppers than female shoppers in the beginning. My shop is not overtly feminine, which at that time for a home goods store to not just be thinking of a woman as the kind of person who shops for home goods was kind of unusual.
The other "window seat" is a swing chair from Michele's shop. "It makes our fire escape feel even more like a porch."
Some of Brad's guitar cases.
Michele's desk and part of her work area where she goes back and forth all day between creative and computer work.
A second desk with Michele's painting supplies.
Storage for most of Michele's art supplies and business records.
Brad's book shelves. "We have the stuffed armadillo, because I spied him in a Detroit vintage shop and thought it was so ridiculous that someone stuffed him. An armadillo! I had to sit with him on my lap on the plane to get him back to NYC."
How do you go about making a store not overtly feminine?

Well my own personal taste is not overtly feminine. I always had a lot of Victorian industrial things, which goes back to things that have historical integrity and a story. We had a neighbor in the building who was an art critic and he said “… I’ve been having such a difficult time trying to define what your aesthetic is but it’s that you like to see the hand that has made something.” I was like, “Boom! You did it. That is absolutely right.”

And you also make things, right?

Yes—it goes back to when we lived in Detroit. Our house was not in great shape so I grew up building things. We re-did the electrical, we re-did the plumbing and I hung dry wall with my mom and we laid floorboards and stripped gobs and gobs of paint. My respiratory system is probably a mess. That’s a Detroit thing, being resourceful and being scrappy.
Michele uses as many as three different wallpapers in a single room. To the left is her "Thornbird" wallpaper, which is used to cover the hollow door closets.
Brad's guitar wall with Michele's "Plume" wallpaper behind them.
Beneath the guitars is an Optigan from the 70s. Brad used it and other toy instruments on the Crash Test Dummies album entitled "Ooh la la."
Can you tell us how you started making the pillows that launched you, so to speak?

My background was fashion design and I was working 12 to 14 hours a day for other companies—I loved designing and I had been doing a collection in Japan for a number of years—and I was traveling all the time to Europe and the Far East to fabric shows. That was great in my twenties. To be completely honest, my parents would probably have been happier if I had chosen to become a fine artist but early on I recognized that I like applied design and I like problem solving. I like those boundaries. I’m more creative with those boundaries. So I started with the pillows because I had a textile background. I was starting with the resources I had. I cashed in my 401k and later on I borrowed $20,000 from my dad.

What was it that all the big names like Barneys and ABC Carpet liked about your pillows as opposed to all the other millions of pillows?

At that time there weren’t millions of different pillows. [Now] things like digital printing has allowed so many designs to come on to the market but at that time in 1998, they hadn’t seen pillows like mine. I was also determined to be self-financed—all the fashion businesses I knew had imploded because of bad backer relationships. I also wanted to control the aesthetic decisions completely. My quality was like 100 percent. I wanted something that I was proud of. One of my early innovations was because new fabrics were prohibitively expensive to acquire, I ended up using fabrics like felt and ultra suede which were stock fabrics and because I had all these relationships I had built up, they would let me have six yards. Also I felt the construction of the pillows should be a design detail—also there’s no hard element, like a button.
The storefront, like many in Soho, is raised because the entrance was also the loading dock for truck deliveries for the manufacturing companies that populated the loft buildings. The building Michele's store is in was once owned by Jasper Johns and had a constant flow of art luminaries coming and going.
And your colors are so strong.

I’m not afraid of color—which is very un-American. An extension of being an American is that it is an immigrant community—everyone wants to fit in. Nobody wants to step out.

So give us a rundown of your favorite stores.

Good question—I hardly ever shop.  I like Rachel Comey for clothing over on Crosby Street  ... um ... Anthropologie still does a good job.

You know for someone who sells pillows and little bits of gorgeous design, I didn’t think we would spend most of the interview talking about the future of retail.

I’ve gotten really involved in things! I came from a family that was very socially conscious. It’s like you make choices. You choose to pay attention or you choose not to.
At the shop, Michele has an ever changing selection of original artwork by friends and artists she admires, mixed in with the products she designs and makes including lighting, wallpaper, pillows and furniture.
One of the things that many are surprised to find at Michele's shop is that in addition to home furnishings, she carries fine jewelry from over 70 different indie jewelers. Her shop has one of the largest jewelry selections in the city.
Natural leather furnishings and organic wall hangings are currently part of the selection.
A mix of Michele's wallpapers and pillows. You can't see from the distance, but this paper is called "Nymph" and has a female nude sitting in the forest. It was inspired by a room in Michele's childhood Detroit home, which was called the "Blue Nude Room."
And what’s it like being married to a rock star?

[Laughs] … Well, it’s great actually. I was a big fan before I met Brad but I didn’t know who he was because I had never had cable television and I did not know what he looked like. He and I had been talking for quite some time, at a Bulgarian bar that like everything else is gone, before my friend told me who he was.

I think you have to go wake him up.

He’ll come out when he comes out. We’ll make him tea and he’ll slowly wake up. [Alas, he does not come out]