The Mod Squad

Prowling the showrooms of Soho

Though only time will determine who of today's designers are destined to be the Eameses and Nelsons of the future, design cognoscenti look to Murray Moss for best bets. Moss (146 Greene Street, 226-2190) isn't stocked as much as it's curated, and with an eye to the radical. Like the Finnish Airbag chair ($375); with its yellow straps and high-tech reflective fabric, it's something you can imagine being lowered by winch from a Medevac helicopter. Or the huge red rubber decorative bowl, suitable for holding your balloon collection but little else. For $20, you can walk away with Wolfgang Dufhues's bottle opener, an attractive and functional objet d'art that doesn't dent bottlecaps, so they can be resealed. As in a museum, most of the products are behind glass and have labels next to them listing the designer, production date, and an explanation of the object's use, if it's not entirely apparent. But Moss is as much exploratorium as museum, with holes cut into the displays for interactivity, as well as a platoon of salespeople eager to answer questions.

At Dom (382 West Broadway, 334-5580), you can get the most flash for your money—if your aesthetic is Club Kid Ikea, that is. This budget design store is split into two sections. To your left is the K-hole you never want to trip into: a squadron of frosted glass jars with Day-Glo tops that resemble the baby bottles of a thousand orphaned ravers, 10 styles of lava lamps, alien candles, feather frames, bean-bag chairs, an inflatable love seat—all priced to contribute to the sensory overload of some NYU dorm dweller. The irony of it all, a clerk tells me, is that the place is frequented not by youngsters but by parents buying their children gifts. The right side of the store is the grown-up section—more expensive, geared more toward housewares, but still reasonably priced. Chrome kitchenware, glass-topped tables, and cool metal chairs with plastic tubing seats could stock a first apartment with flair.

For the closet banker or rich Raymond Chandler bad guy in all of us, Aero's collection of furniture and objets d'art (at 132 Spring Street, 966-1500) are dominated by somber gray fabric, deeply stained wood, and brown leather. Upstairs, the furniture showroom features a mix of their own design line and a scattering of refurbished furniture from the '30s and '40s. In this noir setting, they offer a reupholstered mohair sofa for $6850, a down-filled club chair in gray frisé upholstery for $9600, a Wabbs Belgian rosewood desk for $6500. If you're not a captain of industry, the downstairs showroom offers more affordable anachronisms: $45 dollars for a set of cool cocktail forks capped with silver animal figures and faces, hand-blown opalescent glass vases, and Japanese Kiri wood trays for $85 and up.

C.I.T.E. (100 Wooster Street, 431-7272): the indestructable pieces of the past
Robin Holland
C.I.T.E. (100 Wooster Street, 431-7272): the indestructable pieces of the past

To see the sparest and most minimalist furniture around, stop by Cappellini–Modern Age (102 Wooster Street, 966-0669), where everything is clean lines, sharp angles, and fabrics in muted neutral tones. Despite the very expensive, dust-free environment, the staff is friendly and clearly love what they do, dis pen sing design advice with little prodding. Cappellini–Modern Age's Erwin de Leon admits that the store's focus isn't very expansive in scope—"We've been accused of being very quote unquote Wallpaper"—and can't venture a guess at where popular furniture design is going. In defense of the current obsession with '50s-inspired minimalism, he says that even the starkest furniture will still look good when more ornate designs have gone out of fashion. He points out that unobtrusiveness is its strong point. "It's probably not going to clash," says de Leon. "When people ask me if this minimalist credenza will match the other furniture in their apartment, I say just pay attention to form and color. If it looks right to you, then it's fine." Of the most affordable items, the cute $389 Smartie, a squishy two-foot-wide rubber pillow that looks like an oversized Advil, is the high-tech descendent of the bean-bag chair.

You'll find more rustic goods at Interieurs (114 Wooster Street, 343-0800), where the ethos seems to be Francophile modern meets shabby country chic. The hand-carved teakwood bench betrays an artisan's hand and is something of a relief after all the machine-age furniture that dominates the other Soho stores. But I'm not sure a little label that reads, "'50s chair, found in the South of France" justifies the $450 price tag. I require a little more precise carbon dating before I shell out the C-notes. Still, the cast-iron worktables they manufacture (starting at $2800) are very cool, with a metal top that's allowed to oxidize then sealed with a matte varnish. And they do look sturdy enough to support the French collective ego.

At C.I.T.E. (100 Wooster Street, 431-7272), you can break the bank, if you'd like, by splurging several thousand dollars on the smoked Perspex desk. In layman's terms, that's brownish-purple see-through plastic, the desk Barbarella would've used in her home office. Or for much less money, you can buy an indestructable piece of the past in the form of '60s-era orange and green plastic kitchen utensils, starting at around $15 a piece. A stroll through C.I.T.E. shows the ease with which furniture from different decades within the 20th century can blend together. "If C.I.T.E.'s about anything," says store manager Karen Jackson, "it's about showing people how the old and the new and the expensive and the obscure can go together quite well." And she's right. Orange and yellow plastic tables designed by Marc Berthier are arranged beneath a swatch of what looks like unmowed Astroturf. A glass-topped table with chrome legs is grouped with a Lucite desk chair and white stacking Panton chairs at $4000 for a set of four. Collectors can snag original Arne Jacobson chairs at four for $1500. If that's out of your price range, come for quirkier, cheaper items. Greeting cards, picture frames, and condom vases (a prophylactic hanging from a wire loop) can be had for $25 and under.

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