Aero Today

It has been conveyed to me, from the staff in my store even, that there haven’t been enough of these personal entries or updates posted that we periodically put together for our website.

In truth I have been hearing from customers, friends, and bloggers for many months about the need to stay current, connected, and focused on social media especially. This is how it is today, I am assured. Technology is the essential way of reaching clients and serving our design community. People search for goods and shop online. Everyone expects access to everything, anyone can post an opinion, and we are all part of a modern social mindset that shares, exchanges, and reacts to information instantly and changes direction like a flock of starlings through the internet. We need to be wired to be seen, much less to be counted. We are not tapping into the audience that is waiting for us in this space. If only I would be a designer who would post more on Facebook or Twitter, or bundle my goods on more design websites, or renew my own website, or even appear on TV, the argument goes, we would grow, expand, evolve with the times…survive.

The Aero store gallery on Broome Street, NYC

I am honored that customers want to visit us online. I know that many of you, both in the trade and the public, would like to be able to buy our goods here. I agree that we can do better with the functionality and flexibility of our website. It’s always been my aim to have a very welcoming and useful web address that is as special to visit as Aero itself is. And new, big changes are being considered as I write. There will be a shop at some point, maybe a long time from now, maybe sooner. We are working on it.

But, I will also say that I resist the pressure to join the online worlds of commerce and commentary because, in principle, they are counter to what my store and business are about. Gracious customer relationships in person still matter, particularly in the sale of luxury and design goods. And the problem is as much about how clients are using design and designers today as it is a matter of our outreach. I use the internet as much as anyone for information, but immediacy and information will never be the same thing as ideas and service. Convenience is not a substitute for craft. Still this is the trend, and it is unsettling.

A view through the back of the gallery

I was interviewed recently by prospective clients for a new project, and their approach unfortunately was just what I’m hearing when I speak to other designers and visitors in the store. What is the discount? Can you match the price of this sale website? Can you show me ten or twenty more coffee tables, sofas, carpets? These are the things being asked of so many designers I know, in fact all throughout our community. We are essentially expected now to be resourcers or agents, where clients feel they can come to simply research shoppable furniture and objects before buying the furnishings themselves. I see so many people and businesses struggle these days because everyone is concerned with getting a deal first and foremost. Clients are making this mistake with their designers. In essence they miss the point, because what we do as designers is not clickable. It is the presence of a thought process beyond the consumerism of an object, full of detail, trial, layers, and interrelationships, that you can’t isolate on even the most striking app or screen.

Two vignettes from the earliest days of Aero at the Spring Street location

The designer’s job today is to coax interest back toward the understanding that sourcing alone is not design. I am reminded of a recent interview by Jeffrey Bilhuber in House Beautiful that I liked very much and have referred to again and again, in which he talks about his role as a decorator: If someone comes to ask for a pink lamp, he explains, his job is to say, what about this antique blue and white Delft lamp in this pink room? Design is about the big picture. A point of view. We are here to make 1+1 = 3. The interview made me stop and think again that design can be about budgets and collaboration, but it must also be about originating new perspectives for our clients.

Democratization of design is real and it is modern, as more people become empowered to choose handsome things to live with. I am aligned with this reality in my business, where I can focus on my own store and the products I design, as well as the wonderful partner companies I work with. But I will still resist a certain kind of interior consumer. I will say no to my team, who will argue that every job is a good job. I will insist on creating work that is about an idea, not just a price. It is not in my nature or my company’s interest to try to cast my net to reach everyone, everywhere.

The Aero conference room, my Studio design hub

Aero is a studio, first and foremost concerned with design and with making things – a set of very good, real things that can be taken home and enjoyed in an individual way. I have built and maintained a special New York store to hold many of these things. Aero has lasted through many neighborhood changes and trends and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. There is only one of this place in the world, which is its own rarity these days.

I hope that Aero delivers what more and more people crave today – a true neighborhood haven, a quality establishment, a place to return to and to rediscover each season. This is, interestingly, the gold standard in restaurant culture, and an approach I wish more stores could follow. In New York I have been going for years to Café Luxembourg uptown, in my neighborhood: a gem, a survivor, and still a place unknown outside a certain cognoscenti. There is an authenticity to it that I find in all the stores and haunts I love. I want Aero at 20 years to be known this way, even around the world, as a special and unique place that is still here to be found.

This large folding screen has been with Aero from the beginning

In a time when stores are closing left and right, we do survive and we find our way. There is still a reason to see goods in person, to judge their material, their craft, their three-dimensional presence. Real connection in a real and individual store or gallery is the necessary counterbalance to the world of virtual socializing and shopping. And real contact will always be the best way to experience design. My friend Bunny Williams emphasizes the difference between looking at a picture of a table and actually standing in front of that table, able to touch it and talk to someone who knows its history. All of this creates the substance and soul for us around the things we acquire. This is why I came to New York to go to art school, why I work in this field. I still value the knowledge of the dealers, artisans, and scholars I work with, and I try to pass on that knowledge. They are the human element. The presence of someone’s original idea and hand remains vital, and relevant.

As I reflect on our 20th anniversary, I’ve begun to look back on what has made Aero thrive and grow over the years. I believe our longevity comes at least in part from our truly local nature, and our intentionally quiet profile. We are still a place to be discovered. I believe there is ever-increasing value in that today. Design here is not about fulfillment and speed. It is about crafting a world of ideas and tailoring them for those of you who have come to find us.

Late afternoon before Aero’s opening party, October 21st, 1992

This is the subject of my next book, as it happens – a survey back to the beginnings of Aero, and of the particular world we have been able to create there. I still believe in the art of the physical book, the handwritten note, the yearly holiday card, the independent store. I think others do, too. It is not nostalgia; it is a bet on what is lasting even as technology changes the delivery. Blogs may compete with magazines, and iPads and Kindles may draw an increasing number of readers, and the balance is rapidly shifting, but you still need the writer, the photographer, the editor. So it is in our industry. You still need the designer, the architect, the merchant.

In sifting through years of material for the book, I see for certain that we have continued to change and evolve, but in the sense of always testing our own design instincts. We have never followed the crowd. I opened Aero far downtown in Soho; I focused on a store when others focused on interiors. I have never been driven to do what others have done beside me. My challenge has always been to find a different way. And sometimes the new way is to be found in a reappraisal of the most honest, beautiful old ingredients. It’s what we do with those ingredients that becomes the intriguing next chapter.

An early view of the window on Broome Street

So, I invite you to watch our progress here. We may surprise you. I am not beyond the irony of this essay itself being communicated and perhaps shared online. But more, I would ask you to unplug and go out into your neighborhood to your favorite shops. Come down to Soho, if you haven’t been or haven’t visited us in a while, to see what is both old and new at Aero. Call the store and enjoy a conversation with an interested, knowledgeable staff member. We are having our annual winter sale starting on February 17, and as the kick-off to our anniversary year, it will be full of very special objects, early studio samples, classic Aero pieces, and other saved mementos from our history.

I recently received a fine printed catalog from one of my favorite antique silver dealers, SJ Shrubsole, located on 57th Street here in New York. In the introduction, the proprietor, Eric Shrubsole, tells a charming story about his parents. His mother would visit his father’s shop in London on occasion, and “from her perch of serene ignorance” she would claim surprise that he still had this or that old thing, orphaned and unsold. His father would answer in exasperation that yes, he still had this thing, and that thing, and that thing, and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have a business anymore. Many decades later their son concludes, “My point is that inventory is the proof of a great dealer. We buy what we love; we wait for someone to love it as much as we do.”

That is as good a reason to be in business as any I can think of. We are here at Aero keeping faith with what we love.

Thomas, my large-scale handprint portrait by friend and artist Gary Schneider, 2007. At Aero.

(Photos 1-3, 6, and 10 by Michelle Arcila)