First, a walk on Hester Street through Chinatown on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and then, fittingly, a turn onto Orchard Street.
The street name is suddenly fitting again because now – turning at that corner – the eye is immediately drawn to a larger-than-life glittering watermelon slice – beaded entirely of round, plastic faceted beads – in place of a traditional storefront blade sign. Under the watermelon, the store entrance is painted a dripping lemon yellow (from the door frame all the way out to its cellar door on the sidewalk). The final touch to 33 Orchard’s new façade is a door handle covered in the same faceted beads as the watermelon, only this time shaped as a half-peeled banana.
We have arrived at our destination: the flagship store of an independent designer and business owner best-known by her brand. Simultaneously, the Susan Alexandra store at 33 Orchard is an art installation and exhibition.
Art integrated into the shopping experience is already a rich genre of material culture throughout New York City. The window displays of 5th Avenue – Bergdorf Goodman’s Christmas displays chief among them – have become their own tourist attraction (designed and fabricated by the same artists working on sets and props in the Broadway theater district). The city is a place of old buildings serving new functions; designers opening stores and artists opening shows alike respond to the architectural and neighborhood histories of the spaces they occupy, creating new narratives that surpass the idea of simply “browsing” what’s on display.
high concept curatorial work is at play in many of Metro New York’s shops
From the candy-coated or taxidermized set-dressings of luxury retail stores in Midtown Manhattan and SoHo, to the exposed industrial pipes and concrete of boutique coffee shops and breweries throughout the outer boroughs, high concept curatorial work is at play in many of Metro New York’s shops. Perhaps even more care is given these days (with the pandemic forcing the city and the world underground), relegating us all to online shopping for so long. As we resurface, we remember that shopping is about experience and the delight that comes from the act of looking, similar to that of a gallery. Above all, curated storefront spaces give us story. They enact an immersive fantasy.
This is certainly the case with Susan Alexandra’s shop at 33 Orchard. The designer’s work itself is transportive to a joyful and playful world, instantly recognizable as a millennial childhood. The store’s interior design immediately answers this prompt of the early 2000s with several elements that resemble – of all Y2K settings – the mall.
This is not the beige and slate carpet and tile, potted plant mall design where so many teens and tweens have been “killing time” for decades. Rather, it borrows the aesthetic and memory, adds color, and imbues a heightened sense of creativity. The floor tiles, banana yellow in a checker pattern with sherbet orange and teal, become a more appetizing version of a classic food court.
The shop also makes heavy use of glass bricks, another prolific feature of recent-past mall design. A colorful pattern of these bricks trims an interior door frame, and more traditional clear glass bricks can be found in small and asymmetrical stacks throughout the displays. This fragmented callback inspires the idea of a deconstructed mall, but a mall that has been put at last in the hands of its teens, who have painted and rearranged it.
The designer manages to capture further sensory details of the mall, fully absorbing visitors into that nostalgia. The ceiling – painted the same sherbet orange as some of the tiles – is home to many tiny track lights, bathing the room like a skylight alongside its large street-facing window. While the space is as small and packed as any independent Lower East Side boutique, there is a light and airy quality to the inside thanks to these small yet persistent floodlights.
the sound is a part of the mall-memory
Deeper still in sense memory, a trickling fountain set into a large wall of tiny painted tiles, drawing out a face in bright primary colors. While the fountain’s minimalist design – a single pipe emitting a soft stream of water into a pool – does not resemble the sometimes gaudy and spouting fountains of the mall, the sound is a part of the mall-memory (missing only the plunking sound of a coin being thrown in every once in a while).
The Y2K reminiscence does not end at the structure of the interior space, but grows freely onto the walls, every decorative element illuminating childhood and teen fantasies of the past couple of decades. Susan Alexandra’s primary use of round, plastic faceted beads (the fruits outside as well as several lamps, baskets, and objects within) were popular in friendship bracelets and jewelry making kits, as are the seed beads that cover the shop’s utility objects (like tissue boxes).
The iconography of “arts and crafts” from summer camps, after school programs, and babysitting gigs can be found encrusting every surface. More plastic beads – solid-colored flowers and butterflies – offer tactility, reminding visitors of everything from hair berets to pencil toppers to notebook marginalia. The tiled wall with the fountain, and the sign outside with tiny tiles spelling out “Susan Alexandra,” both resemble cross stitch patterns. Displays of basket-weave tote bags, masterfully beaded bowls and boxes, and hand glazed pottery further connect the works on view to memories of making, to that time of “activities.”
Yellow happy faces, pastel rainbows, puffy clouds, pitched-roof houses, and of course, fruits, all form this language of a hyper-earnest, childlike creativity.
The space is filled with recurring characters – images and themes that appear again and again on the walls, in the décor, and on the objects for sale – all of which create a familiar lexicon. There is a certain aesthetic that combines Memphis style, bold and zany abstract shapes in well-balanced colors mixed with the 70s style psychedelia re-popularized in the 90s, a la Lisa Frank. Yellow happy faces, pastel rainbows, puffy clouds, pitched-roof houses, and of course, fruits, all form this language of a hyper-earnest, childlike creativity.
These aesthetic elements further underline the zeitgeist of the millennium, when the internet itself was a more innocent and playful space of exploration. It shared simple stories and graphics while waiting for its own technology to mature, much like the generation of crafters and doodlers that inspire the shop, who are now settling into full adulthood. Susan Alexandra’s cast of images are from that first handful of playful, girlish pictures that we could draw with then-new computer programs like MS Paint and AOL Instant Messenger. They are stickers on notebooks, bubble letters, and home ec class brought to a place of sophistication.
Far from trivializing, Susan Alexandra’s zeitgeist aesthetic deeply legitimizes childhood and adolescence as times of experimentation, and, above all, self-expression. This is a freedom so many of us have been trying to recapture. It is another phenomenon of our time in retreat from the city, like Lirika Matoshi’s Strawberry Dress and its eruption of cottage core and kawaii (two additional facets of today’s Y2K craze).
A fantasy is enacted – and in this case reincarnated – at 33 Orchard, and the message of that fantasy is clear. It is OK to play. In fact, for our entire lives, it has been vital.
© Allison Green (3/25/22) Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Peek inside three additional NYC storefronts driven by curation and experience:
Brooklyn Roasters (DUMBO)
Fifth Hammer Brewing Co (Long Island City)
Read about the design and aesthetic movements referenced above:
PHOTOS & PERMISSIONS
All photos by Allison Green for FF2 Media. Authorized for responsible use as long as user includes this URL in the post.