for the love of objects
When I was a child visiting my grandmother for the holidays, I would sit on the dining room floor of her 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse, open the cupboards, and take out all of the china to rearrange each plate by size and pattern, placing any with imperfections or faded embellishment towards the bottom of the stack. Same with the glassware in the hutch, the various serving pieces in the breakfast room, and the silverware in the box reserved for special occasions. I loved this self-prescribed chore. I was drawn in by the maker’s marks and little nuances in production. The napkins in the drawers would be folded and arranged by pattern, and when it came time to set the table I happily volunteered, drawing from the neatly organized stacks and filling the table with as much as possible: dessert spoons, butter dishes, salt cellars, and decorative ceramic eggs at each place setting that were handmade by her best friend Martha and collected over the years.
Back home in Chicago my parents had opened a restaurant called the Heartland Café, and on weekends I would join my father on early morning trips to the market to buy fish and produce. Sometimes we would stop by Maxwell Street where vendors spilled into the street selling old car parts, children’s clothing, and everything in between. Instead of sourcing from restaurant supply houses we would buy up lots of mismatched plates and glassware for the eclectic tables of the mostly vegetarian restaurant, where missing rungs from chair backs were replaced by my mother’s artful macramé. Many of the dishes made their way home to our kitchen, and though I sometimes felt a little embarrassed about these disparate objects, no two alike — so different from the stacks of matching china stowed away in my grandmother’s dining room — I was equally fascinated by their differences. Their uniqueness forced me to consider how they might work together, their positioning on the table, and their relationship to and in our lives.
It took me a while, more years than I care to admit, to recognize the connection between these salient childhood memories and my adult calling. I spent a long time chasing notions of the so-called high arts before I came to terms with the fact that my passion was rooted in objects and their surroundings, the people who made them, and the way that they travelled through the world. When I think about the early experiences that helped shape my path, I am transported to memories of writing wish lists for an imagined future home from the encyclopedic, dog-eared pages of a Montgomery Ward catalog, or of hours spent peering through the glass into the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. As I got a little older many of my quiet idols were those singular, talented, and supremely independent retailers whose doors I walked through and never wanted to leave, and whose vignettes of carefully sourced and assembled objects were put together in such a way that the individual pieces became heightened by association, and greater in each others’ company. Such is the art of a skilled merchant, and I have had the pleasure of getting to know many of them over the years.
I like to say that as a professional, I grew up in the aisles of trade shows, both massive and small in size, and, truth be told, I have. It’s been over 20 years now that I have worked for or owned my own wholesale sales operation, charged with caring for the showcase and distribution of so many wonderful brands and in turn working with countless retailers both domestically and abroad. My work has grown to encompass creative consulting and concept development, branding and product design, interior design and architecture, and these have been rewarding, fruitful years defined by growth and expansion. While work and everything that a career entails should be aspirational, I have found that it is most satisfying when it is, as the phrase goes, life. At some point along the way, as the retail world seemed to favor ease and expedience over connections and relationships, those aisles at trade shows got too big and too wide, and began to stray from the core tactile experiences, and the sense of camaraderie and community that defined my love of the job, and the life that it offered.
Community is something that is earned, not given, and it demands and deserves careful tending. Last year, organically and quickly, I pitched an idea to friends to launch our own trade show, Shoppe Object. If work is life, it seems it was time to take further ownership of both, in all ways. With knowledge of product and the experience of the workings of the trade side of the business, I wanted to take this life, this career, this community and this industry to a new level. I feel so grateful to know so many people in the world of makers and beautiful things, and I want the Shoppe Object experience to be as fun, enticing, thrilling, and invigorating for all of us — as I know it can be. What I have always enjoyed most is being in the trenches, whether exhausted at a trade show during set up, or unboxing goods in the quiet late-night hours at a showroom, or seeing a space or project that I have conceptualized on paper begin to take shape in real life. For me, this never gets old. And the heart of it all remains this: the setting and arranging, the noticing, placing, categorizing, and showcasing, the making of beautiful objects for living as very beautiful as they can be. The way these objects come to be, how our efforts are received and transformed in the hands of others, and what transpires once they take ownership is like an endless relay as those objects move through the world.
Shoppe Object is a toast to our community: those seminal, visionary merchants plus the inspiring new ones, who tend to stores that function as beautiful bridges between maker and consumer, the creators and marketers, passionate agents and admirers of great design. And it is, above all, a love letter to the many objects that I have admired intimately or from afar, sold or created, loved or lusted after, with the same awe and enthusiasm I had for those mismatched plates so many years ago.
Jesse James is co-founder, along with Deirdre Maloney and Minya Quirk, of the new independent home and gift show Shoppe Object, and founder and creative director of Aesthetic Movement — a national showroom, design firm, and creative consultancy with locations in New York, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. He lives in Jackson Heights, Queens with his husband and daughter, and their dog.