LOCATION: New Orleans, LA
OWNERS: Thomas Mann
LAST RENOVATED: 2014
EMPLOYEES: 3 full-time; 2 part-time
AREA: 1,000 square feet (retail)
ONLINE PRESENCE: 3,314 Facebook likes; 4.5 Stars on Yelp.
AN ARTIST’S ICONIC JEWELRY FINDS A HOME IN A GALLERY SPACE CUSTOM-MADE TO SHOW IT OFF
STORY BY Eileen McClelland
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 edition of INSTORE.
THE DEMANDS OF BUSINESS and art don’t always co-exist comfortably in one person or place.
But artist Thomas Mann has managed to pull it all together in the Thomas Mann Gallery I/O, where he is able to make, display and sell his jewelry, create sculpture, teach metal-working classes and host art exhibitions.
➜ Create a custom soundtrack. “For our special exhibitions, we sometimes make playlists that are related to the content of the show and play them during the opening reception,” says Angele Seiley. “Once we hosted a show where all of the jewelry was made from money — for example carefully cut paper currency reconstructed into a ring with a set pearl and gold accents by Kathy Buszkiewicz or artfully altered U.S. coins by Jim Cotter where parts of the coin were obscured with concrete or accented with set diamonds before being tuned into rings. It was amazing. Our playlist was all songs with money as the muse.”
Early on, Mann realized that in order for him to pursue his art and live comfortably, he would have to become a savvy businessman as well. So he learned enough about business management and accounting to delegate those necessary tasks confidently to others. Mann, a jewelry artist and sculptor, has been on the cutting edge of art-jewelry design for decades, coming up with a techno-romantic style based on incorporating found objects into his designs. He continues to exhibit on the art-show circuit, even as he’s invested heavily in retail.
Every detail of his gallery is an expression of his design aesthetic, from the jewelry furniture and displays he designed and built himself, to the quirky giftware and the work of other jewelry artists he curates. He first designed his retail space in the mode of a high-end gallery with museum-style displays. But it eventually became more accessible with a huge variety of jewelry on display, hanging from the walls, and in drawers beneath custom cases. Often, displays are created for specific pieces or groups of jewelry. Some look like mini sculptures.
The light-filled space with high ceilings and big windows is casual and airy, lending itself to a laid-back sales philosophy: Visitors are encouraged to browse and try on as many pieces as they’d like, undisturbed. Wood floors and a feature wall add warmth and texture, contrasting with sleek metal and glass shelving and areas of cool concrete flooring. Mann’s own large sculptural hearts offer a mesmerizing focal point, drawing the eye toward the back of the store.
The real estate component of his business at first seemed risky to casual observers, like his friends, who thought he was nuts, he recalls. Mann bought the circa 1870 building that houses his gallery, shop and school in 1988. Part of Historic Magazine Row, the building is in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District, a neighborhood that was decidedly seedy when he bought in. “I would drive home through the St. Thomas housing project and hear and see automatic weapons fired,” he says.
But he knew things would turn around. Before the purchase, he had consulted the city and learned there were plans to dismantle the housing project, and he believed other anticipated changes would likely transform the neighborhood. The investment and the risk paid off. Now the store is in such a high-rent area of New Orleans’ storied shopping street that the value of those buildings should guarantee a comfortable retirement, he says.
The space has been through a variety of incarnations, all of which were designed and orchestrated by Mann, who has a degree in theater staging. “I’ve never had to rely on outside designers to handle those kinds of issues. Not only can I design it from the space down to the fixturing, I can build it. All of the jewelry furniture is stuff we design and make in house.” The circular layout encourages browsing in every corner of the store. Although every inch of retail space is well used and purposeful, it still looks casual and unstudied, as if it all somehow just fell into place.
Mann learned silversmithing in high school and apprenticed with silversmiths in Pennsylvania. “I started making jewelry and quickly discovered the connection between jewelry, money and girls. I’d go to school with a sockful of bangle bracelets and sell out.” In college he sold fraternity and sorority pins.
In the late ’60s, friends invited him to open a silversmith shop in the back of a surf shop in Stone Harbor, NJ. When the jewelry proved more lucrative than the surf operation, the enterprise became all jewelry. By 1972, he had three stores on the Jersey Shore, and he and his brother had branched off into natural foods, as well. In the late ’70s, he sold the businesses and the buildings and went off to just “be an artist.” At that time, he sold jewelry primarily at art fairs, as he developed his signature style.
After trying out a couple of names for his jewelry (including paranormal), Mann christened it techno-romantic and made it official with a trademark. He describes the style as a precursor to steam punk.
“I came up with a peculiar look at the right time and the right place for an audience that was ready to receive it,” Mann says. “I also made the decision not to go the fine jewelry route — no gold, no diamonds. I made work that paralleled with my design-thinking that I didn’t care about the value of the material. I wanted to make it as technically fulfilling as possible at a price that most people could afford. So that meant base metals, silver — only occasionally gold — and found objects.”
By the late ’80s, he says, his work had become widely imitated. So instead of continuing to incorporate true found objects in the jewelry, he made his own objects, which made his work singular.
By the late ’80s, too, his accountant had urged him to invest in real estate, so, landing on New Orleans as his new home, he devised a detailed business plan and took the plunge into retail once more.
From its inception, the gallery has also represented other artists working in the medium of metal. Mann’s jewelry and design studio is located directly above the gallery, which streamlines adjustments, repairs and custom design services. Most important, easy access to the studio provides instant education for customers, who come to realize the labor-intensive craftsmanship and artistry involved in the work. That realization enhances their perception of the jewelry’s value.
During exhibition openings, guests are invited to wander through all of the connected spaces — the gallery, the offices, the jewelry studio and studioFLUX, Mann’s metalsmithing school. The studio kitchen doubles as a bar and the outdoor deck a lounge, making the space even more versatile.
The multi-use spaces encourage customers to linger and allow relationships to develop organically. Mann has also been building relationships online since 1985, when he debuted his first e-commerce-enabled website. “It was pretty much like opening a brick and mortar store,” he says. “You have to do all the same things — build audience, advertise to that audience. One of our goals was to build our mailing list and we’ve been doing that ever since. We have a very substantial audience. Now we’re enjoying a substantial presence online.”
Being ahead of the curve in so many areas paved the way for Mann’s success as an artist, a teacher and a gallery owner.
“I lead a charmed life,” Mann says. “I’m not getting wealthy but I lead a really rich life.”