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ACS 2010: First Place Small Cool, Don Muller

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Quick Facts

DON MULLER GALLERY, Northampton, MA

URL: donmullergallery.com  |  Owner: Don Muller  |  Founded: 1978  |  Opened Featured Location: 1988  |  Architect: Neil Homstead  |  Cases: Neil Homstead  |  Area: 1,900 square feet  |  Employees: 2  |  Top Brands: Alex Sepkus, Todd Reed, Stephen Webster, Sholdt Design, Dale Moore, Ananda Khalsa, Peter Muller, Josh Simpson, Joe Peters, A Little Company


It’s surprisingly easy to miss that little fact about the Don Muller Gallery, at least at first glance. “When you walk by the store, you don’t get the impression that we have all this amazing jewelry,” says owner Don Muller.

Rather, from the outside, the store looks like it trades mainly in glassware, ceramics, sculpture and other artwork. And it does — the gallery carries work by hundreds of artists in a variety of media. But Muller estimates that 80 percent of its business comes from jewelry sales.

Some of that jewelry is traditional in style, while other pieces appeal to buyers with a more unconventional aesthetic. All of it, though, meshes neatly with the gallery’s very individual sensibility, which itself fits in perfectly in Northampton, a Massachusetts town of about 30,000 that spills over with colorful culture, thanks to its progressive population and proximity to the East Coast’s Five Colleges.

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Art in the Genes

Muller himself didn’t attend college. (“I don’t think I missed it,” he says. “I had a store while all my friends were going to school.”) He started the business in Northampton in 1978, after his success running and then taking over his older brother Dick’s custom leatherwork shop in Amherst, about 10 miles away. He’d expanded the Leather Shed’s inventory to include goods handmade from other materials, and his tours of regional and national craft shows had put him in contact with numerous jewelry makers.

“The reason I started getting into other things was, when you sold someone a belt, it was going to last 20 years — there was no repeat business,” he says. Gradually, he started selling inexpensive but stylish craft jewelry, like brass and sterling silver pieces. “And that seemed to work.”

Though he wasn’t too much of a traditional craftsman himself, Muller was pretty well cut out for the art of selling other folks’ work. From age 14 to 17, he’d worked in a clothing store, and begun helping as a buyer at 16, an aspect of the business he loved.

And creative work was in his blood. His father, a general manager for a department store chain, was a talented amateur painter. Besides Dick (“one of the best leatherworkers in the country,” Muller says), several of his five other siblings are painters or sculptors; his brother Doug’s bronze wire sculptures are sold at the gallery, as are glassworks by his son Peter, who also works there.

“I think he was kind of born to be a retailer,” says Muller sales associate Pat Hayes.

Organic Diversity

Hayes has worked for Muller for about 10 years, but she’s been in the store — that is, in the form of her work — for almost 20. Muller met her at a craft fair and wanted to carry her line of hand-dyed silk scarves. Nearly all of the employees, in fact, are artists of some kind; gallery director Maya MacLachlan holds a master’s in art history.

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The space itself reflects its people’s imaginative but constructive attitude. Upon entering, you’re met with oak shelves lined with glassware and ceramics. The shelves all curve — most everything in the store curves. “That was intentional,” Muller says. “I think it’s much more comfortable to walk around a store where everything isn’t cubed.”

Oak pedestals are set around the showroom floor, topped with clear domes, which makes them look like mushrooms. In the rear of the store are shelves cut out to resemble fluffy cumulus clouds, and if you look up, you’ll see more clouds, painted on the sky-blue recessed arch running down the center of the ceiling.

The art for sale dominates the front, sides and back of the shop. Most immediately noticeable are the planets by Massachusetts glassworker Josh Simpson — intricate globes of blue, green and other colors encased in transparent spheres, ranging in size from an inch or so to nearly a foot in diameter.

Then other pieces start to jump out: creepily beautiful aquatic creatures by Joe Peters, who also collaborates with Peter Muller on glass pieces. Vases and dishes, some functional and a few more decorative, all striking. Candlesticks and figurines. There’s almost too much to absorb, but the presentation feels vital and vibrant instead of overwhelming.

Ensconced in the middle of the store, for the most part, is the jewelry. The only watches the gallery sells are funky dull-metal timepieces by Watchcraft, with an almost retro-futuristic vibe — they retail for around $300. Other showcases hold product from trusted but bold names like Alex Sepkus, Stephen Webster and Anne Sportun, and lots of lines from up-and-coming designers, such as Megan Thorne and Sethi Couture.

“I don’t think you’ll see anything here that doesn’t belong here,” Muller says. “My look is consistent — eclectically consistent.”
Even among individual categories it can be awfully eclectic. The gallery does a good chunk of business in alternative metal jewelry, moving a lot of titanium pieces, as well as Damascus steel, meteorite and Japanese mixed-metal laminate mokume gane.

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The Selling of Art

Of course, working with such a variety of merchandise presents challenges. Displays are dotted with printed notecards sharing biographical information on artists and designers. Whenever the gallery takes on a new line, a worksheet gets passed around to all staff members highlighting what they need to know about it.

The store’s website also supplies a wealth of knowledge, while remaining unique, simple and direct.

“It takes a while to learn everything. I’ve been here five years, and I still feel like I’m learning,” says sales associate Alison Johnson.
“It’s pretty involved,” MacLachlan says, but it’s worth it. “I just really like this atmosphere, being able to talk to artists who are making things in the present, and helping customers.”

It is worth it, Muller agrees. “It takes awhile for somebody to become comfortable,” he says. “But then, we’re not just selling stuff — we’re selling a lot of things I consider to be the antiques of the future.”

Five Cool Things About This Store

More Than Jewelry

1 Though the Don Muller Gallery earns most of its money through jewelry sales, the art and crafts that constitute 20 percent of its business dominate the store’s atmosphere. “I think it sets me apart,” Muller says. “There are so many jewelry stores. You need a niche.”

An Instinct for Quality

2 Muller often carries rising-star designers like Megan Thorne for several years before the industry notices them. “I go to a lot of shows,” he says. “I find it’s an amazing education; I don’t know how store owners can not go to shows, even in a bad economy.” New artists with potential stand out, he says, even if it’s the first show they ever do.

Creative Service

3 Most of the gallery’s employees are artists in some medium, from jewelry to ceramics to glass. That’s helpful when it comes to making sales: “When you get a price objection, one of us can say, ‘Let me tell you exactly how it was made,’” says Pat Hayes.

A Commitment to Handcrafting

4 All of the store’s woodwork — the showcases, counters, shelves and desk — were designed and hand built by Muller and his friend Neil Homstead in the 1970s. And there’s nary  a computer-printed tag to be found on any of the merchandise. “I don’t like putting a computerized tag on a handmade piece of jewelry,” Muller says. “And what’s nice about our handwritten tags is they kind of disappear into the background.” Finally, Jacqueline DeBoer, who does most of the store’s custom work, does all of her sketches freehand — no CAD.

Destination Store

5 “It surprises me that some of the brands I carry aren’t offered in Boston or even New York,” Muller says. He’s had customers drive down from Canada when they discovered that he carried a certain line. And, says longtime customer Sue Panitch, the gallery is a prime destination for out-of-towners visiting the area’s colleges: “Visiting dignitaries just absolutely love it. This is a remarkable place to have as a local resource.”

Exterior

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Interior

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Marketing

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       True Tale

“People love to touch things, and especially with all the glass art, things do break. The kids really aren’t that bad; it’s the parents. We once had an elderly man who didn’t realize that an expensive piece that was high on a shelf had several parts — he started to grab it, and you don’t want to shout, but he was so close to dropping the whole thing.” — ALISON JOHNSON

       True Tale 2

“Northampton has one of the largest lesbian populations in the country, so it was pretty wild when Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. I had couples come in who’d been living together for 40 years and they could finally get married. It was awesome.” — DON MULLER

       HearSay

When people see the sky-painted ceiling, they say, ‘It’s like Caesars Palace in Vegas!’ That’s not what inspired me, but no one says it looks like the Sistine Chapel. I just tell them I went outside and looked up.

— DON MULLER

‘How do you not spend your whole paycheck here?

— A CUSTOMER speaking with  Rachel Feuer-Beck, sales associate

       Try this

Cue Your Customers To Take Notes

“We have lines on the backs of our business cards, because there are so many artists’ and designers’ names to remember here, and people are always asking us to write stuff down.” — RACHEL FEUER-BECK, SALES ASSOCIATE

What the Judges Said

Sarah Graham: Creativity rules at Don Muller Gallery — visiting his store is like stepping into another world. His unique gallery design transports the customer into a dreamy environment conducive to exploring jewelry fantasies.

Kate Peterson: Amazing use of shape and texture in the fixtures and overall design. Gotta love the ceiling — and the focus on new and emerging artists keeps “cool” ever-changing and fresh. I think this was one of my favorites from the outside looking in. It felt a little like Alice peeking into the Looking Glass!

Wolfgang Möckel: I love Don Muller’s  passion for the artists he represents and their work. It shows in every aspect of his gallery and his great website.

Ken Nisch: The shop does an interesting job of combining handmade artifacts and jewelry, where artifacts become jewelry and jewelry becomes wearable art — in an environment that is an attraction in its own right. The shop avoids the “don’t touch” or hush character of many craft galleries and creates a sunny day in an environment of long New England winters.

George Whalin: With unique merchandise in an extraordinarily designed store and a staff that is dedicated to artistic endeavors, one can readily see why this business has enjoyed long-term success.

Patti David: Nothing is cooler than feeling like you’re stepping into a mini fantastical journey. From the beautiful blue-sky ceiling to the unique merchandising, everything about this store is fun.

This story is from the August 2010 edition of INSTORE

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