Murray Moss makes an unlikely Miss Manners. A man more simpatico with Gaetano Pesce resin chairs than place cards, Moss, the owner of the famous SoHo design emporium bearing his name, says, "I had no idea how much a wedding cake cost until Nicole showed me one day."
He is speaking of Nicole Breedlove, the registry specialist at Moss, who realized soon after she was hired by Moss in 2003 that he was not capitalizing on a major social (and gift-giving) phenomenon. "I didn't understand what an occasion it was because I didn't have a personal connection to it," says Moss, who has been with his partner in life and business, Franklin Getchell, for 34 years. "Nicole said, 'Wise up. It is one of the last rituals."'
And for many New York designer (and design-worshipping) couples, registering at Moss has become part of that ritual. It is a rite of passage for those who wish to stock their kitchens with all the high-tech toys, who covet Danish classics or who naturally cringe at the frilly, bride-oriented, thread-count-pushing traditional wedding registry. After his marital epiphany, Moss decided to put his stamp on the weddings of Mossophiles — partnering with Vino, a New York wine shop, to create a wine registry; adding oddball attendant gifts to his design registry; and leading registry-orientation sessions.
While most people are signing up for Vera Wang Wedgwood china at Michael C. Fina and Le Creuset at Williams-Sonoma, Moss aesthetes are checking off pink plastic Air Chairs and Until Dawn curtains by Tord Boontje on their wish lists. "Two of our architect friends had registered there," says Katherine Kim, the founder of Unit Design, an architecture and graphic design company. Her husband, Matthew Bannister, creative director of dbox, an advertising firm, adds, "And we would all enjoy spending an afternoon browsing in there."
Henry Urbach, a gallery owner, didn't even consider other stores when he married Stephen Hartman, his partner of 20 years, in November 2003. "Moss is a kind of watering hole for people interested in design," Urbach says. (At Moss, couples are listed as first partner and second partner; 20 percent of the registrants are same-sex couples.)
The Moss registry experience begins with an orientation by Breedlove. (Yes, that's her real married name; it's Native American.) She will open the pristine glass cases, take out place settings and flatware and explain the most crucial fact: the registry works on credit — ideal for those who'd rather own one Hella Jongerius vase than 20 Rosenthal soup plates. Couples get an e-mail of all purchases, with notes from the purchasers, but nothing gets shipped until they say that they want it, an untold blessing for those without doormen. That also means that they have no obligation to take what they get. Breedlove offers a variety of tricks to get around the guilty feeling some have about trading china for a pair of Danish Handmadebikes by Rasmus Gjesing. You can register for 20 wineglasses and take only 10 home, or ditch the bread-and-butter plates.
Some couples have decided to abandon the tabletop, pooling their credit to buy the LegnoLetto bed or the Spoon bathtub. One artist-architect couple did this for something small but precious: a pair of Ted Muehling's metal candlesticks.
Armin Harris, an associate photo editor at Fortune, and his wife, Allison Penn, a lawyer, have spaced out the credit-spending process. They were married in spring 2004, moved into a new apartment this past spring and are expecting a son this fall. So instead of opting for the extra serving platter, they chose some space-saving Vitsoe bookshelves for their new apartment.
In my case, my architect husband and I haven't spent a Moss dime even though we just celebrated our two-year anniversary. Since we haven't got the space to store the china yet, much less to hold Thanksgiving dinner, I'm using Moss as a virtual storage unit until we buy a place of our own.
For most design snobs, spending other people's money at Moss is a fantasy. What happens, though, when two hyper-aesthetes mate?
"I've seen them argue over whether to have a rim around the plate, or stainless versus sterling," Breedlove says. Bree Jeppson, who works for the Kreisberg Group, the public relations firm that represents the architects Santiago Calatrava and Zaha Hadid, really wanted the Arco lamp. Her husband, the architect Markus Dochantschi, who heads studioMDA, did not. "He refused flat out," Jeppson says. "He thought it was definitely overexposed and not original enough."
Julie Lasky, the editor in chief of I.D. magazine, and her husband, Ernest Beck, a freelance journalist, disagreed about a techie Mono teapot. "We brought friends with us, probably partly as mediators," Lasky says. Beck thought it was too 1980's. Although Lasky thought about sneaking it onto the registry, she eventually acquiesced to her spouse's design demands.
Liesl Geiger's husband, Chris Kincade, won't even talk to her about their registry experience anymore. After one visit to the store, he thought their work was done. But Geiger, who had studied the work of Iittala guru Kaj Franck in Finland, wanted just the right combination of Franck's dishes for their home. So she went to the store — repeatedly — and tried different color combinations with her flatware, pretending to dine. (For a Moss marriage to work, you've got to have the right visuals.)
Since his talk with Breedlove, Moss has developed his own theory of the wedding registry, elucidated on the Moss Web site as "Me, Us and Them." "I like the idea of Meissen" — at $401 for a Ming Dragon coffee cup and saucer — "for breakfast for two people," he writes. He is also trying to get people to experiment a little — a case downstairs in the store features all of Moss's blue-and-white china patterns mixed together. There is also a sample registry (what Moss might do, were he to wed) online from which to shop. Many of the store's most-registered-for items appear there: the solid elm Big Bowl by Sarah Finn, Hannah stainless-steel flatware and Moon china by Jasper Morrison, which was my own wedding choice. I learned later that many of my guests found it too dull to give as a gift, a common complaint by those who aren't thrilled by a perfect white porcelain circle.
Ultimately, your guests are the arbiters of your taste, and they aren't necessarily shy about their judgements. "One guest, who will remain nameless, felt that the modern design aesthetic of Moss was very abhorrent," says Lasky. "She lives in the Boston area in a traditional home filled with dog memorabilia. She ended up giving us a gift certificate to Conran. She was trying to work with us."
This essay was originally published in the New York Times, October 9, 2005.