PART FIVE: The Charrette New York Chronicles Synopsis

Part Five was written by me, Alison D. Gilbert, The New York Graphic Design Examiner. It was published by the Examiner.com on January 22, 2012

The frontage of the Flagship NYC Charrette Store on 33rd Street and Lex
The frontage of the Flagship NYC Charrette Store on 33rd Street and Lex

THE CHARETTE NEW YORK CHRONICLES

The articles previously published here about The Charrette Corporation in NY detailed its history starting with its humble beginnings by architectural graduate student, Lionel Spiro and later, with Blair Brown an under classman. It literally began in a supplies closet at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (HGSD). The inspiration behind its beginnings was one of necessity. At that time, there was no single store in the Boston area where a design student or design professional could acquire all the supplies needed for a project.

CHARRETTE HISTORY

Since it was the nature of design work projects to be done in ‘charrette’ (working until a last minute deadline), time was always of the essence. So the idea occurred to entrepreneurial Lionel, to gather the needed materials in bulk and sell them to the other students. To say that the idea caught on is an understatement.

Neither Lionel nor Blair had ever intended to become anything but architects. Lionel graduated ahead of Blair and got a taste of the life he thought was his calling. But time proved otherwise. So when his friend Blair graduated from HGSD, Lionel asked Blair if he wanted to go into business with him. Again, the idea was a natural since no single store still existed to serve the needs of designers.

Lionel found that he could be of greater service to his beloved field of architecture serving the designers themselves than potential architectural clients. It seemed like a good idea to Blair, as well. Thus Charrette came ‘out of a supply closet’ to become a full-fledged business.

OUT OF A CLOSET AND INTO A STORE

It started small but before long the founders realized how wide spread the need was that they had identified as students. What to call the company was a ‘no-brainer. ‘Charrette’ said it all to any design student or professional who needed a design supply or tool, right away. Their first retail destination was Boston.

After a short time, Lionel decided to take on the NY Design world. This covered graphics, architecture, interiors, fashion, theatre, etc. Any discipline that needed a straight edge, a drafting board, tape, markers, Letraset or any of the top quality supplies that could be found in the Charrette treasure chest.

CHARRETTE COMES TO NEW YORK

Charrette’s New York beginnings were humble architecturally, two consecutive stores in midtown on the East side. Neither was a show place but the clientele were the glitterati of New York. There was a constant stream of Broadway and film stars to add to the crème de la crème of the graphic design, architectural, interiors, fashion and other types of design firms in and out of their doors.

NEW YORK LOVES CHARRETTE

Such a clientele needed the right setting, backdrop, environment to reflect not only who they were but what Charrette represented and what there was to see and purchase. The store needed to be set up more like a Tiffany’s displaying Charrette’s tools like fine jewelry behind glass. Each customer would be greeted, often by name, by a sales person escorting him around and waiting on him or her from start to finish.

THE CHARRETTE NEW YORK CROWNING JEWEL

HGSD classmate and native New Yorker, David Paul Helpern, was chosen for the challenge of creating the NY Charrette Crowning Jewel, the ultimate NY Charrette store. Everything was custom made, the woodwork, the special cabinetry, the floors, the ceilings and the lighting. All were made from the finest materials and to exacting specifications. The store could be used for nothing else. Everything was retrofitted for the superior line of design tools that Charrette fashioned and sold. The entire store was designed like a ‘last’ for custom pairs of designer shoes.

THE CHARRETTE OPENING WAS GRAND

The Invitation to The Charrette 'Crowning Jewel' Store designed by Johanna Bohoy
The Invitation to The Charrette ‘Crowning Jewel’ Store designed by Johanna Bohoy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The store had a catered affair for the Grand opening. Charrette’s NY Crowning Jewel was featured in several magazines. It is possible that the entire Charrette culture became a template for other chic boutique style stores that followed by selling things that would not normally be displayed this way or offer the kind of service that was offered for what others might have designed and considered mundane. But there was never anything mundane about Charrette.

THE FOUNDERS AND THE ARCHITECT

It is with extraordinary gratitude that this author has had the opportunity to interview primary sources for this entire series. My utmost thanks go out to both founders, Lionel Spiro and Blair Brown for their time, patience and even samples of Charrette supplies, materials and catalogs.

Also, a special thank you goes to fellow New Yorker and architect, David Paul Helpern for sharing his memories as the architect of the Charrette NY Crowning Jewel built at the corner of the East 30’s and Lexington Avenue in New York.

THE CHARRETTE STAFF

There are also countless staff members who worked in the retail stores, at the headquarters in Massachusetts and in the field on the commercial side in numerous states. Art directors, who created the immaculate design materials and displays that always arrived at each store with very specific instructions on how they were to be assembled, shared their stories. Interviews have also been held with former customers whose memories and memorabilia, were lent, sent and photographed for this series.

THE FIRST CHARRETTE STORY LINK

Although I have not mentioned any of the staff by name for fear of leaving someone out accidently, each knows who he or she is, as my thanks continue to go out to each member for the joyful experience of sharing stories. But I must mention one person who, before this series could begin, was found on a Google search for Charrette. He is Stephen Dill, a former employee. I found him on LinkedIn. Charrette was on his resume as a job link. Thanks to him, every person in this story, including the founders, was able to be located. Thank you, Stephen.

THE LINKEDIN CHARRETTE ALUMNI GROUP

A LinkedIn group was set up by and for Charrette Alumni. It is open only to this group of former employees. My thanks also go out to Jack Skidmore and Mark Levitan, its founders, for allowing me to become an honorary member and for their fond memories as well.

AFTERWORD

It has been an honor and an experience of a lifetime to spend a period of many months compiling all the materials and interviews that have gone into these articles. May they in some small way pay tribute to an outstanding NY (graphic and other types of design) institution and be part of the legacy that Charrette contributes to the NY design scene.

LINKS TO THE CHARRETTE CORPORATION CHRONICLES: PART ONE THROUGH FIVE

PART ONE: Invitation to a graphic memoir, the Charrette Corporation
PART TWO: The baby was born in a Harvard closet
PART THREE: Charrette meets ‘Big Apple’ graphic standards
PART FOUR: The Charrette New York creative culture
PART FIVE: The Charrette Chronicles Synopsis
The Charrette Alumni Group on Linked

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A Charrette Corporation Fond Farewell

The famous Charrette red van
The Charrette delivery van @ The Charrette Corporation
How It Began
What began as a single article, written by me as the NY Graphic Design Examiner, evolved into a series of articles, seven in total, that spanned a year’s time to complete. Although the time to compile all the materials, including researching, interviewing primary sources and so on did not take a full year, a new assignment as an author for The Digital Brand Marketing Blog took me away from the project for sometime during that year. In fact, this multi-author blog has made it to the semi-finals of the Social Media Examiner’s Top Ten Blogs 2012 competition.

But it was overdue to be completed, as hard as it was to write a Charrette Corporation fond farewell. It was like a long ‘good bye’ that no one wants to make when dear friends must part. But it had to be done. Essentially, I knew what the final article would be about, the store designed by architect, David Paul Helpern, a fellow student of Charrette Corporation founders, Lionel Spiro and Blair Brown, who all attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The store, located on Manhattan’s East side on Lexington Avenue in the East 30’s, was the Crowning Jewel of the Charrette NY retail side.

Although the commercial accounts handled by a sales force that covered much of the East Coast and into the Midwest were much larger than the retail side sales, the retail side was the face of the corporation. This gave Charrette the opportunity to show the world the ‘stuff it was made of’. As the tip of the iceberg, it glistened in the sun and shone like a well-polished gem. The flagship store was the ultimate representation of the Charrette brand.

It was a company whose name was synonymous with quality. The tools and supplies manufactured for and sold by Charrette had to be of the highest quality. The pedigree that resulted from employment at the company practically guaranteed future employment anywhere when the time came for someone to move on.

The Charrette corporate culture, philosophy and brand development was such that it is possible that other retail corporations fashioned their stores after Charrette. They were clean looking with simple straight lines, well designed, displaying everyday items as if they were high end designer merchandise.

 

The Announcement for the Charrette NY Crowning Jewel
The Announcement for the Charrette NY Crowning Jewel © Illustration: Johanna Bohoy for Charrette Corp.
What Happened
One article led to another as one primary resource introduced me to the next. Both founders eventually became available and many memorable hours were spent on the phone reminiscing about their beloved company. Supplies, catalogs, photos and other memorabilia were supplied to accompany the memories. One by one, staff, customers and HGSD alumni were located and interviewed.

The generosity of everyone was as real as the quality of the Charrette inventory. The Charrette culture had affected everyone who came in touch with it. The writing of this story took on a life of its own, a life that also had to be written in a way that gave credence to this corporate culture and all its glorious history.

So I wrote and wrote and wrote. When would it end? How would it end? Numerous months’ hiatus from the writing became awkward and the pressure to finish overcame the same lingering feeling of not wanting to say good-bye. But at the same time, it was clear that the final tribute had to be made and how to do it.

That is where The Charrette NY Crowning Jewel came into the picture. It was a store that was written up in two nationally respected professional magazines, Interiors (February 1982) and Visual Merchandising (June 1982), had a grand, grand opening and one that was built to design specifications. It was glorious. Everything about it and in it was a designer’s dream. In addition, the place, their products, and award winning packaging designs were featured in two nationally renowned design magazines, Communication Arts (March/April 1982) and Print (May/June 1982).

And then, in spite of the attempts to keep up with the times of transition from analog to digital design, it was time to let go. No more founders, some staff stayed, some staff went. The era that was the original Charrette was gone. The company was bought by a succession of other companies. It even became known by different names. But the culture and the philosophy could not be packaged, bought and sold.

 

the Charrette trailer with the unforgettable Charrette brand
Gone but Never Forgotten, A Charrette Trailer @ 2011 Christine Miller, former Charrette employee
How It Ended
So it was time to say good-bye, for all of us, the founders, the staff, the customers and even this author of a series of articles that became the Charrette NY Chronicle that took a year to write. It is all over. But much will live on in the minds and memories of those whose lives were touched by the experience of their involvement.

There is a Charrette Alumni Group on Linkedin. I am the only civilian to have the honor of belonging. There is also an Internet photo archive on flickr. Finally and in some small way, it is my sincere hope that the Charrette Chronicle will be part of this legacy. It is dedicated to all the wonderful people who let me into their lives and shared their stories so that I could write a series in honor of them and their Charrette experience. Thank you all. I wish you a fond farewell. You shall never be forgotten, Charrette Corporation.

Related Article Links
Gone But Never Forgotten: An Invitation to a Graphic Memoir
The Baby Was Born In a Harvard Closet
Charrette Meets ‘Big Apple’ Graphic Standards
The Charrette NY Creative Culture
Paul Rand: the NYC born and educated graphic designer, Part One
Part Two: Paul Rand, the NYC born graphic designer
The Charrette NY Chronicle Completed

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