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 CHARRETTE 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 underclassman. 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.
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 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.
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