Matthew Bird — ‘Counter Attack: Why I Got Out Of Retail’

Curatorium . . . sanatorium . . . let’s call the whole thing off. To anyone who has ever been a store customer: Never forget that the person behind the counter of your favorite shop is at work, and he is trapped. And while he may be thrilled to see you walking through the door, bear in mind that the typical day often involves a parade of needy, bored, time-wasters who just want to talk and hang out. I know this from personal experience as does RISD industrial design instructor, Matthew Bird. Unlike me, Bird had a way of channeling his frustrations. Back in 2006 he opened the much-beloved Wickenden Street shop, Curatorium, spending eight years behind a counter of his own making.

But he was keeping busy back there and the result is “Counter Attack: Why I Got Out of Retail” on display now through March 25 as part of the RISD Faculty Exhibition. (Scroll down to end for examples of these fantastic portraits.)

Matthew Bird has also gained fame around town for his entertaining lectures: One I attended several years ago at the Athenaeum was inspired by the issuance of the USPS stamps, ‘The Pioneers of Industrial Design.’ Another, ‘The Skyscraper and the Airship,’ was hosted by the Providence Preservation Society. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, if he is giving a talk, just go. He is witty and droll and he knows his beans.

And Mr. Bird does have comprehensive retail experience: He helped found the museum shop RISD WORKS (also designing the famous tote and umbrella for the RISD Store), followed by eight years at his own shop, the Curatorium. He currently teaches ‘The History of Industrial Design’ at RISD. Mr. Bird agreed to an interview and we met at the museum to discuss his work. The following has been edited for clarity and length — we really got to gabbing.


BC: Your work in the RISD Faculty show is called “Counter Attack: Why I Got Out of Retail.” How did this come about?

MB: I ran RISD Works when it was downtown in 2001, and the second year we were open we had a problem with theft. Someone was stealing a picture frame every Saturday. It was so specific and so weird and I alerted the whole staff — we’ve got to be vigilant, we’ve gotta find this person. And one by one employees who were on on Saturdays said, I think I know who it was. I think it was this person. And they would describe the person, and I said “Well, just draw it.”

So in the back room we ended up having a row of seven drawings of who we thought it was and they were all the same person.  Drawn differently — drawn indifferently, badly, well, or whatever — but the details of the clothing and the outfit and the behavior. So we ended up catching him. And that sort of opened the door to drawing people who were worth knowing about. So I’d come back from a meeting and there would be a note saying, look what you missed, and there would be a drawing on the wall of a crazy encounter with someone. And it just sort of stuck as a way to defuse some of the frustrations of dealing with the public.

And then when I opened the Curatorium I found that the part of it I was really not good at was the resiliency you need to just let people yell at you. People take out their problems . . . any frustrations people have at home end up coming out in public. Sometimes it’s a barista . . . you just get ugly with people who can’t stop you. I had a lot of people who would come in and just be really terrible, and some of them were people I knew to be good people, they just had different behavior when they were in a retail environment.

Some people are bad shoppers but then I also found some of it wasn’t bad behavior it was just they were peeved. Some people came in every day because it was a fun place. My mother came in every day because it was a fun place. Some people weren’t always aware that I was at work and that I wasn’t there to chat with them all day. So I had to start getting pretty brutal saying, “I have to let you go now because I have things to do.” And then people started judging whether they thought the things I had to do were deemed worthy to them, Well it just looks like you are doing paperwork.

BC: Yes, I’ve been in retail.

MB: You can’t spend the whole day being therapist and confidant. So I started just drawing people in the book who were either horrible or just amusing or entertaining, or colorful people would come in and start acting strangely.

BC: I’m not in there right?!!

MB: Who knows? The reality is, I don’t draw well enough where anyone could be identified. And it was long ago enough that I don’t even know who most of these people are any more. One or two are specific people I know, but most of them were experiences that were worth reporting. So years later they’re really fun . . . but at the time it was torture . . . it was really problematic.

BC: You did this all through the Curatorium days. Did you just have the pad open at the counter?

MB: Nearby. Sometimes I would draw people while looking at them. Some people would be in this manic state of recounting their vacation in Tibet, and I would just get the book out and start drawing them while they were there because it gave me something to do.

BC: This needs to be a book. Have you submitted these drawings to publishers?

MB: I spent the fall going through just three of the eight books.

BC: You’ve already sort of got them in books?

MB: They’re in spiral round books . . . big sketch books. So I have eight of those. Maybe more. I went through the first three and pulled out the ones, “If this were redone one degree more finished, it would be better.” So I redid those with watercolors and found a typeface that communicated the personality. So I made them into more intentional things. And then I also went back through and chose the ones where the drawing was absolutely fine but the handwriting was a mess, and I cleaned that up. And I submitted those, so I have about 120 repainted as watercolors and I probably have another 120 that I cleaned up just as black and white drawings.

BC: Your proposed book would be both.

MB: Yes, full page in color and then a grid of four black-and-white drawings was what I was proposing. So there are still four or five more books to go through. But this was enough to at least get the proposal off, and if I can find someone who is interested in publishing them, I’ll go do the rest. I have sent my proposal in to publishers I have liked working with.

BC: I can’t believe there won’t be interest in this.

MB: I honestly don’t even care. It would be nice if it got published because it would justify the effort. But I didn’t do it for publication, I did it because I had to. And I spent the fall sort of working on the proposal as a professional activity but also as a person looking at how does watercolor work. What’s a good work flow for getting type on a page because I have terrible handwriting. So as an artistic investigation it was really satisfying . . . I just enjoyed doing it. It gave me a certain focus.

BC: Well I want it published because I already know who I need to give it to. And all it’s going to take is for one person, in one publishing house, who has worked in retail, to look at these and say oh my god.

MB: I also wrote a brief that goes with the proposal that points out that 80% of all people have worked at some point in customer service or retail. One of the problems that I had is that the editors feel that you must be currently working in retail to think that this book is interesting. They don’t see the larger psychology that exists in the book. Even if you haven’t worked in retail, human psychology is on view in this thing.

BC: That’s true.

MB: Fortunately this is one of several projects I’m working. I don’t have so much invested in it that it’s a make-or-break situation for me, but it would be fun. I love putting them in the RISD Faculty show because I sort of think we take art very seriously here at RISD. There’s not a lot of art as froth, as amusement. And I think it’s really a valid function that art has to be able to do, not to cordon art off as something that’s separate from humor . . . like that’s cartooning, that’s different . . . it’s all the same activity. It’s a way of finding manual skills to communicate ideas and information.

BC: You had expressed some concern that your contribution to the show did not reflect your particular area of industrial design . . .

MB: . . . more related to my practice. I decided that frankly, I regularly point out to my students, that having a store used every single skill I have in a more aggressive way than any other design exercise I’ve done. So the practice of industrial design uses a certain number of processes, and skills, and thinking . . . all of that you need even to just unpack a box and put it on the shelf in a store. I think retail is an incredibly valid exercise as a design practice. So if the end result of that is these funny drawings, it is coming out of my professional practice that has a foundation in industrial design. The path there is just one that would be invisible to a lot of people. They expect that if you are in industrial design you make a chair or bicycle, and I made a store, and this is the record of the store. So in many ways, if I showed you a process drawing of how I arrived at designing a bicycle, this is the process drawing of how I arrived at surviving a store.

BC: I think it’s totally valid. I think most people going to this show assume you are all multi-talented.

MB: In past years I put things in the show that made more sense as industrial design but less sense as something in a show. This is stuff in a frame, so it kind of matches the format.

*At this time we left the coffee shop and went to check out his work in the show.*

BC: What did you use to paint this?

MB: I’m using one of those little watercolor sets you buy in the art store that has eight or ten little cakes of watercolor. And that is why they are all the same . . . it’s why I’m trying to figure out how to do skin tone . . .  some of them have blue faces and some have green faces. And how do you do lights and darks on skin. I’ve made mini-exercises in learning how to use watercolor, how to draw a face, all of that. I’m just sort of learning on-the-go. . . And also, some I think demand one degree more accuracy or realism, some are better more abstract. Some I’ve made more universal. It’s not really about the quality of the art, it’s more the immediacy of the experience.

BC: You’re pointing out the skin tones, and none of that registered with me as being odd at all. It’s funny now that you say some are green and some are blue, but that seemed perfectly normal.

MB: Someone said at the opening You have such a great sense of wit. I said “I didn’t produce it. I just recorded it. I did not author any of this.”

BC: There’s wit in the drawings.

MB: There’s wit in the survival strategy, but at any rate this is more about recording, with whatever tools I have, this experience.

BC: It was a genius idea.

MB: It was necessity. If I don’t find a way to get this out — this energy, this anger — I will implode.

BC: Can you ever imagine going into retail again?

MB: Nope. Nope. And anyone who asks Why did you close your store? I actually made a little book “The 72 Reasons I Closed My Store” so that I could just say “Why did I close my store? Choose a number.” And I would read them that number. I never had to because I didn’t go out in public for a while. But anyone who says Why did you close your store? I say, “Well have you ever worked retail?” And anyone who’s incredulous that I just decided to close my store has never worked retail. Anyone who has worked retail, says Oh, you closed your store, yeah, I understand. Everyone assumes that it was a failure, when in fact, I just realized I couldn’t do it. I think if you are going to work in retail long-term, I think you have to really be desperate to find out what that next person coming through the door has to say. Where did you go on vacation? Tell me about your grandchild. I don’t want those conversations.

BC: My experience in a record store may have been a little different. The crowd was more self-selecting. I did want to talk about music. And your location had more random foot traffic.

MB: I didn’t have the resilience you need and the enthusiasm, but I faked it really well, but I faked it for 15 years and at that point I realized I had used up my artifice.

One of the things I talk to my students about in design, you can’t understand the impact you’ll have by sending stuff out into the world. Sometimes it’s terrible, but sometimes you make something that inspires someone, that’s important to them, and gets them through a tough time. You don’t do that intentionally, people put that on the stuff later. So that’s terrifying and empowering all at once, and I feel the same way about my activities in retail. So I helped run the Foundry Sale for years, and I helped run the RISD Sale for years, and I opened RISD WORKS and Curatorium, and I threw my creative energy into making ephemeral things that don’t exist any more, that made the experience of being in Providence different. And I feel like that is one aspect of professional activity that sort of goes unnoticed in the world.

BC: All I can say is that when the Curatorium closed, people took that hard.

MB: Did you see the windows the weekend that I closed? I had to paper the windows while I finished moving out, so I printed out hundreds of black-and-white ones, and they were only up for about three days because as soon as I was gone the landlord took them all down. It felt good and there were crowds around the store at all times reading the signs.

BC: You have chosen different fonts and typography? Were you just having fun with that?

MB: I have very bad handwriting so I realized that I would not, without an extraordinary course of study and practice, just be able to do this, so I actually typeset them and used a light table to trace it. Which sounds ridiculous but it was really a lot of fun.

BC: A light table?

MB: It was fun exploring what typefaces will survive that level of that sort of brutal treatment. . . . How I don’t want to do any that are extravagantly difficult to transfer, but I didn’t want them all to be the same. I try to choose one that helps communicate the sentiment.

BC: Is “Counter Attack: Why I Got Out of Retail” the working title of the book, or did you just come up with that for the show?

MB: “Counter Attack” is, I think, a good title. I’m happy with that one.






1 thought on “Matthew Bird — ‘Counter Attack: Why I Got Out Of Retail’”

  1. John McGrath

    Perhaps every commercial street and mall should be obliged to provide free space for a “Miscellany Shop” whose real purpose is to let people come in and talk. Then there’s the 11 year old who sets up in a NYC subway stop charging $2 for advice. People rave about his kindness and wisdom.

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