Treasure Hunting at the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum Shop
by julia ford-carther
An offshoot of the eclectic Wolfsonian-FIU, the museum’s shop offers a welcome respite in a fast city, with no shortage of design treasures.
The origins of the museum shop’s signature wrought-iron entryway remain a mystery, but the doors are believed to be from a World’s Fair.
Towering amid Washington Avenue’s neon lights and late-night joints sits The Wolfsonian-FIU, an important facet of Miami’s cultural makeup. And yet, for all its significance, the museum’s unassuming façade encourages passers-by to, well, pass by, as gilded wrought-iron doors convey stoic inaccessibility.
But beyond those double doors is the museum shop, a welcome antithesis to Miami’s nouveau-riche electricity, an alcove seemingly saved for in-the-know locals. “It’s pretty dark in here,” confirms shop manager Paola La Rivera. “When you walk by, we don’t necessarily look open.”
Inside, the shop, which has existed in some form since the early days of The Wolfsonian in the ’90s, now houses a café and a well-edited selection of books, clever design and décor items, accessories, and unique and comical tchotchkes evocative of the museum’s collection. “We try to relate it to the museum and the story they’re trying to tell,” La Rivera explains. That story encompasses over 120,000 artifacts from 1885 to 1945.
The shop’s collection of design books covers historical eras and ties into the museum’s exhibits.
Miami does not suffer from a shortage of décor boutiques selling custom-selected items, a competition challenge that La Rivera recognizes. “Three or four years after I began working here [in 2005], mainstream stores started getting the same thing our museum shops were getting. Miami is becoming a mecca of design and artists; every little boutique has it everywhere. [Making] people feel at home is the only way to keep them coming back.”
Loyal South Beach denizens return for staples from Philippe Starck and Alessi, propaganda merchandise that echoes the museum’s collection, Craig leather wallets by Delfonics, and the museum’s newest catalogue, “The Birth of Rome.” Sourcing locally creates an advantage, too, and La Rivera stocks items like pieces from the Mr Somebody & Mr Nobody collection by Sharon Lombard Miller, a Miami-based artist who is also one of the museum’s board members.
Shop manager Paola La Rivera, seated on an original 19th-century modular shelving unit, selects the store’s merchandise with input from museum directors and curators.
With rich anecdotes infused into every aspect of the store, the allure is in its familiar small-town comfort: Dark walls meet a black-tile floor by Michele Oka Doner, a Miami Beach-born artist who grew up with museum founder Micky Wolfson; Wolfsonian-published tomes, like Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity edited by Marianne Lamonaca, fill the north end, lining an original 19th-century modular shelving unit rescued from New York’s ASPCA building; and luxury tile manufacturer Bisazza donated a mosaic replica of the shop’s vintage “Rex & Conti de Savoia” poster, canvassed across the south wall. The remainder of the tiled image spans several of the store’s tabletops, encouraging coffee drinkers to determine where their seat fits within the larger portrait puzzle.
Despite a long-standing history, the store wants to share its sense of belonging with a larger local base. In an effort to increase foot traffic, the museum recently gave the place a face-lift: a new glass door that leads directly from the street into the shop (before, visitors had to pass through the museum lobby). “We thought it would help make it not be such a secret,” explains La Rivera. “We would notice people walking by, not knowing how to get in.”
For La Rivera, each customer encounter can feel like one of life’s small victories. “The people that do come in here are so amazed,” she says. “I always get those comments, ‘Oh, this place is so different than anything on the Beach. I feel like I’m in New York.’ It’s a very rewarding feeling for me.” 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, 305-535-2680
photography by mary beth koeth