Founded by partners Shu Hung and Joseph Magliaro in 2012, Portland-based Table of Contents is an airy retail space that reflects the couple’s multivalent interests. Offering clothing, books, and items for the home alongside a growing collection of TOC Studio products (designed by Magliaro and often manufactured locally), the pair curate the shop as they would a magazine, choosing semi-annual themes that guide editorial projects, collaborations, and buying. Issue 4 of Gratuitous Type features a conversation with Magliaro, excerpted here:
How was Table of Contents conceived?
Magliaro: We took a trip to Berlin in early 2004 that really got us thinking about what it means to operate a ‘retail’ space. At the time, Berlin was filled with small design studios that set up shop in street-level retail spaces. Many would display work or a small selection of objects near the front, and operate a studio at the back. Lots of mixed-use. It seemed like such a simple proposition, but one that felt unattainable given the economics of real estate in New York. We spent about a year looking for a retail space we could afford around Chinatown, but came up empty. Sometime around the fall of 2005, we were presented with an opportunity to live and work in Beijing, so we packed our bags and thought about how we might be able to realize our idea from China.
The cost of renting space in Beijing was far more favorable than in New York, but we found out that the challenge of setting up a foreign-owned business and importing goods was more than we were ready to take on. So Shu worked as a creative director at Ogilvy for a few years and I worked as a freelance designer and writer, and got interested in exploring various processes for producing three-dimensional forms. The breadth and density of manufacturing facilities in China is kind of mind-bending. I ended up developing a number of small-edition sculptural objects cast in resin, porcelain, and concrete.
We left Beijing for Berlin in early 2008 and spent about a year there before a work opportunity brought us to Portland. The time in Berlin really renewed our desire to operate a space and to kind of generate a public dialog, so when we got to Portland, we quickly began planning to get our retail project off the ground. While in Berlin, we’d done some public art interventions under the name “Table of Contents,” so we decided to continue with that identity. We like the double meaning and that it conjures up ideas about publication.
It took a bit of time, but in Portland we finally found a place with the right balance of lower-cost rent and minimal bureaucracy that allowed us to experiment with our notion of a retail environment.
You approach each season in your shop as you would an issue of a magazine. Can you tell me more about this?
Prior to each season, we select a theme that we use to organize our projects and buying strategy for the next six months. We think it’s important to have guidelines in order to make sure our selections for the shop feel cohesive. It’s very similar to the way we would approach editing a magazine or book. We commission “editorials” or exclusive collaborations based on each theme, and we try to incorporate books and objects that somehow elaborate on the theme.
Why is the notion of publishing so enticing to you?
The shop is really founded on the notion of publication–on the idea of producing and presenting something to a public. We’re looking to engage with an audience, both here in Portland and beyond. Print is a particularly powerful form of publication for a number of reasons, some of which probably go back a couple thousands years to the production of holy texts. Now the means of production have reached a much wider audience, but the idea of producing and holding a printed object still has a certain power that we’re attracted to.
Tell me about the objects you’ve created for TOC Studio—is there a typical process you follow?
We’re kind of proponents of Achille Castiglioni's method of beginning with a "principal design component," and transforming or building upon it to develop something new. The quickest way for us to get from an idea to an actual product is to start with a physical reference or prototype. Drawing something in SketchUp or on a computer doesn't give us a very good sense of scale or context; we need something that can be touched, used, and viewed in space. So we keep a lot of collections—material samples, vessels, paperweights, tools, plants, etc.—that we’re often arranging and rearranging, which occasionally leads to a novel application of one of these base forms.
But in terms of TOC's 'issues', instead of a physical object you're creating something that's quite ephemeral—people can actually walk away with parts of it. Do you like the transitory nature of this sort of publishing?
The shop is less a fixed record of activities and ideas, and more of an evolving platform for exchange. But while it’s true that it’s always changing, there does seem to be a tactile experience of the retail environment that we think is similar to spending time with printed media. The intimacy of holding an object—experiencing its weight, texture, smell, vibrancy—is integral to both formats.
I also think it has something to do with duration. When you read an article about a designer, or purchase a book about an artist, you spend time with that person’s ideas and work and begin to develop a sense of connection to those ideas, sounds, images, etc. You slow down a bit, return to that article, reread a passage. Perhaps the same can be said of digital media, but it doesn’t grab us the same way. We see the internet as a stream of millions of stimuli each bombarding us for a second of our attention, then fading away just as quickly. We may take note of things we encounter, cataloging items for reference, but we rarely feel pleasure sitting in front of our screens. The posture is all wrong.
You also offer a number of vintage publications at TOC, so I’d imagine you have a pretty interesting book collection yourselves. Are there perennial favorites you find yourselves revisiting often? Anything you’d never consider parting with?
We love books! And there are definitely some that we spend more time with than others. Over the past few years we’ve found the catalog Twenty Seven Installationsopen on our work table quite a bit. It’s an archive of the work commissioned and exhibited by the Portland Center for the Visual Arts between 1973 and 1984. PCVA was an incredibly influential gallery in Portland that in some ways has yet to be equaled in this town. During its run, PCVA brought incredible artist to the northwest—Carl Andre, Daniel Buren, Alice Aycock, Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt Chris Burden, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman—really an incredible list of artists who agreed to produce work for a very small, independent gallery with little funding in a town that was far from the cultural map. Pretty inspirational.
Top Image: TOC Studio Cut Cube Bookend, sand cast in bronze, retains the natural texture of the process at its corner, while the rest of its surfaces are hand polished to a mirror finish; TOC Studio Bacterio Bookends.