At Home With
JP Williams, Graphic Designer and Archivist

PHOTOS BY MIKE VORRASI

JP Williams has enjoyed plenty of validating moments in his 20-year career as a graphic designer: Getting to study under one of his design heros, Paul Rand, at Yale; winning more than 100 awards for projects like kraft-paper tea packages for Takashimaya; discovering that his collection of baseball cards from 1909 was worth enough to buy his wife and business partner Allison an engagement ring. All well and good, however none of it really compared, he admits, to the feeling of being validated by Martha Stewart. “My next guest thinks this is a work of art and not just a ball of string,” she marveled as she opened a segment of her show dedicated to Williams’s twine collection in 2008, holding up one of its largest specimens. Finally, someone who really understood him.

You see, Williams is the kind of guy who has dedicated his entire life to surrounding himself with good design. And that can mean anything from pale orbs of industrial string to the hairless Cornish Rex cat that he and Allison bought largely because the shape of the breed’s head — a perfect oval — was so deeply satisfying. When the pair travel, they send their laundry out to be cleaned by the hotel just so they can photograph the packaging it comes back in. “We’re not weird,” Williams insists. “We’re compulsive designers, and we look at everything.” So much so that one of their closets at home is packed with no fewer than 60 archival boxes containing vintage office supplies, letterheads, books, and other ephemera — largely Williams’s doing. To call him a collector is an understatement; what he calls his popular blog, “amass,” is probably more representative. There, he posts long, charmingly personal treatises on his finds from the past 30 years, as well as installments from his ongoing photo series of lost, rumpled gloves lying in the street.

In person, Williams is as open and disarming as his online journal would suggest, calling himself the “consummate amateur” and telling endless stories of how he acquired most of his mementos for next to nothing, often before he knew exactly what he had lucked into. His dream is to one day retire and open a shop; until then, he keeps his own shelves so well-stocked that it’s a good thing he and his wife live in a sprawling Tribeca loft that offers plenty of breathing room. In December, he gave us a tour of the space and all the wondrous things in it.

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Visit the Muench-Williams loft in New York's Tribeca neighborhood, and this is the montage that greets you. It epitomizes Williams's collecting habits — he prefers to acquire objects organically rather than splurging in antique stores. The 1946 Vogue cover by Irving Penn is worth hundreds of dollars, but Williams found it at a flea market for $5, while the Prouvé cabinet it sits on he acquired in 1992 from a shop in Soho as a trade for design services. "I don’t think I've ever been kind of collector that says, 'I want to buy Prouvé,'" he says. "I've never had that mentality. To me value is the emotion you bring to things; it doesn't have to be artificially made because something's in a museum."

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In the living room, the Sheila Metzner photograph to the left was a trade from the same Soho shop, Delorenzo 1950. To the right is a painting by one of Williams's former professors, Richard Merkin, who passed away last year. Williams once tried to base a series of advertisements for the men's clothier Brioni on this image, commissioning three illustrations from Merkin, but "it bombed," he recalls. "The Italians were saying, 'We can’t have anyone smoking! And why is it green smoke?' They didn’t see the concept — they saw it for what it was, as opposed to what it could be. Can’t win ‘em all."

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Williams in his living room, demonstrating the tea packages he and Allison designed for Takashimaya, the department store they worked with for 11 years (Williams is also a former art director for Bergdorf Goodman). Made from kraft paper, they only cost 89 cents each to produce, a feat he's particularly proud of considering how much impact they made in a visual and tactile sense.

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Williams's cat Cloud, whom his 10-year-old daughter Piper was responsible for naming. "People love that cat, man," he says. It sits atop the dining room table, a 13-foot-long number by German brand e15, whose work reappears several times throughout the house. "I really admire their design sense."

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Just off the kitchen is Williams's pièce de résistance — a bookcase that holds the bulk of his visible collection (the rest is stored in the couple's 14-foot-tall walk-in closet). He started acquiring its contents in 1986, while still in grad school at Yale. "All the professors there imbued you with a sense of what had come before," he says. It was around that time that he bought legendary designer Jan Tschichold's book Asymmetric Typography at the New York antiquarian bookstore Alibris, and now he believes he may have the largest personal collection of Tschichold-designed and -authored books outside the Getty. He also has an Irma Boom section and a large section devoted to the Czech avant-garde which, along with Hermès, is responsible for all the orange.

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On amassblog, Williams called the small baseball card to the right "the sole survivor," because after acquiring a sought-after series of 1909 cards well before they were sought-after — he admired the screenprinting, not the sport — he sold all but one to buy Allison her engagement ring. Behind it is a 1931 magazine cover designed by Ladislav Sutnar and featuring Charlie Chaplin, and behind that is a letter from the Walter Gropius studio, signed by Gropius himself. You can read more about the pink tin Paul Rand created for El Producto cigars here.

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"Nothing's special about any of these," Williams says of this sampling from his twine ball collection. "I'm just fascinated by all the different shapes. How did they come up with all of them? And why not just one shape?" It was his good friend Fritz Karch, Martha Stewart's collecting editor, who got him and the twine on the doyenne's show. Williams seems to consider Karch a kind of kindrid spirit, speaking of him often and with an obvious reverence for his encyclopedic knowledge of antiques, something Williams claims he lacks. "He’d be a national treasure if he lived in Japan," Williams notes.

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"If I had Fritz, Fritz would know what these were," Williams says of these two dolls he picked out for his daughter at an Atlanta flea market, where they were buried in a dusty mountain of stuffed animals and such. He's pretty sure they have provenance, but they were simply intended for Piper — though "you buy them things you want them to have and they don’t really care," he says. "They want American Girl dolls."

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In order to get this colorful series of Czech paperbacks from the '50s, Williams traded a dealer for a duplicate of the aforementioned Charlie Chaplin magazine. He has a lot of duplicates, in fact — it used to be that when he saw something he loved for cheap, he couldn't help but buy it, even if he already had it. In the past couple years, though, he's wound down his collecting activities considerably, which he attributes to the feeling of rediscovery he gets from doing the blog. He's thinking of opening an online store called "acquireamass" to sell his duplicates and other items. He's also planning a mini pop-up store inside Kiosk this spring.

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He has three copies of PM Magazine, for instance, its cover by the late Bauhaus designer Herbert Beyer. He has sold things on eBay over the years, like some Paul Rand posters and a 19th-century Brooklyn atlas that he found in the garbage near Union Square. He got $640 for it.

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One of the rocks at right is nearly identical in shape to a chicken egg — farmers sometimes use these to encourage hens to lay eggs in a particular location, as they prefer to do so in nests that already contain them. "That’s the story the old guy told me," he says. "The $5 I paid for it was worth the story." Williams has another set of smooth white rocks he gathered on the beach in Jamaica, 30 of them that range from one inch long to four. "I like paperweights. I look for them in all kinds of natural forms."

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The Dutch typographer Piet Zwart is another one of Williams's design idols, and Zwart's business card has been his prized possession for 25 years. The way he tells it, he didn't find the card, the card found him — it was mysteriously nestled between the pages of an unrelated book he bought. He likes the way the type is arranged so that to move one element would fatally disrupt the whole. “Zwart wasn’t even trained as a typographer, he learned it," Williams says. "He’s a virtuoso, no question.”

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Across from the bookcase is the couple's bedroom, which they moved into this nook when they decided to relocate their design studio, MW, to their former master bedroom from an office downtown. Compared to the shelves, the room is totally zen — it contains little besides a bed and a few lamps, including a Serge Mouille chandelier they got from Delorenzo. "My room when I was a teenager was very Danish modern," says Williams. "I didn’t know it was Danish modern, but it had a platform bed and that certain style. Now you couldn’t pay me to have that."

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In Piper's room, there's already mounting evidence that she's got her father's collecting bug, at least until she gets a little older and rebels. Whenever the family travels, she gets to pick out her own snowglobe. "She does it because her dad does it, that’s what kids are all about," Williams says.

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A long, white hallway separates the living space from what's now the MW studio. Williams and his wife gave up their old office a year ago when the economy seemed dire and Williams was traveling all the time anyway for consulting projects, but they expect to find a new space now that it seems the worst has passed.

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The MW studio, with desks for Williams and Allison on the left and their three employees on the right. As co-creative directors, he and Allison collaborate on all of the company's projects, though "I’m more of the big picture person, and she’s more into the details." MW just finished the Chilewich e-commerce site, plus an annual sourcebook for the photo agency Stockland Martel.

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On one of the desks, Williams has displayed this intriguing grouping of objects. The painting is by Serge Chermayeff, father of Chermayeff & Geismar founder Ivan. Williams found it on eBay while searching Herbert Beyer; it has "For Herbert Beyer" written on the back. "I paid nothing for it, and I think it's worth thousands now," he marvels. The plaque that says "THINK" is one of the only meaningful objects he inherited from his own father, a stockbroker who worked at IBM for a short time in the '50s and kept this souvenir on his desk for the rest of his life. On the right is a meter stick from a children's school.

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Vintage letterhead has become something of a trend online lately, but Williams has been collecting it for ages. He devotes a significant amount of space to it on amassblog; Herb Lubalin's "ah!" insignia generated a fair amount of excitement there. Not on Williams's part, though — he's not a Lubalin fan.

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His collection of old invoices is also a popular topic on amassblog.

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Williams pulled one of his archive boxes out of the closet to show us the contents — this one includes some of the vintage packages he's collected on his travels. The one that says "Flirt" is a cigarette box. Aside from those made by Muji and Comme des Garcons, plus the anonymous everyday designs he finds at Kiosk in New York, he doesn't really collect any contemporary packaging. "I'll probably regret that at some point," he says.

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A Swiss printers' tape dispenser, featuring a somewhat graphic depiction of what happens if you don't navigate its quadruple blades carefully enough.

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Williams found this clip sampler at a flea market in Paris, in a situation that will sound poignantly familiar to anyone who collects: "I was palpitating over it," he says, "and the dealer, who doesn’t even speak English, is like, 'It’s just cardboard!'" But it's never just cardboard, or anything else, to Williams. "When you look at objects, there's soul. I get really philosophical about it."

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Williams generates his own objects, too. He makes one of these bronze paperweight designs per year, having pieces from his collection cast at a famous art foundry in Queens, and he sometimes sells them at Andy Spade's New York boutique Partners & Spade. He's also done a ball of twine, and next he'll cast a specimen from his found-glove series.

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Pinned to a bulletin board at the back of the studio, you'd almost miss this letter from a former employee. But Williams says it sums up everything — his work, his life. "You're only as good as the obscurity of your sources" is his mantra, and he repeats it at the office constantly. He cites a project by Fabien Baron by way of explanation: When Baron redesigned Harper's Bazaar in 1992, he won renown for a cover where one of the "A"s in "Bazaar" was falling into the hand of Linda Evangelista. Few people knew it was a reference to something the magazine's former art director Henry Wolf had done decades earlier. "He made it better," Williams says. "They say you’re only as good as your sources, but it's really the obscurity that counts."