For most of us, stores are merely the fleeting destinations wherein we acquire our possessions, while homes are the more permanent spaces where we keep and lovingly display them. But for Jill Wenger, it’s the other way around: Ever since she moved to Seattle in 2001 and founded the cult boutique Totokaelo at just 26 years old, her store has been her material and spiritual base, while her living situation has remained mercurial. “I love change and generally don’t stay in any apartment or home longer than a year,” says the Texas native. Even as we interviewed her for this piece — which contains the first-ever published photos of one of her domestic interiors — she already had one foot out the door. Despite initially falling in love last May with her current apartment for its location — in Capitol Hill, three minutes away from Totokaelo — as well as its original hardwood floors and leaded-glass doors, Wenger is in the midst of searching for something new.
At her store, on the other hand, the tremendous amount of effort and care she puts into sourcing the clothing, art, and objects she sells — not to mention the design she created for the space itself — has earned her a hallowed reputation among tastemakers around the world. From Morgan Peck ceramics to Margiela booties, the pieces she selects for Totokaelo, she says, “are the ones that are the most beautiful to me — I love the design, color, material, and I think they’re unique and pure. By pure, I mean that they weren’t created because an artist tried to make something that other people would find beautiful or that would sell. They were created because the artist had an idea and made it real because they felt it should exist.” Yet these objects rarely come home with her. “I don’t own a ton of things,” she says. “I pick stuff up when I travel, some objects are from friends, and others I’ve brought home from the store, but I’m not super sentimental about them. The process of discovering an artist and bringing them to Totokaelo is more satisfying to me than something living on my shelf. The more I own, the less free I feel.”
When Jill Wenger opened the first incarnation of the Seattle store Totokaelo in 2003, she had a few goals: showcasing the work of local designers, improving choices for all-weather gear. But as she grew to be the most fashion-forward resource in the city, she took on the more important mandate of helping to raise Seattle’s style profile in general, banishing annoying sartorial habits like square-toed shoes, embroidery, and pleather handbags. While there’s still work to be done in that arena, this year — with the opening of her massive new store and its “Art—Object” component — Wenger expanded her tastemaking activities beyond the body and into the home. Her stable contains more than a few of our favorite players, from Philip Low to Seattle’s hometown heroes Iacoli & McAllister, but months ago, it was Morgan Peck who really caught our eye. Not only was the ceramicist suddenly showing up on shelves at Iko Iko and Mociun, among others, there was almost no information about her on the web. And so we invited Wenger to take a stab at interviewing the Los Angeles–based talent for our Peer Review column.
The cult Seattle boutique Totokaelo already carries clothing and objects so beautiful that each new season wreaks havoc on the wallets of aesthetes around the country. The only way the store could possibly improve on that game? By shooting those new collections in scenarios designed to make said aesthetes even crazier. To promote its spring Art—Object catalog, the store's creative director Ashley Helvey masterminded two such campaigns: a photo shoot shot by Robin Stein and styled by Margaret Macmillan Jones in the technicolor plaza of Seattle's King County Correctional Center (designed in the '80s by Martha Schwartz and Benson Shaw), and a video, also in collaboration with Stein, that features Cameron Mesirow of Glasser along with music from her latest album, Interiors.
As design-store owner Dave Alhadeff sees it, there’s a distinction between the kinds of craftspeople he is and isn’t interested in: The latter make objects primarily to show off their manual skills, while the former are motivated by a larger concept, a wish to make tangible some abstract artistic meaning. Carving toothpicks into forest animals? Skills. Carving porcelain into vases so mind-bogglingly intricate they appear to be made by machine? Concept. A subtle difference, but one that helps it seem slightly less absurd to picture Alhadeff — who runs The Future Perfect, one of New York’s most well-respected purveyors of contemporary design — roaming the aisles of a Westchester craft fair, chatting up potters and glassblowers. Concept, he explains, is what builds a bridge between pure craft and design.