People sometimes stop into Kim Soss's store, Arrow, and think they've wandered into someone's living room. "I've had people walk into the store and go, 'Do you live here?'" she says. She doesn't, but she might as well. The carefully placed modernist furniture in the small storefront showroom was all handpicked by the proprietor herself, who often can be found sitting at her desk knitting.
Arrow, which opened in November, is the latest step in a career devoted largely to midcentury design. Soss dates her interest in old things to when she was just 12 and begging her mother to drop her off at flea markets near their Tennessee home. Though she says her family didn't particularly share her interest, she remembers them having some modernist pieces that drew attention from friends. "There was an Eero Saarinen for Knoll dining room set," she says, and draws a little sketch of a table that looks like something out of Disney's 50s vision of Tomorrowland. "Kids would come over to my house and look at me like I was nuts."
Vintage clothing and antiques were still just a hobby when she came to Chicago in 1990 to study performance art and metalworking at the School of the Art Institute. That same year she got what was supposed to be a temporary job at Modern Times, a furniture and clothes store in Wicker Park. Under the tutelage of proprietors Martha Torno and Tom Clark, Soss became fascinated by modernist design from the decades following World War II. "So much of the design of the period is predicated on that moment in history," she says. "A lot of it has to do with the new materials that were available at the time, new processes that radicalized design," like Charles and Ray Eames's pioneering method of molding plywood and the development of plastics.
Soss worked at the store for ten years. Opening her own place seemed like a natural move, but she hesitated. "I always had this fantasy like, 'Oh, you know, someday I'm just gonna blow off everything and move to Japan and teach English and live in a box.' And last February I went there to visit." In Japan, she was impressed with the attention paid to detail in everyday things, where "design isn't relegated to this sort of elite pursuit." But the trip didn't have the anticipated effect. "It allowed me to look at my life--OK, I've done this--and it became less fantastic and less alluring as an escape." She decided to open Arrow instead.
Walking around the store, Soss points out the workmanship on a suede and leather Gucci bag from the 70s and the innovative metal clasps on a Bonnie Cashin coat. She stops at a very loungey low-slung chair produced by M. Singer & Sons, a company that had a showroom in the Merchandise Mart in the 50s and 60s. Soss suspected that it had been the work of a well-known Italian designer of the time, Carlo de Carli. "A member of the Singer family was kind enough to do a little research for me and help me figure it out," she says. He confirmed Soss's hunch. Next she points out a tiny wire chair perched on a table. "This darlin' little chair, it's signed by Harry Bertoia, who's somebody I'm very taken with," Soss says. "In the early 50s he designed a series of chairs, and this is a nice early one that they did for a limited time, produced in a child size. They call them baby Bertoias."
But Soss isn't a label snob. "It's always won-derful to have a name attached, to know the history of a piece, but it's not crucial to me if I think something's wonderfully made and beautifully designed. It's icing on the cake if I can figure it out."
Arrow is open four days a week, and the rest of the time Soss is out looking for stuff. She's known well enough in the business that people often call her if they've got something they think she might like, but she also cruises flea markets and estate sales. Mostly she sticks to the midwest, which was a hotbed of modernist design. Bertoia, Saarinen, and Charles Eames studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, and in Chicago, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy started the New Bauhaus and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe headed the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Soss admits that with the resurgence of interest in modernism as a design style, it's been harder to find good pieces in recent years. "There are magazines out there, like Wallpaper for example, where they talk about this idea of the 'modern lifestyle,' and it's a very jet-set, technology-oriented, fabulous--capital-F-Fabulous--lifestyle." Soss doesn't want to reconstruct a bygone era, just honor it. "I think the modernist designers, the fashion de-signers, jewelers, ceramists, and craftspeople that I revere and am inspired by, are freethinkers," she says. "Rather than affecting this sort of facile surface, I'm interested in the spirit of modernism."
Arrow, 1452 W. Chicago, is open Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 6 and Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 6. Call 312-738-2755.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.