All images copyright Don Freeman from Ted Muehling: A Portrait, by Don Freeman, text by Susan Yelavitch, Rizzoli, New York
South, below Grand Street and just above Canal—beyond the scene at the Mercer Hotel and at Balthazar, beyond those transplants from uptown (Prada, Bloomingdale’s, the MoMA store, the Guggenheim), past the chain stores and the weekend throngs and those “galleries” that remain—SoHo quiets down into a calmer, still-bohemian enclave (or at least a semi-bohemian one). There, tucked on a short stretch of the four-block, semi-hidden Howard Street—reportedly the last street in Manhattan to get streetlights—cluster some of the city’s most discerning specialty stores. Two are long-established anachronisms: E. Vogel, which has been making riding boots and men’s shoes by hand since 1879; and the Putnam Rolling Ladder Company, which has been building library ladders since 1905. Two came recently: the winningly inventive Opening Ceremony, selling pioneering, quirky international fashion—long black Brazilian capes, finely knitted German undershirts—by designers and manufacturers you’ve almost certainly never heard of; and De Vera, a sort of hyper-curated flea market—a Wunderkammer, really—where necklaces made from ancient intaglios are displayed in artfully crammed vitrines alongside antique opium pipes and Victorian mourning jewelry.
And then there’s the small, high-ceilinged store that serves as the magnet for newer boutiques—an ethereal place that draws the great fashion designer Narcisco Rodriguez when, he told me, “I need some peace or an inspirational jolt,” a store whose subdued atmosphere, invariably described as “magical,” is accentuated by the intermittent ting of a jeweler’s hammer from the studio in the back. This is the shop and workroom of Ted Muehling, whose jewelry and decorative objects have for 32 years been venerated among his fanatically devoted customers, a group that includes the most discriminating figures in the world of fashion and design. “Ted has the most refined aesthetic of any person I know, period,” says Sally Singer, Vogue’s fashion news/features director. “I’ve never heard anyone say his work is other than perfection.”
But only the cognoscenti, albeit a relatively large number of them, are familiar with Muehling’s creations. For one thing, the retiring, artistically earnest Muehling (counterculturally, he uses earnest as a term of high praise, and ironic as a term of derision) scorns the trendy. Seven years ago, he moved his shop to Howard Street from what is now the white-hot center of SoHo, because, as he explained to an interviewer, his original neighborhood “was just getting too spiffy.” (By that criterion, he may be pulling up roots again soon: in June, Jil Sander, the fashion house specializing in beautifully minimalist clothing, opened a beautifully minimalist two-level boutique diagonally across from Muehling’s shop.) He even all but eschews commerce. “It’s almost like he’s embarrassed to ask for money for what he does,” one of his closest friends, Kim Hastreiter, the editor and co-founder of the chronicle of cutting-edge fashion and design, Paper magazine, told me with a hint of exasperation. He insists on making all his jewelry—his most coveted and esteemed work—in his studio, so his production is perforce small. You can buy these pieces only at his atelier and four other places across the country (Bergdorf Goodman, uptown; Arp, in Los Angeles; Patina, on Nantucket; and Stanley Korshak, in Dallas), and even photographs of them are hard to come by, since he produces no catalog and his Web site forgoes showing any of his work.