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bonnie mackay, 66, retail consultant, new york city

ageist EDITORS | may 31, 2018

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Inspiration hits Bonnie Mackay everywhere. She might be window shopping in a foreign city or scouring every last inch of exhibition space at a trade show. A design or a piece will catch her eye, sending her on a journey to understand not just the craft behind the piece but the way it could be perfected for the market.

“I can zoom in on a product I really believe in,” she says. “I wear people out because I walk so much at trade shows. It might be the only time you’re doing it, walking by those people, and so you have to make sure you’re not missing it.”

That fear of missing out has driven a career that she began as a buyer for Lord & Taylor before she rose through the ranks at Bloomingdales and helmed the retail division at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s what continues to drive her in her consultancy, though these days she’s motivated less by wants than by needs.

“The technical word they’re using is universal design. It’s design for products for people who need special attention. But I also believe that if it’s a good product, everyone will be able to use it,” she says. “It could be something as simple as a glass that is great to hold. A child could hold it, an adult could hold it, and somebody who has a problem with their hands could hold it. And that’s very interesting to me: to see what is not available.”

So we took some time this week to talk to the retail consultant extraordinaire about the misnomer that is ‘age-specific’ design, and to better understand the relentless curiosity that continues to guide her.

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With a cartoonist for a father, Mackay found herself observing the creative process at an early age. She’d sit and watch him work and go with her parents to museums in New York City, studying and analyzing paintings.

She attended Pratt in the 1970s, but dropped out after getting a job working as a buyer at Lord & Taylor. To get a bit of extra money, she worked at Bloomingdales at night — impressing to the point she got offered a job as an assistant fashion coordinator.

“I remember when I was in college, one of my teachers said, “No one ever gets to be a fashion director,’ and I remember taking it to heart and thinking, ‘I’m going to do that,’ ” she says. “And I did it.”

Mackay ended up working almost two decades for Bloomingdales. By the time she left, she had worked in every space from home furnishings to glassware to stationery to ornaments. She joined MoMA as a member of the senior leadership team in the late 1990s, building out their store offerings with unique pieces either crafted by artists in the collection, or inspired by them.

MoMa expanded her palette and indulged her global curiosity. She launched an initiative that had the store focus on a different destination — Mexico, Berlin, Japan — every few months. She invited architects to design products for the home. She worked with the venerable designer Issey Miyake (whose clothes she’s wearing in our photo). It was at MoMA’s store that American consumers first encountered the no-nonsense Japanese home brand MUJI.

“I’m like a guide … I just push it and pull [the product] to the next step,” she says.

It was standing in the MoMA Store in New York, where she had an important realization about design that has begun informing her recent work.

“There was a little boy who wanted to buy a pen. He asked for a pen. And there was a man in his 80s a half hour later, who bought the same pen. And I thought to myself: ‘That’s the success of good design,’ ” she says. “I don’t think there is such a thing ‘designing for age’.”

Indeed, one of our biggest pet peeves at AGEIST is the, for lack of a better word, ‘medicalization’ of design as we get older: designing for utility without thinking of beauty or style — as if the surrender of the latter is the price to pay for age.

Mackay applauds the work of designers like Lucy Jones, who have upended notions of pattern making and design for people in wheelchairs. Tommy Hilfiger recently came out with a collection featuring details like magnetic buttons better suited to people with physical limitations. But there’s a lot more opportunity there as well.

“There is an absence of beauty in it and that’s what I want to change,” she says. “I was just talking with someone about the amazing opportunities there are to update all of that, because it is very medical. When you’re in the midst of it, you don’t want to be dressed in medical. They want to be dressed to hang out in their home and be able to go out if they want to.”