Columbus, Ohio USA
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Rivet Celebrates 10 Years
The shop that was meant to be
by Karen Edwards
September/October 2017 Issue
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photos © Gus Brunsman III
Sometimes you just know when the idea, the concept for a shop is right. You know it is meant to be. Maybe it’s the stirring of a soul, an intuitive feeling that’s as soft yet as insistent as a whisper. It might be the gentle hand of Fate arranging it all for you. But somehow you know – even 10 years later.
For Laura Kuenzli, reflecting back on the origins of her offbeat shop Rivet, there is no question that this Short North designer toy and art gallery was meant to be.
Consider the evidence:
• Although a Columbus native, Kuenzli had moved to Florida in 1997 to be with her new husband and his family. Yet just nine years later, the couple had moved back to Columbus to be with hers. “My mother had just died. I wanted to be back with my family,” Kuenzli recalls. It was time to come home.
• Once she was back, Kuenzli began to play with the idea of opening a shop to capture the culture and world of designer toys, an environment in which Kuenzli had been long ensconced. Her brothers – one older, two younger – thought she was kidding. She wasn’t.
• Kuenzli knew Columbus, and knew the best place for such a shop would be the Short North. “They embrace unique, independent shops and concepts,” she says. She wasn’t exactly ready to launch a shop – at least not yet – when the shop found her. “We were driving around the area, and saw a space for rent,” she says. They called, and Rivet found its home. Kuenzli signed the paperwork as the shop’s sole proprietor.
• Just one week later, Kuenzli was diagnosed with cancer. “If this had happened the other way around, if the diagnosis had come first, I don’t think I would have signed the paperwork,” she says. “Rivet wouldn’t exist.”
That Rivet is now celebrating its tenth anniversary this year is due, in part, to that stirring of the soul, the soft whisper of instinct, to the hand of Fate – but also to a woman who persevered through incredible adversity to feed not only her own playful spirit but that of others. “I think it helped that I had something else to focus on during treatments,” she says.
Kuenzli beat her cancer. It’s now in remission. One is tempted to add, “Of course.” When a shop is meant to be, it seems only natural for Fate to step in and make everything all right.
Not your childhood toys
And just one step inside Rivet, and you’ll decide for yourself, yes, this is a shop that’s meant to be, at this time and in this place. Look around. These aren’t just toys you’re looking at. These are works of art, imaginative creations that are designed to appeal to your sense of whimsy and fun. Here, a plush toy doesn’t even resemble the blush of a teddy bear. Sure, there are some adorable kitties, holding mini doughnuts and tiny ice-cream cones, but there is more of a comic-book quality to them than an effort at realism. Maybe more indicative of Rivet’s style is a plush toy called “No Face” – an amorphously shaped spirit with a face that resembles a death mask, a cute death mask, but a death mask nevertheless. Fans of Japanese anime will recognize “No Face” from the classic film Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, but even if you don’t recognize “No Face,” you can’t help but appreciate the uniqueness of a plush toy that never found its way into a Toys-R-Us aisle.
Other objects catch your eye. Some are a bit more macabre. Take the vinyl art piece, “Black Murder.” A bird-like headdress, complete with little beady eyes and a sharp beak is mounted atop a mannequin, which is clutching a chest that drips slightly with red. At the mannequin’s feet is a gilded cage containing a dead bird which resembles the headdress. The image is powerful and richly symbolic. (It’s also sold out, by the way.) “My tastes lean toward a darker side,” admits Kuenzli, But she also carries objects that make her smile.
So how did a young Midwest woman become interested in the world of designer toys? She may be making up for a long-ago regret.
“When I was about six or seven, my mom gave me a garbage bag and told me to put in any toys I didn’t want, and we would donate them to children who didn’t have any,” Kuenzli recalls. So, Kuenzli packed the bag with plush animals – her entire collection. When they were gone, she missed them.
But it was not until she was in her late teens, early 20s, that she found the world of offbeat designer toys. “I came across figures from the film Nightmare before Christmas, and I had to have them,” she says. (If you’re not familiar with the Tim Burton film, chances are we’re close enough to Halloween you can catch it on a cable channel near you.)
That kicked off Kuenzli’s curiosity about what other toys – like the skeletal figures of Nightmare – might be out there. A bit of online research led her to a convention in New York where she stumbled across a toy shop which carried Toyer, a sort of anime version of a human skull, created by the Toy2r Company.
“I was hooked. It led me down the bunny hole of designer toys,” she says.
Of course, she’s not the only one.
Katie Mosteller is both a fan and customer of Rivet. “I met Laura online at one of the art and toy designer sites,” she says. Mosteller buys from Rivet largely online. “Though I once drove to Columbus just to visit her shop,” she added. Considering Mosteller lives in Hagerstown, Maryland, you might consider that quite a compliment. “Laura has a lot of integrity. She doesn’t just sell toys, you can tell she cares about the art and artists. As an artist, myself, a photographer, I appreciate that.”
Jennifer Edwards is another Rivet customer. “I’ve been going to the shop, probably once a month, since it opened,” she says. Like Mosteller, Edwards is happy to see Rivet’s support for artists, especially local ones, but she’s also thrilled to find the kind of unique merchandise you can’t find anywhere else. “Laura always has something new. It’s just a lot of fun stuff in one place,” she says, adding, “It’s my go-to place when I need to buy a gift.”
It’s not just the merchandise that brings Edwards back again and again, though. “Over the years, Laura and I have become friends,” says Edwards. “She’s perceptive. She always knows what I’d be interested in.” But even better, she continues, “Laura is genuine. She wants to explore with you. I think she enjoys the discovery of the toy or the art as much as I do.”
What attracts Mosteller and Edwards to the toys is similar to what drew Kuenzli to the form. “The toys are created by independent artists who are self-funded,” says Mosteller. “They aren’t mass produced, so there is a higher level of quality to them. They feature details you won’t find on just any toy.”
Still, a collection like Mosteller’s, Edwards’s – and Kuenzli’s – isn’t just amassed the way some people rabidly collected Beanie Babies for a while. “I’ve built my collection over time,” says Kuenzli. “I don’t collect art with the idea of making money from it. It’s something I do with my heart. My eye has to be drawn to a piece. From the start, I’ve been attracted to what’s creepy or what I call spooky cute,” she says. Don’t forget, these pieces are not mass produced. They can sometimes be difficult to acquire – which might make Kuenzli’s carefully curated collection valuable to the right collector.
“In the last five years, I’ve focused more on collecting art than toys,” she says. For her own collection, Kuenzli favors the art of Annie Owens, co-founder of High Fructose, a contemporary art magazine. “Her work is darker watercolors,” says Kuenzli. (Picture young women placed in haunting scenes and you’ll have a general idea of Owens’ artwork.)
As the sole proprietor, (she’s now divorced) Kuenzli does not have a lot of time to visit toy shows and conventions looking for new products and artists.
They don’t always carry the kind of things she’s looking for, anyway.
“I do a lot of research online,” says Kuenzli. She visits artist websites and other designer sites that catch her eye or that she follows regularly. She may spot an artist in a magazine she’s reading, and then contact him or her about doing a show in her space. Of course, she has long-standing relationships with many of the artists she works with. She even includes instructions on her own site if you wish to submit your art for review.
Just don’t walk into her shop with your portfolio. “I don’t take walk-ins,” she says. After all, Kuenzli doesn’t have time to give your work a careful review during business hours. She’s trying to run her business. “I have an idea of the kind of thing I’m looking for, what I want to show,” she says. “I will let the artist know if their art is a good fit for Rivet.”
To better understand the Rivet style, it may be best to immerse yourself in the pop art/designer toy culture for a while, because this esoteric world is a culture to be sure. Check out websites that Kuenzli, herself, frequents, like High Fructose, and shops like Chicago’s Woolly Mammoth and Nashville/Cincinnati’s Hail the Dark Aesthetic. “It’s a lifestyle,” says Kuenzli. “I describe it to people who are unfamiliar with it as a culture that’s similar to collecting Star Wars toys. Only designer toys aren’t licensed, so they are more unique.”
It’s that hunger for creative difference that drives people to the art form and to Rivet. “The name Rivet has a double meaning for me,” Kuenzli says. “It means riveting, a compelling aesthetic that draws people in. It influences the furniture you buy, the clothing you wear; it’s a lifestyle choice.” But there is a touch of the utilitarian in the name as well. A rivet is an industrial pin that holds two pieces together. And Kuenzli is as attracted to that utilitarian, industrial look as she is to the dark design aesthetic. Just look around her shop and you’ll see the two melting together to create the Rivet style. Designer toys sit on old factory carts, no-nonsense shelving fills a wall. There may be old laboratory glass adding gleam to a display.
The people you’ll find inside Rivet – the shop’s customer base – is a typical Short North mix. “It’s 50/50 male and female, and most of our customers are in their mid-20s to mid-40s with a sprinkling of those who are older,” she says.
“You don’t see many kids in here,” Kuenzli adds – although they love to visit her space at ComFest. “They save up their allowances then come by the space and spend it,” she says. Call it building a potential customer base.
No matter who steps inside Rivet, however, they are likely to be inspired by her displays. Like any retailer, Kuenzli is constantly refreshing her space – not only with new merchandise, but with unusual items she finds at antique shows and oddity shops. “I love to find something unexpected to use in displays,” says Kuenzli.
In fact, Kuenzli says one of her favorite activities outside the shop is to go on what she calls adventures. That may be traveling to Chattanooga to view an art exhibit, to a regional flea market or to a distant city to explore its shopping environment. She also draws inspiration from the occasional foray to Elm & Iron at Easton. “I like the way they do their displays,” she says. “Every time I leave there, I’m inspired.”
When she’s not adventuring, Kuenzli likes to hang out with friends, see a movie, go for a drink. Or just stay home with her adopted cat Dren. “I have an aversion to animals with real people names, so I came up with something different,” she says about the unusual monikor.
Still, it can be hard to separate business and pleasure when you’re a sole proprietor. Even when she’s away from the shop, Kuenzli is bookmarking new artist sites and researching new designer toy companies. “One of the best parts of this job is discovering new artists,” she says. She’s happy she’s in the Short North where all of the area’s galleries are a year-round celebration and testament to the value and importance of art.
Of course, the Short North has changed since Kuenzli opened Rivet 10 years ago. She’s been disappointed with some of the changes that have occurred, the corporate interests that are finding their way into a neighborhood that has always been proud of its independence and its differences. But she doesn’t think the basic core of the Short North has changed. “I don’t think we’ve lost any art galleries,” she says. “They may have changed hands, but they’re still here.” And of course, Short North businesses like Rivet typically feature art, even art exhibits, on their walls, even if they’re not galleries, per se.
Kuenzli doesn’t know what lies ahead for Rivet. She has ideas for artists she’d like to bring into Rivet – some local, some from around the country and around the world. She’ll still be searching online and on her adventures for new merchandise. “The hardest part of my job is finding a balance,” she says – not just between home and work but at work, for all the different roles she plays.
What’s unlikely to change, though, is the shop itself. It is, as she’s said, a culture, a lifestyle. It has been, for 10 years, Laura Kuenzli’s life. Rivet is, indeed, a shop that was meant to be. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Rivet Designer Toy and Art Gallery, 1200 N. High St., is open Tuesday - Saturday 12-7pm; Sunday 12-5pm. Call 614-294-8697 or visit www.rivetart.com to learn more.
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