Fifty years ago, an eternity in the inconstant world of retail, an unusual little store called arango — in the minimalist spirit of its namesake founders, the name is not capitalized — relocated from near-obscurity in downtown Miami to a newish shopping center at the edge of nowhere.
The move to Dadeland Mall proved astute. Miami’s southwestern suburban expansion was about to take off, and with it so did arango. Many new homeowners wanted just the kind of judiciously selected, high-design housewares and furnishings that arango owner and co-founder Judith Arango carried with near-evangelical and — at the time, solitary — zeal.
In the five decades since establishing its unlikely Dadeland foothold, arango has brought “design for living” to the masses with curatorial discernment and an affordable, unintimidating appeal, turning itself into an enduring cultural and commercial landmark.
The remarkable run ends this week. Facing what co-owner Marianne Russell called “an unsustainable rent increase" from Dadeland’s operator, she and husband and business partner David Russell have decided to close up shop.
The announcement, made in an email blast to loyal customers last week, prompted a flood of disbelieving lamentations from across the hemisphere, the Russells said. Scores of people, some of whom flew in for the event, stopped by a farewell reception at the store Sunday evening, often amid hugs and tears. They also got first dibs on deeply discounted wares from architects and designers ranging from classic Aalto to contemporary Zaha.
“The most common email response is, ‘N-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o, exclamation mark, exclamation mark, exclamation mark,’ ” said David Russell with a rueful laugh as he walked a visitor through the 2,000-square-foot shop, its walls newly hung with vintage arango ads and photographs of the store’s changing but consistently spare Modernist entrances and interiors over the years. “So much history in such a little space.”
Not enough of either, however, to compete with the scale and profits of the chain department stores and clothing stores that now dominate Dadeland, whose sales potency has made it among the most sought-after malls in the nation for retailers.
The store remains both profitable and recognized, the Russells say. In 2012, arango won an award as global independent retailer of the year from Alessi, the Italian design factory whose wares and accessories are designed by famed architects and designers.
But arango was never just a business. It regularly hosted design exhibits and a program of lectures, classes and workshops. It also recruited promising design and architecture students — many of whom went on to careers in the field — for its staff. Just now, the store has an exhibit of photos from the Alessi archives.
“The message here is that culture is a really important value in a community, but sometimes it’s not as valued as it should be," David Russell said. “People don’t realize it until something’s missing."
Not that arango’s necessarily going away for good. After locking the doors at Dadeland for the last time at 9 p.m. Saturday, the Russells will retreat to their Bird Road arts district warehouse to ponder their next move. They have intentionally avoided deciding what form a new arango could take. All they know is it should be something different, and neither a mall store nor an online-only retailer.
“Imagine — boxes and tape and shipping all day? That would not be fun,” Marianne Russell said.
Said David: “There is a potential there for us to step in a different direction. We hope it can be something great."
But what will be lost, said Miami architect and longtime arango supporter Rene Gonzalez, is that happy, accidental exposure to artful design and the welcoming, please-handle-the-merchandise ethic that arango brought to throngs of Dadeland shoppers who may not have been looking for that sort of thing.
“It’s very sad,” Gonzalez said. “Judith Arango was obsessed with reaching as many people as possible, and David and Marianne have carried on that torch. It is unique, possibly in the world, in being in a place with that much traffic. It was sitting in the middle of the mall and hitting the public over the head with great design without their realizing it."
The store was founded in 1959 by Arango and her then-husband, the influential Colombian Modernist architect Jorge Arango, inspired by the industrial design movement, which sought to make beautiful, useful objects available to all through mass production. After struggling on Biscayne Boulevard, she made the prescient move to Dadeland five years later, and just two years after the mall opened in a largely unpopulated area.
For the Russells, arango has been the most personal of ventures. The couple — he’s a Miami native, she’s Danish — met and fell in love while working at the shop, and took over after Judith Arango retired in 1994. (She died in 2003).
Both will be in the store all week to welcome old customers. Already, some are coming back with photos and stories of prized objects they purchased at arango, many of which have become collectibles after going out of production, the Russells said. At Sunday evening’s reception, one woman brought an acrylic pitcher she had received as a wedding gift 45 years ago and has treasured ever since.
“That’s the great thing about good design. It lasts a lifetime, and you can pass it on," Marianne Russell said. “From Judith’s time, the philosophy has been to bring design to the public, to give people the opportunity to experience it. We stayed true to that.”
“It’s such a cultural spot in this ocean of madness, and we’ve invested so much of our lives in it that we want to close it beautifully.”