Legends: The Mad Man’s Next Act

He used shock ads (Charles Manson, anyone?) and a punk attitude to flip the city’s advertising community on its ear. So why is Steven Grasse now trying to return Philly to the days of the powdered wig?

That would seem to provide a convenient metaphor for his future in -advertising — or, more accurately, his future beyond advertising. Grasse has peered into the crystal ball and come away with an image of the adman, not as dream weaver, but as product developer. “I think what we’re doing is where the industry is going to go,” he says. “Ad people are really smart marketing people. Why are they just guns for hire? It just makes no sense. Why aren’t they demanding to have a stake in the things they create?”

The day after he sold Sailor Jerry, Grasse started to concentrate on his new product concept: Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The idea had emerged from Gyro a few years before, and started as a clothing product line based on the title of an essay by German writer Walter Benjamin, a rather obscure and opaque intellectual who worked between the World Wars. In the essay, Benjamin (his name is usually pronounced Ben-ha-meen by academic types; Grasse insists on down-to-earth American Ben-ja-min) laments that art loses its special aura as it is reproduced.

To base a product line on such an esoteric concept would seem, at first glance, to be a bit of a stretch. But Grasse is loose with his interpretation of Benjamin. In commercial practice, Grasse has conceived Art in the Age to mean limited-edition t-shirts printed with designs by mostly local artists. It can also be carefully sourced small-batch products (the sourcing done by Sonia, whom Grasse credits with finally forcing some good taste into him) that have a strong retro feel, as in going back a century. The flagship retail store for the brand, on 3rd Street, is equal parts art gallery, apothecary shop and haberdashery.  What’s for sale ranges from pipe tobacco to Mennonite quilts to handmade soaps and condiments to hand-woven baby washcloths to Ayn Rand’s novels. Products are packaged with simple, classic letterpress-like typography.

The overall effect is of carefully cultivated homemade authenticity. The guy who once made videos featuring a character dubbed “Retarded Amish Boy” now sells beautiful leather goods produced by Amish craftsmen. With Sailor Jerry, he bought the rights to something authentic and then repackaged it for resale; with his new line, Grasse is trying to sell Authenticity itself. “The new luxury is knowing where the stuff comes from and knowing that the person who made it got paid,” Grasse says. “That is the new luxury. Not the fancy packaging, or the glam, but the ethics of it, the sustainability and goodness of it.”

Placed prominently throughout the Art in the Age store — though liquor laws don’t allow it to be sold — are bottles of Root. The brown booze is to Steven Grasse what oil was to John D. Rockefeller.