Next to a Bed Bath & Beyond at the Ward Center mall in Honolulu, a curious pop-up shop that sells only one thing opened Jan. 11. Medium White Tee is an artist-led tribute to outgoing US President Barack Obama.
Artist-writer Emily Spivack got the idea for store after reading a New York Times article about Obama’s workaholic habits. In one passage, Obama’s close friend and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel intimated their dream retirement gig:
Mr. Obama once imagined moving to Hawaii to open a T-shirt shack that sold only one size (medium) and one color (white). Their dream was that they would no longer have to make decisions. During difficult White House meetings when no good decision seemed possible, Mr. Emanuel would sometimes turn to Mr. Obama and say, “White.” Mr. Obama would in turn say, “Medium.”
“I love his reference—that the white T-shirt can be a symbol of a respite from any kind of decision-making,” says Spivack, who also blogs about fashion history for the Smithsonian. “I thought to make exactly what he said: A shack in Hawaii that only sells medium white T-shirts.” Canvas sling chairs and sand on the floor suggest the beachside location that Obama conjured. The pop-up shop is an offsite art installation for the Honolulu Museum of Art. Spivack said that it’s meant to evoke the weight of decision-making and discernment responsibilities that every leader is saddled with.
Spivack has been moved by the outpouring of generosity for her project, which materialized with no funding. Architects and designers in New York City and Hawaii volunteered their services; 1,000 shirts were donated; a local non-profit gave salvaged building materials; and a local contractor built the space pro-bono over the holidays. “Hawaii is really like that, a culture built around reciprocity,” explains architect Stephanie Hsu who recruited local partners for the project. “No matter what you feel politically, there’s a special place in everybody’s hearts here for the Obamas.”
Medium White Tee will be open until Feb. 9 and is currently seeking volunteers to work three-hour shifts. Staff duties sound simple: All shirts sell for $44 as a tribute to the 44th president; all proceeds will go to charity; and there’s only one rack in the middle of the store. There are no dressing rooms. Obama’s half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng will take the first shift and preside over the opening day.
Spivack hopes Obama will man the store before it closes. Soetoro-Ng gave him the first medium white tee for Christmas with a note from Spivack: “You’re welcome to come work there whenever you like. It’ll be staffed by volunteers until you show up for your shift.”
Could Medium White Tee succeed as a business venture? While Obama’s concept started as a joke, the thinking behind it could strike a cord with consumers. We’re all fatigued by daily micro-decisions—from choosing the brand of toothpaste, to deciding what to wear. Obama’s T-shirt shack could very well be a franchise of “anticipatory design,” a philosophy of designing products and experiences that eliminates all choices.