Sandwiched between multinationals like Whole Foods and Starbucks in cities across the United States, a new kind of storefront is bucking the trend of independent businesses capitulating to rising rents with products and services hard to find anywhere else.
Outside Boston, in Somerville, nearly two-year-old Katherine Small Gallery stocks obscure books and magazines about graphic design and typography from Europe, Japan and the United States. In Austin, The Commune is coming up on a year of hosting classes in water marbling, calligraphy and other crafts. And at Sixth Street Haunted House in New York City, shoppers peruse one-of-a-kind posters, T-shirts, tote bags and spirit boards from local artists.
But these are no ordinary storefronts; retail is just one part of their raison d’être. They also double as art galleries and/or rental venues aimed at being hubs of culture, community and learning.
Primarily, though, they function as studios or coworking studios for the entrepreneurial designers who have opened them.
Commercial property has escalated to sky-high costs, making studio ownership or rental a pipe dream for most freelance designers. Shared working spaces from companies like WeWork are facing well-reported financial troubles, and their environments can feel too generic for designers to truly flourish.
With a multihyphenate approach, however, designers are finding it possible to work outside the home without breaking the bank. And do so while injecting some creativity and ingenuity into their neighborhoods. The storefronts are even attracting these designers new clients.
“A walkable portfolio”
When Michael Russem put pen to paper on his objectives for Katherine Small Gallery (Katherine for his late beloved pet dog and Small for the 366 square feet), he wanted to better separate his personal and professional life than he had been while working from home; unload inventory, in the form of books he’s designed for clients; and attract new business.
Though not without challenges, the gallery realized his first objective, for work-life balance, and the bookshop has registered modest sales. But he notes that “the front of the house was never meant to make as much as possible, but to lose as little as possible.” That’s because it ties into his third objective. “The shop serves as a walkable portfolio since I’ve designed a lot of the books, catalogs and posters for sale,” Russem says.
His talents are also showcased in the exhibits he organizes at the gallery, such as ones he held on the late Ivan Chermayeff’s early book covers and Dick Bruna’s covers paired with Japanese matchboxes. Russem also draws a crowd of up to 40-plus people to ticketed evening events ($10 a person) by enticing experts in town to speak at the gallery.
That “portfolio” has scored Russem new clients, like librarians, and commissions to design exhibition catalogs and labels. And he says curators from museums and galleries have taken him out to lunch, expressing interest in his design services.
Despite the increased overhead, Russem says he is pocketing not much less than he did while working from home, a small price to pay for an improved quality of life.
While Russem doesn’t share his studio, across the country, in Austin, Texas, Lauren Cunningham rents one of the seven private studios in the 3,600-square-foot building she resurrected from disrepair to create The Commune. In addition to the private studios, there are about 25 table spots rented out to members ranging from interior designers and branding specialists to software developers.
After having kids, Cunningham desired a return to freelance design but was frustrated that most studio rentals were on the other side of town, away from her home. She decided to fill a void in the more eclectic North Loop neighborhood. The endeavor wasn’t without sleepless nights. Aside from the worry about demand for shared workspace, she says that they “also had $1,000, $3,000 and $5,000 surprise building repairs in the first month or two after opening.”
Fortunately, The Commune benefited from word of mouth sparked from passersby noticing the longtime vacant building undergoing revitalization. Instagram posts and onetime trials for local members of various professional organizations also helped.
But Cunningham intended for it to be more than a shared workspace. “Community has been core to the concept from the beginning. Not everyone needs a place to work during the day, so that’s why we open it in the evenings for classes and wellness workshops,” she says.
The Commune now boasts 36 members paying between $200 and $1,200 per month depending on their space and drop-in frequency, which comes close to covering overhead. Revenue from workshops and space rental fills the gap, says Cunningham.
It isn’t just freelance designers behind this trend. In late 2018, digital agency Grow expanded its operations in Norfolk, Virginia, into a former restaurant now connected to the rest of the agency. It serves as a fully stocked lunchroom and all-hands-on-deck meeting place for the roughly 50-person staff.
But, not wanting to take the street-facing real estate from the neighborhood, Grow also made the 1,459-square-foot space an evening venue called ENJOY: for curated pop-up concepts in art, food and culture. To date, it has been rented out for 20 public events. Modular signage and furniture help reduce the creative friction for chefs, artists and other renters to temporarily make it their own. A stipulation to renters, however: ENJOY: is a nonprofit requiring that a portion of their ticket proceeds be donated to a culturally focused local charity.
Drew Ungvarsky, chief executive officer and chief creative officer of Grow, says ENJOY: has become an important part of the agency DNA to clients like Google, adidas and Spotify. He also notes how more clients today are looking for vendor partners with a community conscience.
“Clients love our story and approach to community impact and community transformation,” says Ungvarsky. “They like that we’re thinking about more than how to create the digital experiences we’re known for and leveraging our resources for good in the world.”
Reimagining the design studio
Even in a city with some of the steepest property prices in the world, designers are finding that the multipurpose model is a financially viable one on which to base a studio and showcase their work.
Manhattan’s Sixth Street Haunted House (SSHH) was born out of “us complaining about the lack of weird spaces in New York City,” says Bráulio Amado, a graphic designer and illustrator whose clients have included musicians Frank Ocean and Robyn, the New York Times and New Yorker, and Nike and adidas. He runs the 120-square-foot SSHH with his partner, Nick Schiarizzi, a video editor, DJ and artist.
In keeping with its grand opening on Halloween 2018, SSHH bills itself as a “mutant space”—by (week)day, a studio for Amado and Schiarizzi, and by night, an intimate venue for classes, talks and art shows. On weekends, it morphs again, into a store featuring Amado’s work and those of local artists, which are also sold online.
Many of the items feature SSHH branding, such as a tote bag with an illustration of Manhattan that reads, “Our lease runs Sept 2018 to Sept 2021. Our rent is $2,150 per month. Will we survive?”
“I think it’s important people know how much it costs to run a space like ours,” explains Amado, who says that with other costs like heating and cooling, the total monthly expense is $2,500. The answer to the tote bag so far? “We have definitely made some mistakes in the beginning, but feel it is running really well now.”
A few blocks down from SSHH is the ve-year-old brainchild of Jacob Heftmann and Jake Hobart, founders of design practice XXIX (29).
Called XXXI (31), it functions as a studio for XXIX; a physical and online store hawking posters, books and miscellaneous items made in said studio; a shared working area for “tenants” as well as XXIX’s designers-in-residence program @telier; and an event space for workshops on skills like HTML coding and writing.
Heftmann and Hobart had been working on their design practice from separate cities, until Hobart returned to New York City from Portland, Oregon. Like so many designers, the two were discouraged by the options out there for them.
“Rents are getting more and more expensive, and too many businesses in Manhattan are chain stores and high-end takeout places. There aren’t many local businesses, much less artist studios,” says Heftmann.
Heavily subsidized by XXIX at first, today the 330-square-foot XXXI breaks even but could be a self-sustaining business, says Heftmann,
if they were more aggressive about renting out desk spots. But it has also been a positive for their design practice. “We’ve had art directors at agencies recommend us after coming to a party or event and seeing how we could make an interesting contribution to a project,” says Heftmann. “There is definitely a link to client services.”
As one of the first of its kind in New York City, XXXI turned for mentorship to one of the pioneers in shared workspaces for the design community—John Caserta, associate professor and former department head at Rhode Island School of Design.
He opened The Design Office in 2007, which quadrupled in size, to 2,800 square feet, in 2012 and accommodates 25 active designers.
One of Caserta’s former students is Elie Andersen, who manages XXXI. Caserta, who has long advocated coworking spaces to students and designers, is encouraged by the evolution of the shared studio into a multipurpose physical space.
“I think it represents a counter movement in a digitally connected world to something physical. That’s a good thing for our industry,” he says. “If you get designers organizing and creating spaces for events, work and education, what that does is reinforce what it takes to make good work. Because you see the work in progress. And I think that leads to interesting work that people and clients want to buy.” ca