From ice-cream shops to motels, why are design agencies launching bricks-and-mortar businesses?

Studios in and around New York are putting down more rural roots and launching physical spaces – our US editor-at-large investigates.

If you’re heading upstate for a long weekend and taking Route 17, you might drive past the Roscoe Motel. The unassuming red-and-white building (with a sign set in ITC Bookman, of course) is prototypical Americana, with white patio chairs and standard wood-panelled rooms available for just $105 a night. It looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1960s, and it actually hasn’t, much. Except – it’s owned by Human NYC, a digital design studio based in Manhattan’s Chinatown. And it’s not the only graphic design easter egg strewn around the region. Across upstate New York and other rural areas, new outposts run by graphic designers are slowly popping up, from motels to chic mini-markets and coffee roasters. It’s easy to imagine why: we’re coming out of a pandemic, designers love side projects, we work on computers all day and want more in-person interaction, yada-yada-yada. But I think there’s more going on here.

While there are plenty of designers and studios moonlighting as online bookstores, DIY furniture makers and candle makers, it seems quite fitting to me that many folks in the industry are branching out into opening tangible, in-person spaces. Why? Because, when you scrape away the aesthetics, commercial design is a hospitality business. Designers excel at engaging in meaningful dialogue with individuals or groups, understanding their needs, and crafting solutions that fulfil those needs. In a conventional studio environment, the solutions are design objects like a visual system, a piece of print collateral or a website. In the case of an in-person location, the end products are, instead, a service (like a hotel room or a browsing experience), sometimes accompanied by a tangible product (like the purchase of a book or an ice cream). The evolution from design deliverable to IRL space merely represents a shift in focus: from serving business owners as clients to directly catering to the end customer.

This shift has some precedent. In 2019, after over a decade in business, Gin Lane, the successful brand-building studio behind 2010s DTC darlings like Harry’s and Smile Direct, closed their agency. In its place, they became Pattern, a multi-brand consumer goods company. In their announcement about shutting down their client services arm, Pattern said that “we realised we can use our superpowers to do what we do best — build brands — this time in-house.” Seen through this lens, the rise of studios launching IRL spaces might just be another way of cutting out the most pesky middle-man of all: the client. It’s a long-running cliche in the industry that clients are the most difficult part of the design process, and I’ve certainly been privy to many portfolio reviews where a designer has complained about how much better a project was before it got ruined by client requests (to any of my own clients reading this: I love you!) Being your own client might be the only foolproof way to ensure the sanctity of your creative vision, from concept to execution.

Young designers are often encouraged to take a similar approach, developing speculative projects (no client required) as a means of bootstrapping their way into a portfolio that contains the kind of work they want to be hired for. Many of us stop doing these sorts of portfolio-building personal projects when we start getting enough professional work – there’s only so much time in the day – but what happens if we don’t stop? In a marketplace increasingly swamped with competent design studios, these IRL spaces have the power to do for studios and established designers what personal projects once promised to young designers: to demonstrate skills and interests not currently represented in one’s work. And unlike junior designers, who have to rely on mockups to get their ideas across, design studios usually have some budgetary runway to actually bring their ideas into the real world.

These projects can also serve as helpful learning opportunities for a team looking to break into a new industry or strengthen their knowledge. Jolene Delisle, founder and creative director of The Working Assembly, a branding agency in Manhattan, and Cherries, an ice-cream shop (and soon, a candy store and cafe) in Stone Ridge, NY, says that “understanding the details of fulfilment for the store has helped my team learn how to support our clients better, too”. You might not think twice about designing packaging that’s hard to assemble from the comfort of your desk chair, but when you know you’ll be the one assembling it, you might suggest something easier to put together.

In an era of porous work-life boundaries, being our own project managers might be another equally important component of a successful IRL endeavour. Delisle stresses that at The Working Assembly, Cherries is treated with the same rigour as any other client project; designers are resourced to work a certain number of hours for Cherries projects per week, given particular tasks to complete, and have the support of a project manager throughout the process. This helps prevent any individual team member from falling behind in client work or being overworked as a result of being involved with Cherries. It also echoes shifts towards self-management percolating in certain progressive studios across the industry, like XXIX. Rachel Yaeger, the co-founder of Human NYC and co-owner of the Roscoe Motel (not to mention several other ventures), emphasises the importance, at times, of keeping Roscoe and Human NYC projects appropriately disentangled. “We spend the majority of our waking hours together and really like each other,” she says, “but I’ve struggled with asking my team, ‘Hey, do you want to spend one of your valuable weekends hanging out with me at the Roscoe Motel?’” When studio projects take on commercial dimensions, the line between personal work and professional obligation has to be carefully tended.

Designers opening physical spaces must consider the individuals outside their own studio, too. The entry of graphic design into a community can be a double-edged sword. It can bring a contemporary aesthetic and renewed interest to a geographic area, but it can also serve as a tool of gentrification, leading to reduced accessibility for locals and minority communities, and a departure from a location’s historic identity. New owners take over an existing business and hire designers, who change a Vacuformed sign to a vinyl one, replace a menu made in Microsoft Word with an Instagrammable one, and suddenly, coffee is more expensive (and the rent soon, too). Meanwhile, long-standing business owners may lack the capital required to commission high-end brand studios to reimagine their image, and therefore lack the means to stay in business within a shifting environment. Most designers act as tourists, not groundskeepers; we come in, we move things around, and we leave. Beyond brand guidelines, what happens next is someone else’s problem.

The rise of designer-as-owner offers a potential new model for how design can more responsibly serve communities. When designers work in neighbourhoods in which they’re an active member, rather than a transient visitor, their design interventions are much more likely to integrate with the existing aesthetics of a region, and to address the actual, rather than speculative, needs of the area. Both Delisle and Yaeger, whose current spaces pre-dated their ownership, chose to keep prices and offerings much the same even after taking over in order to avoid alienating existing customers. Yaeger appropriately describes the Roscoe Hotel as “anti-boutique,” and notes that their primary customer base is still, as it ever was, fly-fishermen.

David McGillivray, an independent designer who recently opened an art and design store called Corners in upstate New York, notes that it’s important not to be afraid to introduce new things to a community either. Just because something like Corners hasn’t existed before in Livingston Manor, where his store is located, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience for it. David bought his house in the area in 2017, and jokes that he “knew there were people interested in art and design who live here because I’m a person interested in art and design who lives here!” Since opening he’s been surprised, and thrilled, by the number of 30- and 40-year-long residents of the area who have become customers. Many of them are working or hobbyist artists and share how excited they are to have a space like his so nearby. After all, many folks are encouraged to shop local, but what if you’re looking for modernist oil paintings instead of small batch honey? Stores like Corners help bridge the gap between the ethical nightmare of mass global e-commerce and older-school farm stands with limited, and at times visually outdated, offerings.

The value of well-designed gathering places like McGillivray’s is particularly salient in a town (technically: a hamlet) like Livingston Manor, which had a population of just 1,053 as of 2020. While a new art and design store in New York City might have ten competitors in one neighbourhood alone, an art and design store in a more rural area might have just one in a 20-mile radius. The same could be said of Ponytail, a curated shop of homegoods, antiques and other objéts started by Helen Rice, founder of Fuzzco, an independent creative studio based in her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina (population 151,652). Fuzzco’s forays into the IRL began with a headquarters in Charleston, but soon grew to include the renovation of ten properties across the city – with the most recent being 28 Pitt Street, a Federal-style house from the 1820s that Helen remembers from her childhood. In addition to Ponytail on the ground floor, the top floors have been transformed into a long-term home rental. Helen describes working on multiple in-person spaces in South Carolina as “being a big fish – or maybe just a fish – in a small pond,” she says. “It makes me excited to take it seriously and provide something really special.”

Many of these IRL ventures end up operating something like third spaces, a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe a place outside your home or work that welcomes “public relaxation.” These design-forward outposts are gathering points and containers for culture; an evolution of the iconic New York stores that once served as meeting points for particular subcultures – Trash and Vaudeville for punks, or Kim’s Video for esoteric film enthusiasts – before real estate made the very concept laughable. McGillivary says that while his store is, of course, a commercial entity, it actually operates more like a beacon: “people don’t visit to buy something; they buy something as an excuse to hang out here.” Like moths to a flame, so too creatives to a fancy coffee table book. Delisle as well notes that her initial draw to Cherries came from the significance it held as a haven to her family during pandemic shutdowns – not from any specific attachment to the ice cream they sold. For Yaeger in particular, the project is far more than just a portfolio piece; her family owned the Cranberry Lake Inn in the Adirondacks before she was born, so owning a hotel has felt like a full circle moment.

For now, there is still enough novelty value (and hopefully at least some financial value) to these kinds of ventures that more design studios might continue forays into bricks and mortar. With hybrid work indefinitely in place, these spaces, at bare minimum, also provide a practical middle point outside a full-time office for employee off-sites, or, in Rice’s words, “for touching stuff and looking deeply into each other’s eyes”. But as more studios fracture their offerings into smaller and smaller pieces, the market, and personal, benefits of such IRL spaces may become overshadowed by the cognitive juggling required to keep them operating. Maybe design studios running a second or third business might eventually be so commonplace that the most radical business model of all is to just… do graphic design.

Elizabeth writes a regular column for It’s Nice That from her base on the East Coast of the US. Check back in every couple of weeks to read her latest thoughts on design trends and hot topics from the creative world.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Goodspeed

Elizabeth Goodspeed is It’s Nice That’s US editor-at-large, as well as an independent designer, art director, educator and writer. Working between New York and Providence, she's a devoted generalist, but specialises in idea-driven and historically inspired projects. She’s passionate about lesser-known design history, and regularly researches and writes about various archive and trend-oriented topics. She also publishes Casual Archivist, a design history focused newsletter.

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