Ever since longtime friends Robert Stansell III and Timothy Welsh founded New York firm Emporium Design, they’ve worked on retail, residence, and hospitality spaces from the ground up. Here, they discuss the process behind design-build, sliding doors, and making sandcastles.
Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
RS: I grew up in a family of architects, and Tim grew up with engineers and contractors all around him, so it isn’t a surprise to hear
both of our mothers tell stories about how we were each constantly creating and building (and tearing down!) things from a very young age.
What are some of your first memories of design?
RS: Spending hours building the most elaborate sandcastles on the beach.
TW: The most awesome tree house around-with trap doors and booby-traps.
How did you end up where you are today?
RS: We met the first day of architecture school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. We became fast friends, and soon realized that we had a similar outlook on many things design and architecture related. We both spent a considerable amount of time in the wood shop and other fabrication shops around campus.
TW: Working in larger corporate firm structures for years was pulling us away from our real passion-crafting and building what we design. We teamed up after work and on weekends to help a few friends design and build their own bar. It was a great success, and we both got more joy out of those few months than we had in years on the corporate scene; it was clear that this was what we needed to do. After a handful of similar projects, sprinkled in between renovating our homes, and while still working for ‘the Man,’ we resigned from our ‘day jobs’ to pursue our passion of design-build full time.
Do you have a greatest lesson learned?
RS: Be straight up and honest with your client; don’t sugar-coat inconvenient realities or tell them what you think they want to hear, especially in terms of deadlines, budget, and schedule.
Tell us about your office culture and design process?
TW: Emporium Design is dedicated to design-build; our passion is the process of concept through construction. There are unique advantages to the budget and schedule to this method, though it’s not for every project type. There is a lot of designing and working through details in the field right alongside the tradesmen and, as such, we both spend much of our day at job sites. Emporium Design is also dedicated to a linear hierarchy with a flexible, casual, and collaborative office culture. Simply put, we focus on making sure our team continues to enjoy doing what we do.
You work on retail and residential spaces as well as restaurants. What is it about working with restaurants that compels you?
RS: There is so much design and detail that goes into a well-crafted restaurant. The lighting, the menu graphics, the serving dishes, to the table construction and so on, all have to respond to that particular restaurant’s concept. At the same time, it must be welcoming, comfortable (but not too comfortable), and not overpower the dining experience. It’s a tough balance. Patrons are tough judges. They notice and appreciate the details, and there are new judges every day.
TW: We also enjoy the pace of restaurant projects. The owner’s expectation typically is, ‘Okay, now that we have the keys-even though we haven’t designed anything yet-we have to start building.’ Imagine the traditional design process where you go through rounds of designs and revisions, and then you talk to contractors, and then you start building. That takes a lot of time. There are many advantages of the design-build method on restaurant projects, and we love being in the field working through details, often with our work clothes on and tools in our hands.
What are some of the challenges of the industry today?
TW: Managing expectations amid expedited schedules and shrinking budgets.
What is one kind of restaurant you would like to work on?
RS: We’re always looking to team up with creative restaurateurs. It’s rewarding to start at the conceptual level of building a brand. We love being a part of every detail from the logo, to the menu, to the built environment.
Carson Street Clothiers, New York
What’s a recent project that was most challenging and why?
TW: Carson Street Clothiers, in New York’s Soho. We were approached by a pair of ex-lawyers who were starting a new high-end men’s fashion label and retail store, and wanted to build a comfortable but ‘edgy’ retail environment that was congruent with the taste and quality of their clothing. Unfortunately for us, by the time we first talked they needed to be open in just over two months. We had to conceptualize, design, and build the space in nine weeksâ€¦with a limited budget. It was a daunting proposition, but it turned out great, and we’re very proud of what the Emporium Design team accomplished.
What’s one project that you are most proud of and why?
RS: Boulton & Watt, a restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side that we designed and built. We are also part of the ownership group, along with the operator (Darin Rubell), the general manager (Jaime Felber), and the executive chef (David Rotter). The name comes from Matthew Boulton and James Watt, of the entrepreneur and engineer duo Boulton & Watt, pioneers and pivotal figures of the Industrial Revolution. The inspiration of the design was Boulton & Watt’s workshop and factory, the Soho Foundry, in Smethwick, England.
Boulton & Watt, New York
TW: Emporium Design was not only given creative ownership of the concept, brand, and design, but, in the truest sense of design-build, also managed the construction process from beginning to end, often designing and improvising in field to keep up with a very ambitious schedule. Concept through construction was five months. We have assembled an amazing team of tradesmen, craftsmen, artists, and material and artifact sources, which allow our designs to come to fruition without a lot of the layers that typically come along with a traditional project.
What are some projects you are currently working on? What’s next for you?
RS: We are now wrapping up a café in Brooklyn, and about to start construction on a loft conversion in Tribeca, both design-build projects. Starting next month, we’re going to be helping a past client of ours with their second NYC location-details still under wraps.
TW: We are excited to be launching Emporium Market this spring, an online store featuring our favorite furniture, light fixtures, and other pieces that are designed and fabricated by the Emporium team. We will also be linking other people, places, and things that we find especially awesome.
Basik, Brooklyn, New York
Most creative solution for a cool design feature that you have recently come up with?
RS: This has to be our industrial steel sliding panels at Boulton & Watt’. We designed and engineered a sliding system in which, with an easy turn of a crank, gears and pulleys are engaged and the doors open or close to reveal or conceal the TVs. All parts are salvaged from old factories, surely not unlike what you would have found at Boulton & Watt’s workshop and factory.
What would be your dream project?
TW: We’re on a path that we hope leads to designing and building boutique hotels or small resorts. It would be great if that happens sooner than later, but what’s for sure is that we’re going to continue honing our craft and having a good time doing it.
What’s the key to a successful collaboration between designer and client?
RS: Honesty. It seems that when relationships break down, expectations weren’t clear or effectively managed. Whether that be in terms of program, design palette, schedule or budget, honest and open communication is critical. Constructive debate is a good thing.
What’s the most important thing to remember when designing a hospitality space?
TW: Comfort. Patrons are happiest when they are comfortable. We saw this in spades when we designed Blind Barber New York and Los Angeles. The vintage-style, industrial barber shop frontage allowed the camaraderie you would find in a throwback men’s club. Including a free drink with a haircut gave clients a reason to stay until last call in the speakeasy, late-night lounge behind a sliding door.
The Blind Barber, New York
Motto to live by…
RS: No fear (like the phrase from the nineties). Rarely is the easiest solution the best solution, and you may need to push the client to make that realization.
Greatest accomplishment so far?
RS: Professionally, working for ourselves. It’s nice to build relationships and projects the way we want.
TW: Personally, we each welcomed baby boys into the world this past fall.
The Blind Barber, Los Angeles
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
RS: If we weren’t designing spaces, we would be getting our hands dirty in another facet of design or fabrication. We’re both really into lighting fabrication, so there’s a good chance you would find us in a shop somewhere.
When you are not in the office we can find youâ€¦
TW: We’re very rarely in the office these days as we’re managing many construction projects. We’re either on site or off sourcing new components of the next space.
Whom do you admire the most? Why were they an influencing factor in your career and life?
RS: My parents. They were always pushing my development and growth as a person and a design professional.
TW: My parents. They still continue to remind me that hard work pays off, good guys win, and family comes first-and of the value of a good cliché.