Nov 27, 2018

Episode 5

Brian Smith, cofounder, Studio Tack


Since Brooklyn-based Studio Tack came on the scene six years ago, Brian Smith and his team have become a highly sought-after firm known for imbuing each space with an authentic touch. The classically trained pianist was a fated storyteller, however, drawing fantasy homes as a kid that were “sort of like these pleasure palace hotels,” he recalls. Perhaps nothing has resonated more with the design world than the firm’s reimagination of the motel. From the Sound View Inn in Greenport, New York to the Anvil Hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Studio Tack has a found a niche that celebrates the great American road trip in a modern, yet nostalgic way.

This episode is brought to you by Global Allies. For more information, go to


Hi, I’m Stacy Shoemaker Rauen, editor in chief of Hospitality Design magazine with HD’s What I’ve Learned podcast. My conversation today is with Brian Smith, one of the four founders of Studio Tack. In just six short years they’ve made a splash on the design scene, reinventing motels and perfecting the ever sought-after authentic touch. It’s a second career for the classically trained pianist, who started out on book publishing.

Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m with Brian Smith he’s a partner at Studio Tack, and who is also a recent Wave of the Future honoree last year for us at HD. Hi, Brian, thanks for joining us.

Brian Smith: Hi, Stacy.

SSR: Thanks for coming.

BS: Thank you for having me. It’s so good to be here to see you again.

SSR: So we’re doing the What I’ve Learned podcast, and just want to start with your early childhood. Did the thought of design ever cross your mind growing up or did you grow up in a household that had design? Were you surrounded by it at all?

BS: It’s interesting because it’s all come full circle for me. My father was an engineer and my mother was a piano teacher. I remember we had a grand piano in our living room, and I started playing the piano when I was about four years old. But in between lessons and during the week I would literally crawl under the piano, and I would draw these sort of fantasy buildings that in my mind were these sort of like pleasure palace hotels. Some were 80 stories tall, and they all had enormous pools in them. I didn’t like the house I grew up in. I lived in a really small sort of forgettable town off of the interstate, and it was a small house; I shared a room with my brother. I always felt like cramped and was living like I was being caved in on. So I would draw these fantasy homes that I thought I could live in. I remember even when I was younger, and I would ride my bike to new subdivisions—and I hope the police aren’t listening—but would break into these homes and just draw them. I would draw all the plans, and I would sit outside and I would draw the elevations. I had a whole collection of these, and I kept them in my room. Then one day I went to look for them, and they were gone. I asked my mother, I said, ‘Where did my drawings go?’ And she goes, ‘Oh, I threw them away,’ and in that instant, it was like all of my hopes and dreams were literally destroyed. I remember not really thinking about it that much, and I continued to study the piano. I went to college on a piano and cello scholarship. That’s what I focused on a lot.

In particular with hotels I remember I was 12 or 13, and we were on a ski vacation, and my grandmother had asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up. I really didn’t know, but when I closed my eyes I just imagined that I was living inside of a hotel, that I was a general manager of a hotel, particularly one that had an atrium with trees and a glass roof. I was obsessed with the idea of hospitality and hotels, and alternate fantasy lifestyle that you could briefly be a part of. Then I dropped it. I never visited until I was living in New York 20 years later.

SSR: You didn’t want to do design in college or did you not know that that was even something you could do?

BS: I didn’t know it was possible. I didn’t know what was the route to take. As I age, I realize that there is no route. At least for my life, there’s just been sort of feeling everything out, and following an instinct or an intuition. I graduated from undergraduate and I moved to New York, and I was a book publicist. I worked at St. Martin’s Press, and I was an assistant to Jackie Collins, who is Joan Collins’ sister, and she wrote, they’re not harlequin novels, but they’re novels about Hollywood blowjobs and things like that. She would take me around the city, and we would go get Pinkberry, and we would move all of Danielle Steel’s books off of the table at Barnes & Noble, and put hers in their place. I loved my job and the experiences that it gave me, but it was missing a creative outlet that I need, that sort of burns inside of me. I think a lot of creatives have that, and that the only way to sort of express themselves is through creating something. And I really wasn’t creating anything at my job, I was helping create an empire for a certain authors, but I wasn’t contributing anything personal to the world.

SSR: Because you also studied journalism in college too?

BS: I studied classical piano in college, and I ended up quitting because you’re going to class from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., and then you go study, and then the normal college kids would go out and have dinner together and get into trouble and have a normal college experience, and I had to go back to the practice rooms and practice the six measures of the Beethoven sonata until I was blue in the face. I was like, this is not how you should spend your college career. You’re only there once, and it shouldn’t be alone at a practice room. So, I quit and decided to major in journalism and I studied theater as well. I did play writing, and to write for me was an incredibly useful tool to understand what’s in my head, and how I’m thinking.

SSR: So you’re in the book publishing world, what drove you to go to architecture school at Columbia?

BS: The idea of studying architecture was something that I thought about when I was in high school, and then when I went to look at college programs, I was like ‘I know I’m good at piano, so I should keep studying that.’ It was something that I was really passionate about, and the idea of jumping that ship and on another one, which I had no idea where it would go and what it was like, scared me. So I decided to keep with the piano, but study it at a public school out of state away from my parents. When I graduated and when I was working at St. Martins Press, I was thinking about all these dreams deferred that I had when I was a kid, and I thought about architecture so I enrolled in a night class at Columbia University called the Introduction to Architecture. I would go to work, then at 6 p.m. I would leave work and I would go there until about 10 or 11 p.m., and I would go home and work a little bit more until about 2 a.m., and then do the whole thing for about four or five weeks. And I loved it. I was obsessed with the way that architects, or the way that Columbia [teachers] in particular, taught you how to rewire your brain to think and observe the world. That to me was a groundbreaking realization—that there was a different way to think. So then I went to architecture school, not really to be an architect but because I was obsessed with the way they thought.

SSR: So you go to architecture school and you graduate, what do you do next?

BS: Like every other college graduate, you’re marooned on this featureless desert of ‘after-college,’ and you’re, like, ‘Well, here I am again.’ You’re at the same place that you were before you went, but now you have these tools and skills, and for me, the most important thing was a new mindset. I’ve always been obsessed with the way that, from my experience in that introduction course, teachers transmit the information that they know to a student. It’s called pedagogy, but in architecture there’s no study of architectural pedagogy. There’s no real comprehensive history or strategy or a distinct pedagogy that teaches someone how to transfer what’s in their brain to a student, because the teachers most likely are in the professional world and all they know is what they know; they weren’t taught to teach architecture, they just do it. And so I became obsessed with that idea about how I could influence other students that were like me, and how I could help them make a decision about joining or studying architecture with a more open mind. That is not to study architecture to be an architect, but to study architecture because it’s a wonderful and an amazing way to approach the world. So I taught.

I applied for a visiting professor position at the University of Florida, and I went there and I taught for about a year. Then, I moved back to New York City, and I taught in the summer at Columbia. Then during the semester, I co-taught at a graduate studio with a former professor of mine. At the same time I’m working with my partners at Studio Tack, Leigh [Salem] and Ruben [Caldwell], and we’re just trying to cobble together some existence that would prevent us from working at an architectural firm. How can we make a living just doing what we know to do, and doing it for ourselves? We started this sort of loose formation of Studio Tack. Leigh and Ruben were working on things like barn conversions and the kayak retail shop. Ruben went to teach at the University of Arizona, and I came back and worked with Leigh. We had taken an iPhone development class at Columbia and we were sort of desperate for money, so we entered this competition that was sponsored by the White House to redesign healthcare data—to reimagine what it would be for a patient to receive information that would describe their existing health condition. We entered this thing, and we designed the interface for printouts in iPhone apps and iPads. Then we got a call, and we ended up winning second place, which we were not expecting at all. All of a sudden, we’re in Fast Company and Wired and Popular Science and New York magazine and The Atlantic. It just gets picked up, and all of a sudden, people are emailing us about designing their healthcare apps. And we’re flying out to San Francisco and literally staying in someone’s garage with a whiteboard helping them organize their data systems visually. That’s how we stayed alive. We made ends meet by doing whatever we could in terms of design to keep us afloat. It’s just so interesting. It seems so obvious, but all architects do is organize information, and that’s what we were doing as designers, just organizing information. We had these skills that we learned in graduate school, and so we just decided to put them to use. We didn’t go to college for software development or anything, but I think that our approach to user interface and user experience was only helped by our education as an architect.

SSR: What did you learn about you as teacher in talking about how teachers don’t usually know how to take the information from their head and teach it to students. What did you take away from that and how do you think that helps your practice today?

BS: I think the one thing that I learned is the power of empathy because you’ve been there, you’ve been in the sit. The goal isn’t to tell the student what to do, but it’s to encourage them to expand their boundaries and to push them into areas in which they are uncomfortable, the unknown. For us as a studio, and as a practice, we’re always searching for that weird, mucky area beyond what the TV and magazines tell us what we should be thinking. We like to embrace those things. If something makes us uncomfortable—if our reaction to something is, that’s weird—that’s a signal that you should dig deeper, and you should ask yourself why you’re reacting that way. Eventually you’ll discover something that you weren’t expecting, perhaps there’s beauty in that thing. You just don’t know how to tease it out.

SSR: So, you’re making these awesome apps and then you when do you officially become Studio Tack?

BS: I love this story, and I never really get to tell it; I always tell the short version. Ruben Caldwell, Leigh Salem, and I were working remotely. Ruben was teaching in Arizona, and Leigh and I were in a studio office underneath the G train in Gowanus. I came into the studio one day and there was this big black dog on the ground, and I was like, ‘Whose dog is this?’ And Leigh goes, ‘I’m not sure, I’m dog-sitting for another friend, who’s dog-sitting for this guy,’ and so I said, “It’s like a leap frog dog-sitting situation?’ So he’s like, ‘He had to leave town, but he had this dog so I’m taking care of him.’ We went to return the dog to its owner, and that owner ended up being Jou-Yie Chou, who is now our fourth partner. So we met Jou-Yie at this bar, and at that time he was the creative and branding director for the Ace Hotel. We’re like, ‘Well, that’s interesting, we’re architects,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve always wanted to do my own stuff, but I’m not trained as an architect.’

He’s a creative thinker. He had this idea. He was on the board of directors for Dogfish Brewery down in Delaware, and he said that the owner Sam [Calagione] had approached him about working on a hotel for them, sort of a launching pad for all the beer enthusiasts that make a pilgrimage down to Rehoboth to see where Dogfish beer is made. Jou-Yie couldn’t do it because he was working at the Ace, but he met us and he was like, ‘If we joined up together, I could leave Ace and we could focus on this and this could be our first project.’ So that’s what we did. Jou-Yie left, and we got a new office in Dumbo. There was no heat, literally. The power would go out every now and then. It was our first time designing a hotel, and what was so amazing about it is that here we were again basically in school learning how to communicate our design ideas to a stranger just like we were trained in school. We were like, ‘What are the things we need to create to convince the client that we’re right?’ It’s like, ‘What drawings do we need to produce? How do they need to look in order to convince them of all of these ideas that are in our head?’ The learning curve was very steep for us at that point, and we were sleeping in the office, under the table, making four hour drives down there on the weekend to show them our work. It was just a hustle, but we loved every minute of it. That opened, and it was well received by the press and that sort of got that proverbial snowball rolling. Then we started picking up other hospitality projects from that.

SSR: And that was almost like six years ago?

BS: It opened in July of 2014. Four years ago.

SSR: You’ve done a lot more in the last four years?

BS: We have.

SSR: There’s four of you. How do you guys work? Do you all stay in your own swim lanes or do you collaborate?

BS: We’re on the pool together throwing floats at each other, swimming around together. We get that question a lot. We’re not organized like a typical firm; we’re very collaborative. I think that’s indicative in our work. It’s not really top down. It’s not about executing a vision. It’s about creating one together. We each have our focus. Leigh went to business school and comes from a finance background. Ruben comes from a construction background, and he’s an amazing timber-frame designer, if you’ve ever seen the timber frames he designs. Jou-Yie comes from the branding and creative world, and I come from all sorts of places. We each offer a very distinct perspective. We’re all very opinionated, so the design process takes a lot longer, and it can be exhausting. But the result, I think, is better because we don’t really give in, we keep fighting for what we think is right.

SSR: And looking back now, what would you like to know starting out a firm that you know now? What have been some of the takeaways?

BS: You see these sayings, like, ‘Everything will work out in the end—those sort to pithy sayings, but if you have a good work ethic and you’re disciplined, and you’ve gotten where you are, you just need to trust yourself that you’re going to do the right things, and you’re going to make the right decisions. It doesn’t mean not to think about those things, and it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get nervous about what’s going to happen tomorrow, like ‘Is our next job going to come? What is our future like?’ But it’s trusting yourself that you have the wherewithal to take on any challenge that comes to you. A lot of people ask us how we got where we are today. We’re as equally talented as we are in the right place at the right time. Luck has something to do with it, of course, but the idea of luck is more about following an instinct of being in the right place at the right time, and also just doing what you love to do. So many people try to anticipate what it is that other people want. That’s not the right way to go about it. It’s just do what you do, do what you love, and eventually someone’s going to love that because they’re going to see the passion behind it. It’s going to be unexpected and refreshing.

SSR: I think you can see that in your work. Lately, you’ve had a knack for reinventing motels, bringing back nostalgia but also making it relevant to today, which is easier said than done. Why do you think this resonates so much with people today and talk a little bit about your experience in this niche?

BS: The idea of the American road trip is something that was sponsored by the invention of the automobile. All of a sudden, vacations were about the journey to the place as much as they were about the place you were going. Out of necessity you needed to stop somewhere and sleep, so these roadside motels were built. If they weren’t on the roadside, they were within a drivable distance from major urban areas, like you have the Catskills, or the Borscht Belt, the famous area of escapism for people from New York City. Because of the car, you had this inventory of buildings that didn’t exist before. They were independently owned and family run. And now (this is 40, 50 years later) we’re seeing those buildings come back on the market because the family isn’t interested in carrying it on or the owners have passed away. Now there’s this inventory of really cool midcentury motels. The need now isn’t about providing a place for a family in a van to sleep, the need now is that people crave experiences not just places to sleep. You have people in search of different experiences where the destination could be the hotel itself. What we’ve done over the past three or four years is try to create places that hit the emotional strings inside of people, and there’s a bit of nostalgia. You can’t help it. People don’t build stuff like that anymore, and they never will because it’s all about profits and efficiencies and construction. You would never really build the Sound View Inn. You can’t because it’s on the water. When you rehabilitate them in the right way, they retell a story through a new lens, one that pulls on the heartstrings of people without being overly sentimental or saccharine about it.

SSR: The Sound View Inn in Long Island, it swept our midscale category at the HD Awards, which I think was such a testament to where this industry is heading and what people are looking for. You did a panel for me at HD Expo on authenticity, and I think it’s a word that’s used so much in what people are trying to strive for. It’s easier said than done, but you have found a knack for doing that.

BS: I love that you had that panel and that that word was chosen because so often we’re inundated with blogs and magazines that are all about prescribing the trends. I’m so happy that a trend is about authenticity. There’s a dichotomy in that word between it being open and undefined, but at the same time, to really do something authentic it has to be very specific. So the word authenticity to us doesn’t necessarily mean something needs to be genuine or real. We are huge believers in theatrical reality, creating spaces that aren’t necessarily real, but they feel real and that’s the point. It’s not that we’re trying to mimic some sort of design or process, but we’re in it to create an experience. If you design a hotel in an urban setting and you’re trying to develop a program for it, if the hotel is in Brooklyn, what you don’t do is put murals of Brooklyn up. People know where they are. Instead, you look to the city for clues about the experiences and how you might thread that through the hotel. You might have a resident psychic or you might have a real bodega that has a real person with a real family working there and you can go buy real things like gum and Cheez-Its. As soon as people sniff out that there is an ulterior motive to something or that people are after profits or you’re trying to sneak in something, they’ve lost trust in you. Authenticity is all about trust. People want to believe, and if you give them a reason not to, if they can somehow sense that you’re scheming them to believing that there’s some place that they’re not, the experience is over.

SSR: If you get them to believe, you find that cult following that everyone hopes for.

BS: You’ve seen this happen a lot, and we see this with big brands branching out in terms of their offerings for hotel experiences, but it’s about finding that balance between the people that are loyal to a brand and then the people who also want to experience something else. I think social media and Instagram have played a huge role in that. I see people in places that I would have never dreamed could have even existed. So I’m clicking on the geotags, and I’m looking at where they are and what they are doing and all of a sudden my Starwood points don’t mean as much anymore. As much as those places are important at establishing consistent and reliable experiences in hospitality, there’s this other side of the unknown. I think that’s what people are gravitating towards now, is taking a risk on and going somewhere that they’ve never heard of for the chance that it might offer a truly unique experience.

SSR: Well you guys took risk on owning your own place up in Saratoga, so you have an interesting perspective because you’ve seen it from the ownership side and from a designer side and you guys do invest in quite a lot of the properties that you work on. Tell us a little bit about Saratoga and what you guys did there.

BS: A lot of the ways that we’ve worked with our first clients the scope has been much broader than just designer. We’re helping them with programming, we’re helping them align with brands and strategic partners for food and beverage, and we’re helping craft what that experience is inside and out of the hotel. That means down to the systems that are involved in creating it, the human resources, the smells, the outfits, the person behind the desk, what their attitude is like. We were really anxious to ry it on our own. We were looking for a property that was small enough that we could manage it remotely from our office in Brooklyn but that was close enough that we could drive up there if we needed to be there in a couple of hours or so.

We found this hotel called the Brentwood in Saratoga Springs. What was interesting about it to us was the location of the hotel with its proximity to the horse track, which the Saratoga racecourse is the oldest sporting venue in the United States. If you’ve ever seen Harry Potter where they do Quidditch, it has this sort of other worldliness to it, like old school, old story vibe to it. There’s no other hotel around it, and for us it’s like to be able to introduce a product to that market that close to the racetrack is something that is irreplaceable. You cannot do that again, just like you cannot build the Sound View again. The context of the place, where it is in relationship to the city or another attraction whether it be a horse racecourse or the water, is one of the key factors that we look for when we’re looking for an investment property.

We bought this motel and it was like a crack den. People would bring their own sheets to the hotel, and they would still get $325 a night, and people were bringing their own sheets. It just needed a little bit, nothing too crazy but a cool renovation. We opened a six-stool bar, and we made the grounds more about being outside and social. It’s the only racetrack in the country where the horses are kept on the grounds and the stables around it so, and the Brentwood is located amongst all those stables, so the horses literally walk by every day with the jockeys. It’s just so cool, you sit by the firepit and you watch these horses go by, and it’s like you’re in another time. It’s something that we’re really proud of because it’s ours, and we have a lot of pride in creating something like that, which didn’t exist before. And so after that, we’re addicted to that and we’re after more. We have something to say, but the only way to say it is if we actually do it and own it.

SSR: So I have to ask what was it like renovating your own place. I know that took a lot of labor and a hands on approach. What have you learned from operating even a small inn? It still takes a level of detail and patience.

BS: Twelve rooms might as well be 100 rooms. It doesn’t matter. In printing they call it a make-ready charge. All the things that you have to do just to get something going is the same basically for a 12 room hotel versus 100 rooms. For us, we were up there on the weekends in the heat of the summer pounding nails. Ruben was literally crafting the bar from pieces of lumber with a saw in the parking lot. Our wonderful team would come up there and pound nails and run to Home Depot. It’s an enormous undertaking, even though it doesn’t look like much in terms of the scale, but if you’ve ever renovated a house, you know just to paint a room, there’s so many steps you have to take. It was a labor of love, but one that we’ll certainly do again.

SSR: And operating hasn’t turned you off because you want another one?

BS: Operating is interesting. We don’t want to be hotel operators, but we want to contribute to the dialogue of how hotels are operated. We want to influence operations because a hotel is only as good as it’s service. The design could be amazing, but no one’s going to write a review online that says, ‘This hotel was amazing except the staff was terrible.’ No one’s going to give a hotel five stars for the design and then one star for the service. If the service is bad, the hotel is bad. So we wan to help influence that but not necessarily in a very direct and hands on way.

BS: We have a staff of three and a housekeeper, and that’s manageable from a distance. But the learning experiences we’ve taken there even though it is 12 rooms, I think are applicable to any other sort of hotel operation at a scale to 300 rooms.

SSR: What’s next for you guys? You’re growing, maybe a new office? How big is your team now?

BS: Twelve, soon to be 13, 14. We don’t want to be a big office. We like to keep it small, lean, and tight. But what we do see is our roles in the process of opening or designing a hotel would perhaps become a little larger and more involved, not necessarily from a design perspective but from influencing operations and the development side. Currently, we’re working on a hotel in Lima, Peru, which is a 15-story new build in a city that is so ready for a design intervention. The food there is amazing, one of the best culinary experiences I’ve ever had in my life, and they’re ready for a new approach to design and hospitality.

We’re working on a hotel in Kuala Lumpur that’s under construction right now, one in Penang that will be a new tower, and then we’re doing a few in the states, [including in] Upstate New York and in the Finger Lakes, one out in Santa Clara outside of San Francisco, and we recently began to branch out in terms of the programming. We’re working with this amazing therapy startup out of San Francisco and creating spaces that are about mindfulness, [asking ourselves] what it would mean to approach the idea of therapy and group sessions and meditation and mindfulness from the perspective of hospitality. We like to reach out, just as Leigh and I did with iPhone back in school. We like to see how the way that we’ve been thinking and working and how might it be applied to other adjacent industries.

SSR: We’ve been looking at that a lot in the magazine how’s hospitality influencing healthcare and workplace. It’s a good time to be in hospitality-

BS: It is.

SSR: Thank you so much for being here. This has been such a pleasure. I hope to see you soon.