Mar 12, 2024

Episode 126

Julien Albertini


Growing up in Brooklyn, New York and then Long Island, Julien Albertini, cofounder of Asthetíque, was influenced by his architect father and his mother, who loved redecorating their home. He studied architecture and then finance, designing small projects around the city until he met his business partner, the Moscow-based designer Alina Pimkina. Their vision and goals aligned, and their design firm, with offices in New York, Miami, and recently Riyadh, has showcased that rich intersection of masculine and feminine in projects for the past seven years, from Café Polet in Moscow to Kahawa Café in Doha. Here, Albertini shares his journey from architecture and finance student to successful entrepreneur.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Julien Albertini of Asthetíque. Thanks so much for joining me today, how are you?

Julien Albertini: Thank you for having me.

SSR: Of course, I’m excited. Okay, let’s dive in. So, we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

JA: I grew up in Brooklyn. So, I was born in Brooklyn and actually I would say around 11 I moved to Long Island. And so, went to high school in Long Island, and then I eventually moved back to Long Island City when I was about 23. And here I am.

SSR: Here you are. What were you like as a kid? Was there any inkling that you’d go into the design world?

JA: Yeah. So, funny thing is I was supposed to be born in May, but I was born in March. And so, that describes me in a nutshell. I’m impatient. Two month preemie, born full. I think my mom said I was like eight pounds or something like that, which to be honest I have no idea what that means, but she said, “You’re heavy-”

SSR: That’s big. That’s a full term baby, that’s a big baby.

JA: Yeah. So, that describes me in a nutshell. My father was an architect and my mom absolutely loves to redecorate the home. So, ever since I was a kid I was just born in a house where mom is always bringing in a new sofa, rearranging her room, and my dad, of course was a retail architect, so learned a lot from that.

SSR: Amazing. Do you have any trips of going on projects with him, or any trips you all took just in general?

JA: So, to get a little bit deeper, my mom and dad actually split up when I was about three. So, it was funny because the main way I would actually experience my relationship with my dad was actually mainly on business trips. So, when he was working for a firm called Phillips-Van Heusen, he would actually bring me to the US Open, because Izod had a partnership with the US Open. So, I’d go on trips like that. I’d actually always go to his office in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and hang out in his office, and he’d give me pens and markers, and I’d draw, and he’d tell me how to sketch and stuff like that. And then my mom, on the weekends, and I lived primarily with my mother, but my mom on the weekends would take me to open houses and tag sales all throughout Long Island.

And I would go into these new homes, I would look inside and I was always so curious to say, “Okay, how do other people live? What do they have in their house?” And I was always super inspired about architecture. Again, design community. So, it’s sort of both my mom and my dad brought me to this point where I was super interested in design, super interested in residential design especially, and then a flare of fashion was a sprinkle on it all. My mom was a model. My dad was a model as well. They actually met at a fashion show. And my dad actually, before he got into architectural design, he was designing women’s clothing, which I guess sparked his creativity.

record room long island city queens new york

Record Room in Queens, New York of which Albertini is a partner; photo courtesy of Record Room

SSR: Amazing. Fun fact, I lived right near Bridgewater so I went to the Bridgewater Mall all the time so we probably crossed paths. So wait, what type of model were they? 

JA: My mom was a runway model. My mom is 5’10”. She was statuesque, still is statuesque. My dad is about 6’2″, and he was just a male model as well, and just two good-looking people, both swaggy, just got together and had a baby.

SSR: Oh my God, amazing. All right. So, did you end up going to school for design?

JA: Yes. So, before I went to school actually, my dad introduced me to Steven Segure, who was actually a partner at TPG Architecture at the time. So, I had my first internship at around 16. I was hanging out in TPG architectural space, and I remember I was like, “I love this. This is really, really cool.” I had a little bit of a flavor, and then I went to school for architecture. I went to NYIT in Long Island in Old Westbury.

SSR: What was that internship like? What were you doing? Were you just answering phones and pushing paper?

JA: Yeah. I’m going to repeat this, so give a little break. But at TPG Architecture, what we did is they actually send me to different locations to help them take surveys. So, just measure spaces. But they also, what’s really, really funny is my dad taught me how to use SketchUp when it just came out, when Google actually owned it before Trimble took it over, and I was using it since I was maybe 12 years old. So, when I get to TPG Architecture, they still haven’t taken SketchUp and put it through their process on how to design. So, little me is in the office and I’m showing these people how to use SketchUp, and I’m like, “It’s a really cool program, you build things really quick in it,” and so on and so forth.

And they’re like, “Who’s this little kid?” And it was really, really fun. So, some of the other projects is, there was Band in a Bubble, which was MTV had this show where they actually took a band and they put them in a bubble off the piers in Brooklyn. So I was helping them, obviously not too much design work, but just helping them pick materials and stuff like that. But primarily it was a fun experience in the architectural world. Plus they had a beautiful office on Park Avenue.

SSR: Right, which didn’t hurt. So, did going to architecture school cement your love for it?

JA: Actually, I think it detracted me a little bit, because when I got to architectural school, you were leaving the studio at 2:00 in the morning, 3:00 in the morning, and then you go through your critiques. And what I really came to realize is that architecture, of course is very opinionated, but it’s about the way that you describe the story of what you design. It’s not so much how it looks aesthetically, it’s actually how do you say why it looks the way it does. And I learned that in architecture, in architectural school, that as an architect you have to really love it, and you have to be super passionate about it because there’s a lot of other jobs that you can take that may make a ton more money in the same amount of time.

You could work on a residential project or a hospitality project for three years, but there’s a lot of other things and other jobs that you could potentially work to do other things. So, what ingrained in me is that I really do love the industry. I love to design, and I do want to move forward with it. But what I would like to do, because I actually left architectural school after two years, went to school for finance, is that how do you now build a business and put a business mind behind an architectural brand? And that’s what I started to apply after college.

SSR: Amazing. Okay, so you left architecture school, you went to get a finance degree. Where did you go?

JA: I went to Baruch College in the city, really by luck of my aunt. I told her one day I was getting super cold to feed with architecture and I said, “I think I want to change my degree.” And she was a managing partner of Lehman Brothers at the time. And so, one of the best mentors that I had, and she said, “There’s two things that I want you to do. One is never stop making money. I don’t care what you work, work at a grocery store, always put some dollars in your pocket, make you comfortable. And then number two,” she’s like, “If you don’t like it and you don’t believe it, you should try something else and do it very, very quickly.” And so, what I did is I left architectural school. She was actually on the board of trustees for Baruch College in the city. So, I called her one day and I said, “I want to switch, and I wanted to try finance.” She’s called me literally in a week and she’s like, “You’re admitted to Baruch College.”

SSR: Good woman to have in your corner.

JA: And so, I ended up going to Baruch College for finance.

SSR: Amazing. Okay, so now you have a little bit of the architecture, a lot of the finance. What did you do when you came out of school?

JA: So when I came out of school, so just around this time I met my now wife, Samantha. I was going to work for Merrill Lynch. I was at the gates of Merrill Lynch, I was also looking to potentially get into the insurance business, either working at Axa, or working at MetLife, or working at a different firm. And my wife’s father, he works in the insurance industry and he said, “Is this something that you really want to do?” He’s like, “You’re too creative for this.” So right after school, after figuring out what I wanted to do, I actually started to design small projects for my friends. They were opening up sneaker stores.

SSR: Okay. So, you were at the gates of Merrill Lynch and your father-in-law said … Your future father-in-law. Yeah.

JA: My future father-in-law, he came to me and he says, “Julien, are you sure that you want to go into finance and insurance?” He says, “You’re too creative for that.” So, what I did is I said, “You know what? You’re right.” I started to design small fixtures for friends of mine. They had sneaker stores all throughout New York. And then also my father, he actually allowed me to help him design some fixtures for some of these retail stores that he was working on. So Izod, Bass, Vinusian, Jeffrey Bean, all of those stores they had shops in Macy’s, et cetera. So, I started to design these small fixtures. That then eventually graduated and said, “Okay, why don’t you design the full store fit out at these department stores?” Then that started to grow and said, “Why don’t you design the full store with Izod? Give us a concept and we could look to implement it.”

And so, slowly but surely I was building my design design capabilities really through retail design. And then, eventually that grew and I said, “Why don’t I construct some of the things that I’m designing on the millwork side?” So, I opened up a millwork shop in Medford, Long Island, and all of the projects that I was designing I was creating the fixtures for in my millwork shop. What’s great about that is I was learning a lot about how to actually fabricate the things that I was dreaming about, which gave me I think a lot of experience. Then that led into doing construction. I said, “Okay, if I’m going to build it, I’m going to design it, I’m going to fabricate it, why don’t I construct it?” When I got into construction, I made every single mistake you could possibly think of.

SSR: What were some of the big ones?

JA: All right, so I’m 21 at the time. I don’t know who the hell in their mind would trust a 21-year-old to reconstruct their house. All right, so one of the projects was to change a half basement into a full basement. So as you know, half basement, the foundation walls are a little bit smaller than the footprint of the first floor. So, the owner came to us and says, “Why don’t you tear this down? Why don’t we excavate all of the dirt that’s underneath the home, and just so we can open up the full basement to the full depths of the home?”

It was a beautiful home in Plainview in Long Island. So I went into this job, I did everything the right way. I brought in an architect, I found a contractor, I priced out the project. The one thing I didn’t know is that when you touch dirt that hasn’t been touched for years, it’s naturally compacted. So, one of the biggest mistakes was I priced it out for two containers, three containers. When we start excavating, which happened to take 10 times more time than I thought it was going to take, we didn’t have enough dumpsters that were outside. Also, my contractor ended up running out on the project because he was like, “This is way too much work,” than I thought it was going to be as well. So, 21-year-old me is sitting down with my client and saying, “Hey, the contractor ran out on the job, it’s going to cost more money. I really don’t know what the hell I’m doing here.”

So, what’s great about that is you make all these mistakes at a young age and it actually teaches you how to actually work and do these things in the future. So, everything could have happened wrong. I mean, ordering cabinets wrong, the door is hitting each other, all the mistakes that you just don’t make ordering door handles wrong, upside down, so on and so forth. But again, all of this happened when I was 21, 22, luckily with people and clients that were very trusting in me, because at the end of the day I would show up again. I would make sure that the project gets done. It may have taken longer, but in the end of the day it actually was completed and it looked good. So, that eventually grew into nowadays what we call Asthetique.

Airplane motifs nod to space travel at Café Polet in Moscow

SSR: I love it though, you’re just figuring it out as you go, but these are things that you don’t forget. So, I think that’s those mishaps, those failures stick with you so you never do them again, or hope you don’t do again.

JA: That’s right.

SSR: All right. So, how many years did it take to grow into Asthetique, and how did you meet your partner as well?

JA: So in between, I think after I earned some stripes from learning on projects, I ended up meeting a partner actually to do larger scale construction. I’m going to stop. I’m sorry, I have to pause. So, I had a partner that I met through a friend of a friend. We opened up a construction company together, and we were doing large scale construction projects in the city, like Ludlow Hotel. We did the full interiors for Ludlow Hotel, and some other projects throughout the city, like the current wall for 1 Hotel Central Park. That partner introduced us to Alina. He says, “There’s a really cool designer from Russia in town, I really think you should meet her.” And said, “Sure, why don’t I meet her?” So, I met Alina at Zuma on Madison Avenue one day, she came to that meeting with this big book of this company that she wanted to start in the states called Poetica.

First off, the book is half the size of Alina. And I’m like, “Who comes to the first meeting with this humongous book?” It was like a pitch session. And I was like, “I love this girl.” So, I start flipping through this book and it was a really beautiful book, and it was well put together, well articulated, and had a really interesting design style. Now, I had my own design style, which was this masculine New York design style, and she had this beautiful European design style, and I always felt that if we could merge those two together we would have a really interesting design style for the New York market. So we met, we started the company, and we sat down in her living room one day and we threw a couple of names out.

And we were like, “We want something that’s based off of just aesthetic, but something that would be representative of maybe a brand that could build into other things.” So furniture, lighting, et cetera. So, we threw the name out Aesthetic, and then we said, “Why don’t we just make it sound fancy?” And so, we said, “Throw some-

SSR: Asthetique.

JA: Yeah, Asthetique.

SSR: Neither one of you are French, right? But that’s fine. Just kidding. That’s awesome. I mean, I guess quick question, looking back now, was there something you wish you had known then about starting a design firm? Or is ignorance bliss? Like you and Alina have good chemistry, there’s something there in terms of work ethic, and look, and feel, but then starting a company together.

JA: That’s a great question. I think one of the key things that I wish I would’ve learned very early on is that design projects happen to take more time than you wish it would. It’s just the nature of the business, it’s just what it is. You could have a timeline, you could have a schedule, you could have budgets, you could plan everything out perfectly. I was doing projects with Turner at the World Trade Center for Conde Nast, and even Turner was slipping up on things. So, it doesn’t matter what level you are in the business, there are things that are going to happen and you just have to be ready to let them roll off the shoulders and keep it moving, because that’s the things that we’ve learned today, which has I think helped us navigate the business. And so, I think if I wished I knew that there was a little bit more to the design business versus just designing beautiful things, I think we would’ve structured the company a little bit different. I think probably grown a bit quicker hiring the right people, putting the right people in place.

SSR: Yeah, got it. And I guess too, looking back, I mean, you had to work on cool projects like the Ludlow, and you just said the Conde Nast building, and 1 Hotel, building the curtain wall there. I mean, what did you take away from getting out of the retail realm and getting the hospitality realm that you kept with you?

JA: What I took is really the speed and the storytelling. One is on the retail side, you’d have a lot of these brands who are like, you are working with union shops that are redoing, let’s say a Macy’s fit out. They’re like, “We need this done in six weeks, we need this done in eight weeks,” or, “We need this done in three months. Let’s go fully custom renovation and do everything from start to finish.” And also work with compliance within the location that you’re working with, and making sure that you’re not egregious on any timelines, you’re not egregious on what you’re designing. So taking that idea, applying it to the storytelling with hospitality as a brand, I think is something that Alina and I sort of, I’m not going to say perfected, but I think we’re really, really good at. It’s like it’s not just about designing a pretty space.

It’s not just about taking exactly what the client says and giving it to them on a silver platter. It’s more about, okay great, you’re looking to create a restaurant. What is the name of the restaurant? What is the food? What part of the country is the food representative of? And how does the furniture in the space, how do the walls, how does everything in the space pull together? What is the sound system? What type of music are you going to be listening to in the space? And then on top of that, once you have that full package, which we consider what we call like a store in a box, then how do you scale it into new markets if possible? So, taking the business acumen, taking the retail acumen, and then Alina taking really the strong branding advertising acumen that she has in creative direction, putting it all together and then packaging it, and handing off to her clients.

SSR: Amazing. And talk about how you two work together. What are your strengths and weaknesses, and what are her strengths and weaknesses? And how do they play off of each other or compliment each other?

JA: Yeah, this is a perfect question. So, it’s like ebony and ivory, we always say with Alina and I. So on my side, I think I’m more of the big picture guy. I’m more of I’ll set the first stone. Alina would be the detailer. So, when we actually were designing projects together, obviously now we have a team now and we work with the team on designs, but the way it would typically work is I would start and I’d build the architecture of this space. I’ll build the mold of everything, and then she would come in and say, “Okay, great. Why don’t we add this detail here? Why don’t we use this tile here? Why don’t we use this feature here?” So, she’ll come and she’ll detail everything, and honestly, it worked out perfectly. And that’s actually how we work with the team as well. So, I’ll work on the Asthetique side on the bigger moves of the business, while she works with our design team to tweak everything and make sure that all that stuff is running very tight where necessary.

SSR: Got it. Okay. And how big is your team now?

JA: Our team is about 10. We’re split amongst three offices. We have New York, Miami, and Riyadh. Riyadh being the newest office in Saudi Arabia.

SSR: Yeah, congrats. When did that open?

JA: That opened last summer. We had an amazing trip to Saudi Arabia. We have three active projects in the region, one in Doha, one in KAFD in Riyadh, and one in Al Khobar, which is the western side of Saudi near Bahrain. We went there and we realized that we have some active projects. We’re like, “This is amazing place to be for a designer.” There’s so many new projects, there’s an opportunity to really take a blank canvas and turn it into something amazing. And so we said, “We’re young, we could take the shot. I think we’re smart, why don’t we go out there and we actually make something happen?” And so again, the fear in us is so minimal because again, we made all these mistakes like messing up people’s basements when we’re young, we’re like, “What’s the worst that can happen?” So, really educated decision is that why don’t we create something beautiful for the region, and take our creativity and apply it where we see fit?

SSR: Yeah, that makes sense. Has there been one project that you think put you guys on the map as a firm?

JA: Yeah, for sure. I would say on the hospitality side, it was Polet. It was a project that was very funky, it was a project in Moscow actually, and the client wanted us to design a space that paid homage to the aeronautical industry in Russia. So, how do we take all of this UFO style, these different futuristic materials, retro style, package it up in a space that had a cafe, a fine dining portion, and a private dining portion, and do it in a funky cool way? And I think it not only showed how we can take all these different facets, and put it together and still tell a story, I also thought it really set us apart in how we were presenting ourselves as a design firm.

Because at the time we were designing a lot of things that had plaster walls and was beige tones, and it looked very calming. And I think it was like, wait, this is the same company? And I think it was really, really cool to showcase the amount of custom millwork and custom design that we can add to a space as well to help our clients really brand their designs and their concepts to separate themselves from the competitors in the market.

SSR: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s what you guys do really well is you layer so much detail, but in such a simplistic way. Does that make sense? It feels very natural but there’s so much attention to detail, and I think that comes in your millwork, that comes in the details. Do you think that stems from your time working in construction and being able to figure all this out, and realizing where it matters to spend the money?

JA: Yeah. I actually just think it’s the natural balance between Alina and I. Again, we like a space to breathe, but also we like to balance that breath with some smaller scale items. So, it’s really just a balance in the space and I think that’s the beauty in it. So, it’s really a personification of Alina and myself.

Moscow restaurant Café Polet has a futuristic theme; photo by Mikhail Loskutov

SSR: Love it. Okay, what has been one of your most challenging projects and why? Minus the one basement one.

JA: Okay, exactly. Most challenging project definitely falls on the residential side. And the reason why is because you’re handling so many different emotions when it comes to a residential project. I think when it comes to commercial projects, they’re a little bit more stoic. Just let’s get the project done, let’s do it as cost-effective as possible, but let’s make it as nice as possible. Residential, the residential project that we’re working on, and we’re still working on it, it’s running three years now, it’s about a $20 million build. It’s a waterfront home in Florida, in Fort Lauderdale. Very special client. And the client, she knows what she wants, but at the same time, because the project has been stretched out for three years, changes what she wants as well throughout the way. And so, it’s really going back, making sure that whatever we designed originally is going to stay put. Dealing with coordination with all the architects on the project while going through all the changes, and just making sure that everything stays tight. I think challenging is, I think the better word that I could use for the project.

SSR: Well, I mean, look. When you do residential, you’re their psychologist, you’re their friend, you’re their builder, you’re a little bit of everything. So, probably layers in.

JA: That’s right. Exactly.

SSR: Where do you see Asthetique growing? How long has it been now that you guys have launched?

JA: Seven years.

SSR: Seven years, okay. So, where do you see you guys at 10 years and at 15 years? I mean, do you have a plan for it, or are you just more hoping to see it grow organically like it has been?

JA: So it’s funny, you know what they say, believe in your intuition? Everything comes full circle. So, when I was 16 years old and saying that architecture, working really hard and there was an opportunity cost to do something else, honestly, I’ve had the pleasure of working and consulting with real estate tech startups, FinTech startups, which I’m a creative director of a new FinTech startup that’s wildly successful right now. I’ve seen scale in various business models, and business types and categories. What Alina and I have now realized is saying we absolutely love the design industry and we’re never going to leave it. So, Asthetique studio design will always exist. But what we did realize is that why don’t we offer the same things that we built our brand off of for other designers? And that being, we’ve started a new company actually, I haven’t told you about this, but it’s named Atelier. And it’s a custom millwork and architectural millwork firm, and it’s a syndicate of factories all across the globe that produce amazing millwork but don’t really understand how to market themselves.

And what’s great about this is it’s a win-win-win for everyone. Not to make it too boring and to geek out about it, but it’s really just based off of labor arbitrage. Find good factories in countries where the labor costs are cheaper, and then bring those products that you’re making custom millwork back to the states. So, designers get to save a lot of money, we have great trade pricing for the designers so they can mark it up and they could actually utilize this as additional stream of revenue. And on top of that, we’re empowering all these other factories and places all around the world, and we’re the front face of it, and we’re actually filtering and giving them so many projects to help support their businesses. And yeah, so that’s where we’re at.

SSR: That’s exciting. So, is it just companies you’ve found along the way?

JA: That’s exactly right. So, all of the factories that we’ve been using, and helping us build our business and brand, we’re starting to work with them. And we’re saying, “Why don’t we be the front face of this for you? And why don’t we help bring you a bunch of business?” And so, we’re building a new platform and we’re coining the term, I don’t know if it exists already, MillTech. We’re a millwork tech company. And really what it is how you order food on Seamless and Domino’s, why isn’t there a system where if I want a custom sofa made, or let’s say I’m working on a larger project, let’s say a Marriott, and I need 200 rooms made, why isn’t there a portal I could go into and say, “Okay, my beds are 50% complete, here are progress photos of it. Here’s all the materials that we’ve selected.”

It’s very clean right in front of you, you understand what’s the specification, you understand the cost of your material. You could print out a report. If you are, let’s say a designer, you could now give a proper report to your clients and say, “This is exactly when things are going to be received.” If you’re a contractor, you could log into the portal, it could connect to Procore, and you could say, “Okay, great. I understand that these items that were attached to this project are going to be built in.” And it has an exclamation point next to it for us to triple check and confirm what the site dimensions are, to make sure that we’re properly communicating with the factory that this is going to be installed properly. So, all of the pain points that we see as designers within the process of creating custom millwork, why don’t we solve that through a tech platform and then offer it to designers alike, so that they are less scared to go custom, less scared to go custom means a little bit more money in their pocket.

And also they have more of a distinction with their designs, because they’re able to bring their ideas really to life without worrying about price. And the final thing I’ll say, and what I’ve learned is that we’ve got so comfortable with our tradesmen that when we design something, we’re so confident that we can build it, it allows us to think way more free. And I think we’ve all been there at the table where we’ve designed something beautiful, got the pricing and be like, “Oh shit. All right, we’ve got to scale back. We’ve got to value engineer, we’ve got to redesign.” That’s time wasted for you and your team, that’s time wasted honestly for your clientele. And also, what’s great about that is if you have the confidence while you’re designing to just create something beautiful and know, okay, I know it’s going to cost $500 for that custom chair.

I know it’s going to cost $10,000 for a custom sofa that would cost me $40,000 in the states. Why wouldn’t I design it and why wouldn’t I go for that? And also, what we’re doing cool, for all of the designers that we’re working with, we’re creating little plaques for them that they could put onto the furniture so it’s their furniture. So, we’re just effectively creating it on their behalf. So again, the empowerment is there. And not to be too long-winded, the final-final thing that is going to be really important about this is that we wanted to create a resource for designers in prime cities, 1,000 square feet location. The biggest issue for designers is finding samples. Why isn’t there one location? I could find wood samples, I could find stone samples, metal samples, plastic, glass samples. Why doesn’t that exist? Why do I have to go to five different manufacturers to get one thing? That’s a lot of time wasted.

So, what we’re doing is we’re going to be creating these resources, again, 1,000 square feet of Atelier workshops. You could go into your city, you could spend an hour there, and you could get all the materials you’ll potentially need for your project. If you want to come back to us first to create anything custom, that’s great. But for $25, you could pick up per sample, you could leave, and you could have all the samples for one project. Which again, saving time, saving costs, that’s what we’re looking to solve because for some reason it doesn’t really make sense that it doesn’t exist to this day.

SSR: Yeah, I guess the samples have to just be able to be used, widely known to be used by enough people. But yeah, sounds great. And how many factories do you think you’ll be working with?

JA: So, right now we have two factories. We have one in Mexico and one in Indonesia. We actually have had, can’t say the name, but there’s a very, very well-known manufacturer that we are about to ink with. They’re based out of Australia, so there’s a little hint there. And we’re about to ink with them to actually start to expand their product line and be the preferred factory that utilizes their product to build all of their projects.

SSR: That’s exciting. And curious, is it also millwork for custom bookshelves and that kind of stuff? Or just straight furniture pieces, but everything you need it for?

JA: Three key things. So, it’s anything built-in. So cabinets, custom bookcases, anything of that sort. If you flip it upside down and shake it, anything that’s loose as well. So sofas, tables, chairs, decor, et cetera. And then art and sculpture. So, if you want a beautiful wooden sculpture, metal sculpture or anything like that, that you can design, we could also create it.

SSR: Very cool. Amazing. Well that’s exciting, and seems like it’s going full circle too for what you started doing with your dad, and now coming back full circle, which I love those stories. Okay. So through all this, what is the part of the process that you still love the most?

JA: I think the process is my favorite part of the process. I’m in love with the weeds. I’m in love with figuring it out and problem solving. On my Instagram, I said we’re creative problem solvers. That is my favorite part. It’s actually coming up with a project, someone saying, “Hey, this is something I want to solve,” and us actually figuring out how to solve it. And going through the motions, and bringing other teams together, and really creating an orchestra. The finished product, I think is the beauty in it. And that’s like the icing on the cake to walk into the project and say it’s completed. But to actually successfully bring in so many different parties, emotions, personalities together for one common goal, and then to do that again, and again, and again, I think that’s my favorite part.

SSR: Do you have a dream project?

JA: Yes. Dream project is to create my own city, or to be part of creating my own city. Or let me not say my own city, to work with a team that’s creating a new city. So, that’s why Saudi Arabia was a very strategic play for us because the beauty, what they’re doing in the Middle East and other places around the world that are creating these new cities is they’re creating everything that’s efficient. So in New York, the subway was an afterthought, the roads were an afterthought. There’s a lot of things that were an afterthought. Imagine starting tabula rasa, just clean slate, and just creating everything with all the efficiencies. I want to put a subway here, I want to put a monorail here, I want to put this as the park. Everything is planned from scratch, and I think the beauty in that is that they’re trying to create these utopias, which sort of things that we dream about but they’re actually trying to do it, and what’s great is it’s under construction as we speak. So, yeah. I lost you.

SSR: It’s interesting to think of it that way, right? To think about how cities were built back when and now how they’re being built now, and how you can make them more efficient, make them greener, make them more experiential just by knowing what you need or thinking you know what you need.

JA: Yeah. No, for sure. If we look at where, again, not to double down on the Middle East, if we really look at what they’re doing when they’re building these new cities, the same way that you look at, let’s say the Miami market, or the Dallas market, how these places where the costs were cheap for some time, that broaden a lot of investment and then all these cities started to move there. Sorry, all these companies started to move there. And it’s really because the governments within those cities were setting it up for success. No state income tax in Texas, no state income tax in Florida, all these people want to move there and they want to move their businesses there because it’s an attractive place to live and save capital. Same thing that’s happening in the Middle East is happening here, where in the Middle East they’re saying, “Okay, no income tax. You could be a business and we’re giving you all these incentives.

Not only that, and I think the biggest difference is the government is throwing so much money into building out the infrastructure, I think a lot more than they’re doing here in the States, that what we’re starting to see is that they’re just setting it up for success so that in 10 years we may be sitting here in New York City and saying, “Great, it’s a beautiful city and there’s nothing that’ll ever change about New York City. But if I could move to the Middle East and live in a house that’s going to be wildly cheaper, I could still make a lot of money, I could be extremely safe, and I could have all these efficiencies. My train is brand new, my house is brand new, my supermarket’s brand new. They brought in amazing foods, and the healthcare system is amazing. The restaurants are brand new.”

So, you think about all of that and you’re just like, what is going to happen in the next 20 years when, let’s say even my little brother that’s 17, when he’s looking to move somewhere, where is he going to look to move and where does he want to set a stone? And I think what they’re doing is they’re setting it up for our generation, per se, really for the next generation of where they’re going to see their futures and where they’re going to set a stone.

SSR: Yeah, 100%. And you see a lot in the F&B space, you just did that cool final room, you’ve done a lot of restaurants. What are you seeing in terms of, I hate to use the word trend, but what shifts are you seeing in the F&B space? Speaking of Millennials or even Gen Z-ers coming up and spending more money, what are you seeing from your clients as requests?

JA: Yeah. I think the biggest anchor right now in the market is the Miami hospitality market. I think people are seeing a lot of these, let’s say MILA. MILA did $35 million last year in total revenue. It was the fifth-largest revenue producing restaurant in the nation. And if we think about that, that restaurant is probably 5,000 square feet worth of dining space, which is not a huge restaurant. And you compare that to Tao Group, which is humongous, you start to say, “Wow, this is actually amazing how much revenue that they’re making per square foot.” So, what I’m noticing is that what places like MILA and the Miami market is doing is all the restaurants are quasi nightclub. It’s not a nightclub, you don’t have to stand online and you don’t have to wait outside in the cold and hopefully get in because there’s a door guy.

But when you’re sitting and you’re eating, the music is a little louder. You feel like you’re having a party in your seat. The food, the vibrancy, again, it’s not a nightclub but it feels like a party while you eat. And I think we’re starting to see that in a lot of markets, like Medusa and New York taking that idea. It’s been happening in “supper clubs”, have been happening in Paris for some time, but we’re starting to see a resurgence of it. Bagatelle in New York was one of the anchors that started that as well. You could go to brunch in the middle of the day, you can eat, but also it’s like a party as well. So, I think a lot of the hospitality concepts I’m seeing right now that are popping up in New York, I think a lot of them are leaning towards a little bit of party and a little bit of fun, not just quiet, sedated dining anymore.

record room new york vintage vinyl lounge bar seating area

Record Room in Queens, New York; photo courtesy of Record Room

SSR: Yeah, it’s an entire night out. You don’t need to go somewhere after, it’s all wrapped in one. Okay, tell us one thing about you that most people might not know.

JA: That’s great.

SSR: I mean, you do have beautiful flowers in your background. You could talk about your love of flowers.

JA: So, I do love flowers. I’m the guy that on the weekends I’ll come home with a fresh bouquet, and actually I like to dry them out. I think it’s just a beautiful thing to add to the home. And I like the fact that they’re beautiful when they’re alive and also beautiful when they’re dead. So, that’s one thing. What else? Okay, I wanted to play in the NFL. So, actually while I was, I think I was 21, 22, I actually was training for the NFL combine. I wanted to be a wide receiver. I was fit as a fiddle, I had a trainer that came to me every single day and we were training for the NFL. So, I think some people may not know that about me. I played the upright bass for many, many years. I stopped right around college time. I actually played with the New York Philharmonic in New York City. There was two times, one time in New York, one time at CW Post in Long Island, avid lover of jazz music.

I actually love every single type of music. If you play my playlist, there’s days I’ll be listening to Brazilian music, some days I’ll be listening to French music, old Italian music. I’m all about experience, and I think especially when you work sometimes it’s good to take your mind and put it somewhere else and inspire you to be creative.

SSR: That leads me to my next question, how else do you stay inspired?

JA: Honestly, I would say the biggest inspiration to me is my family. My mother and my father for sure. Don’t want to get emotional on this, but what I will say is that mom and dad splitting up at a young age, seeing a single mother really … I was sitting in the back of her college classes while she was finishing school. To see someone work that hard to say, “Hey look, we don’t want you to live in Brooklyn, in the bad part of Brooklyn where people are getting shot. I want to take you to Queens and then Long Island, and then grow from there.” And same thing with my father. They just didn’t work out so it’s not like my father wasn’t there, but also my father consistently showing us the finer things in life. I think a lot of the reason that I work so hard nowadays and why I’m so inspired is actually because I want to provide amazing things for them and pay it forward to my family.

And I think if we’re going to talk on the business side and more the creative side of what I’m inspired by, I’m just always inspired to create something from zero to one. How do you solve a real problem and use creativity to do that? And seeing where the world is today, and seeing AI, and seeing how quickly everything is changing, really how do we create something that has a legacy and just being creative about it? That’s all.

SSR: Yeah. I mean, you’ve done so much in a short amount of time, how do you define success?

JA: Success is from within. You set your own goals, you pass that goal, you’re successful. I think a lot of people, obviously we live in a social media age where you look at someone that has money and that’s considered success. Success personally is 100% within. If you want to, I don’t know, you want to get this job that you’ve been aiming for. What do you do to take the steps to try to get that? If you want to meet another person and you really wanted to try to make that relationship work, try it. See if you can be successful. I think also there’s success in the failures too. Going back to me screwing up basements and stuff like that, making those mistakes actually helped me become successful because it made me avoid making those mistakes again. So, I think really just going out there and trying some new things, and not being scared and taking risks with the mistakes that you made, and also with the successes, that’s going to empower you to really take the next steps forward.

SSR: Yeah. So, with that in mind we always end this podcast with the title of the podcast. So, what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?

JA: Don’t ever underestimate anything in life. Just I would say always get ready for something to go awry. And if you have that in mind, you are always going to be ready for something to roll off your shoulders and just keep things moving.

SSR: Love it. Well, perfect place to stop. Thank you so much for chatting with me for the last whatever, 40 so minutes. It’s always such a pleasure to catch up with you and hear your amazing story. And so, hopefully we can see each other in person soon.

JA: 100%. Thank you so much.