How to launch a concept store as told by the founders of Project No. 8

19 Mar 2017

From a craft beer shop to an eco-friendly clothing store, concept shops take countless different forms. While every concept shop is different, the general idea is that it is a store centered on one consistent theme. If anyone’s an expert on launching concept shops, it’s Elizabeth Beer and Brian Janusiak.

They’re the founders and creative directors at Various Projects, Inc, a range of collaborative projects that combine design, art, and commerce. On multiple occasions, these collaborations have taken form as concept stores, including a craft convenience store inside an NYC subway station and a men’s designer clothing store.

We spoke with Elizabeth and Brian to hear about how they launched Project No. 8, a successful travel and gift shop inside the Ace Hotel in Manhattan.

Project No.8
Source: Freunde von freunden

Why did you choose travel as a theme for the shop?

We travelled a lot and felt that hotel stores at the time were an incredible missed opportunity. So when Ace Hotel approached us with the idea we were very excited at the prospect of solving that problem. We wanted the space to reflect its location, New York City, in a loving and authentic way, so we focused on offering items that were either made in New York or told a story about New York. This is still our principle.

In the store, we wanted to create a mix that would reflect our version of the city like our Birdwatching series or the All You Can Eat Press maps, by our amazing friend Yuki Matsuo, which show you where to can get the best version of a single food like burgers or doughnuts.

We also understood the importance of having a range of the best travel necessities like a fantastic shampoo in travel size, great smelling natural insect repellent, or a perfect notebook and architect’s pencil. We wanted a place where hotel guests could stop in when they forgot to pack something or needed a last minute present for a loved one, but also be a place that locals would continue to enjoy and leave each time feeling as though they’d discovered thoughtful, beautiful things that are maybe more unexpected not as obviously related to travel.

What do you want people to feel when they enter the space?

We have always worked to have our spaces feel very accessible. We wanted to showcase exceptional design but were not interested in creating a feeling of “exclusivity” or judgment as you walk in. As shoppers in other spaces, we have always found that to be the biggest turnoff. We wanted a place where you could talk about design, and discover something that excited you. To that end, kind and intelligent staff are everything.

Project No. 8 Ace Hotel
Source: Adrian Gaut

What do you look for when hiring employees?

Retail experience tends to be far down the list of things we are looking for when we hire people. We like to hire smart, nice, interested people. People who bring ideas that may or may not overlap exactly with what we are doing at the moment, but seem like a natural fit in the mix. We feel like they, along with everything else in the space, are well worth knowing!

How did you bring the space to life?

Our aesthetic for the Ace Hotel space was decided in part by the existing conditions. As an example, we found about three inches of mosaic tile poking through two top layers of flooring that had covered it over the years. We chose to undertake a costly and time-consuming project of revealing whatever was under there. We imagined that it would be very patchy in the end, but almost the entire original mosaic floor was intact.

The space itself is very small so we knew there were not that many layout choices. We could count on a 20 foot ceiling to help make it feel open and airy. We added a wall of bright green shelving that we had found at an auction. The shelving was originally designed for the libraries and administrative offices of The Pompidou in Paris by the renowned modernist, high-tech architect, Richard Rogers. Then the rest was all attention to details.

How do you source the different items and brands for the store?

We are constantly sourcing. We buy what we like. Once we had the space we forged new relationships and so many collaborations have emerged from that as well. The balance of the actual space is maintained by our great staff and we just keep adding things that feel relevant, funny, intriguing.

We don’t really shop at trade shows. We prefer to find things one at a time. We discover really great things on Instagram occasionally, but most often it is through friends whose opinions we trust, and places we visit.

Having a store offered us the chance to develop and also instantly test several product ideas of our own. Various Keytags, an ongoing collection of words and phrases (in a friendly and colorful form-factor) exploded in popularity when we started manufacturing them directly out of our New York studio.

We also started Birdwatching, a series of hand-knit Alpaca birds which began with the now iconic Pigeon. They were made specifically for our Ace Hotel store as an alternative to the more stereotypical New York souvenirs. They did astonishingly well, and so we later added pigeon variations like Albino and Homing and are continuing to make a growing series of State birds, endangered birds, and birds found in songs.

Is it hard to build a community in a hotel, when you constantly have new people coming and going?

No, the customers remain about 50% travelers and 50% locals. Many people tell us they visit the store every time they are in town, even if they are not staying at the Ace. It feels great to be on the list of things people return to whenever they visit New York.