Alisa Grifo & Marco ter Haar Romeny of KIOSK

Apartment Therapy Design Evenings

Watch live streaming video from apartmenttherapy at livestream.com

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What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings
Who: Alisa Grifo & Marco ter Haar Romeny of KIOSK
Attendance: 272
When: Tuesday, December 13, 2011, 6:00-8:30pm
Where: ABC Carpet & Home | 888 Broadway NYC

We enjoyed another great design evening in NYC with two "kick-off" presenters and our featured designers, Alisa Grifo & Marco ter Haar Romeny of KIOSK. Read more about it below the jump and view the full evening via our Livestream recorded feed!

We'll be taking a break in January, but we look forward to seeing you again in February at ABC Carpet & Home for another great design evening! Learn more about our events & sign-up here. Happy 2012 everyone!

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Kick-Off Presentations

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(l to r: Marcel Madsen, Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, Ashlee Connor, Matt Lee)

We started our evening with two fabulous "warm up" presenters.

Marcel Madsen is the Founder of the design / build company Produce Design. He shared a recent furniture commission with us - a desk designed for a lawyer's office.

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It has open compartments along with small drawers, as well as a carved out space in front where she sits.

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It's called "Shannon's Desk" (after, you guessed it, the lawyer for whom it was designed). It is a solid walnut piece which uses few screws (on the drawers only).

Learn more about Marcel's firm at: produce-design.com.

Next we heard from Ashlee Conner & Matt Lee of Legato Studio. They shared their debut product with us, the Cambia - a fully-convertible full sized table, ergonomic workstation, and sitting bench with storage - all in one!

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This product was designed particularly for small spaces (perfect for NYC apartments) and provides for multiple uses in one product. It's expands from 16" deep when closed to 72" when open, and is completely customizable in size as well as materials (wood, glass, etc.). It can be used commercially and outdoors as well (roof decks, terraces).

Learn more about Ashlee & Matt's firm at: www.legatostudio.com.

Main Presentation

Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan:

Thank you, everyone, for coming tonight, and thank you as always to ABC Carpet for hosting our monthly meetup.

One of my favorite things about the warm-up series is that we're able to showcase new products and designs from emerging designers. Seeing how things are made, and the people behind them, is one of our driving forces here at Apartment Therapy. Tonight's featured guests also embody that ideal.

I am delighted to be joined tonight for our final Design Evening of the year by Alisa Grifo and Marco Ter Haar Romeny, founders of the truly unique store, KIOSK!

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KIOSK is located in SoHo and offers a curated range of products from all over the world in an exhibition format. This ever-changing store is a tiny mecca of great design items that reflect the places and people from Alisa and Marco's travels. They build their collections while away and feature each collection for 4-6 months. The current show is AMERICA 4 and, in addition, KIOSK has an "Ongoing" collection of objects from previous exhibitions.

KIOSK is a travel story depicted through objects, a collection of interesting things from around the world, a study of material culture, a shop, several people's efforts to preserve unique and indigenous objects, an installation, maybe just something other than what we are used to. KIOSK features the things that generally go unnoticed, products that are the result of local aesthetics and needs. Our motivation is to give attention to these anonymous objects and support independent producers. The intention is that the objects assembled together create a rough portrait of each location and tell about a place and its people.

Please put your hands together for Alisa and Marco!

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Maxwell:
I first heard about the store when it opened in 2005. A friend told me about it and said " There's this great new store that opened in SoHo that features and sells products from only one country at a time. They sell until everything's gone, and then they travel to a new destination to find new products.". I went to visit the store and met Alisa and Marco, and funny enough, this was at the time when Design Within Reach had just opened their " Tools for Living " stores, with one in SoHo. Fast-forward and here we are, with " Tools for Living " out of business and KIOSK still around.

We had breakfast last week, and we talked about how you first met, which is a great story. Can you tell us all how it happened?

Alisa:
I was doing set design at the time, and I took a trip to Sweden for a friend's wedding. Marco was also there. The wedding was on the island where Ingmar Bergman lived - I came out of the church at the end of the ceremony and Marco was there, outside the doorway. We started chatting and were then formally introduced by a mutual friend. I moved to Stockholm soon after that to live for four years, and then we both came back to New York.

Maxwell:
So what's the first thing you worked on together?

Alisa:
I had an idea for a mobile application, where people would share resources over SMS ( text ). Marco was cute AND he had skills ( tech skills, to be precise ) that were needed for the project. We talked about it on the bus / ferry back to Stockholm from the wedding. He was sold and I moved to Sweden.

Maxwell:
It was an interesting match between you two; you, with the idea to share resources via social networking, and Marco with the technical skills to make it happen. Too bad you were slightly ahead of the social networking boom!

Alisa:
Exactly. We went to try and sell it to various companies - Eriksson, Nokia. No one got it, and they didn't think it would work. I feel like contacting them all again and saying, hah! We really missed out on this one! Anyway, we decided to move to New York and try out another sharing idea.

We would find things - objects, items - that we liked and we'd show them to folks. We just wanted to share what was out there with people, we never wanted to open a store. Ross, a 3rd person who was involved with us at the time, does a fabulous clothing line and his girlfriend felt like he should open a store, so we started discussing it.

Maxwell:
And you were still in set design for your full-time job, right? You mentioned to me at breakfast that it was about this time that you felt you were outgrowing it, right?

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Alisa:
Yes, it was grueling work, and not only that, but I didn't have control over the end product, which gets really tiring after a while, and quite frustrating. The timing presented itself so we made the move.

Maxwell:
A lot of designers whom I've spoken with during these meetups say that - they were making a living on one path and all of a sudden found things going in another direction.

Alisa:
Yes, it's true. In my first meeting with Ross I knew we were on to something. He and I immediately hit it off. I'm very opinionated about what I like, and I really appreciated the objects I found in Ross's studio. He'd found these things in his travels around the world, and they spoke to me - it was as if he'd curated a collection that I would have done myself.

Maxwell:
So you opened the store, but you also told me about the influence from the Whole Earth catalog. Tell us a bit about that.

Alisa:
People often ask me what my biggest inspiration was at the time. When Maxwell asked, I mentioned the Whole Earth catalog from the 60's and 70's. I'm not sure if anyone here remembers it, but it didn't sell anything. It simply presented goods - their history and origin - that folks could then call about themselves to inquire about purchase. In fact, Steve Jobs mentioned Whole Earth as the precursor to Wikipedia.

As a kid I was more inspired by rocks and things in nature than anything else. We had a Whole Earth catalog in the attic, though, and I found that to be very inspiring. It really spoke to me, thus the thinking behind KIOSK and our ideas for the store.

Maxwell:
So basically, KIOSK became your own unique way to share the history and origin of products with people.

Alisa:
Exactly. Hand-made objects that are unique to their origin and speak to a locale or craftsperson.

Maxwell:
And then from there, the online store grew out of your idea.

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Marco:
Yes, it was a natural outgrowth of our concept.

Maxwell:
And the website itself is quite unusual. It's in courier font, with squares of images representing the country of origin, the last one allowing you to click to find more objects from that country.

Marco:
Yes, it's simple and direct. Although because of that, we still struggle with practical issues, like where to show the shipping info ( which a lot of people ask us about ).

Maxwell:
And then you write a bit on each of the items. How does that work?

Alisa:
I find writing about the objects to be the most difficult part. I'll be dealing with the day-to-day workings of the site ( dealing with customer issues, etc. ) and then I have to switch gears and be creative with the writing. We want to be respectful and really give context and information on each object we find, like the origin, artist info, why we like it, etc. And all of that takes time. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy it - it just takes time.

Maxwell:
Your first featured country was Japan, right? And isn't it true that one of you would run the store while the other one traveled?

Alisa:
Yes. Originally our goal was 12 countries in one year, then it was 6, and now we're down to two collections/year.

Ross and his girlfriend were in charge of running the store when we were travelling, yet they wouldn't always come in. This is just one of the many perils of shopkeeping; we'd have days were no one would come in, which is just part of how it sometimes works, but they would decide to just not open, or remain open, that day.

Maxwell:
Interesting. So tell us a bit more about how you travel, you do it a bit differently than most, correct?

Alisa:
Well, I tend to research where we're going obsessively. Museums, food, shops, all of it. We send messages to anyone whom we think may know folks in the place we're going to as a form of informal networking as well.

Maxwell:
And your goal is to find attractive objects that really represent the country.

Alisa:
Exactly. We went to Shanghai to find some handmade products, and we also had a collection from Hong Kong.

Maxwell:
You told me about how the story unfolds as you get there and start travelling around, how it's not always easy to get objects. Tell us a bit about that.

Alisa:
Sure, I have a great example using an object I was interested in. It was a sugar bowl, very interesting looking and a beautiful red color, which, in a variety of conversations with people, I learned was from Portugal. Someone from the School of Visual Arts had mentioned it when asking someone else what represents Portugal to them. We then asked this person for their email so we could ask more questions once we got there.

Maxwell:
You don't have a big store, so how do you procure items directly from the manufacturer?

Alisa:
Using this same example, we ended up tracking down the factory that makes these sugar bowls through a friend. The bowl is melamine, and we learned that the factory is one of the last two producers of melamine in Europe. Once they heard we had a store in the US they got very excited. Of course, we told them we have one store and they became less excited, so we mentioned it was in New York and they got excited again. Of course, the US has the reputation that once something is in a store, it will become huge and the orders will flow in.

We really want to support these independent producers and we know many consumer do, too. They also realize that larger stores may not take the time to find them. Of course, we also have the problem of buyers discovering new products in our store and then deciding to carry them, and usually undercutting our prices (big stores with deep pockets), but then again, that's the nature of things, and our goal of getting these products represented here is fulfilled even more.

SLIDES

People often ask us about how we track items down, so here's a little travelogue about how it all comes together.

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KIOSK store sign.
We tell people to look for the pink neon arrow - we're on the 2nd floor.

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Entrance.
People like the graffiti, although some are admittedly scared by it. We feel it adds to the mystique.

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Menagerie of goods in the store.

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Chris at the desk - we have two employees at the store.

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This shows a bit how we started six years ago. Ross put in $5,000 and we both put in $5,000. Not much, and we were able to make it work.

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Opening day!

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Today: as you can see, it's quite packed in there.

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This is one of the products we sell. I met a person who printed business cards in Sweden and I saw this device at their work station.

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Then, I saw another one. There were no distinguishing marks on it, so I asked the stationers about it. I finally learned that it's a tape dispenser! This is another example of how the chain of information keeps going, and you never know where you're going to get your information.

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This is at a market in Pueblo State (Mexico). There are no tourists around, but it's very market-driven. We saw this woman and asked her about the shawl.

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This is a traditional baby carrier. He used it to carry market items.

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A woman and her mother in Chiappas, Mexico. The area is called Techaluta de Montenegro and is known for pottery. We saw ceramics outside their house and asked to see more, and she showed us how they made it.

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This is a famous beer hall in Cologne, Germany, along with a Kolsch glass. We researched the glass (very typical German beer glass) and finally tracked it down. They are only in beer halls, not in stores, so it took a while.

Maxwell:
I'm wondering, do you ever steal stuff?! I mean if you can't find it.

Alisa:
Hah! Well, we do sometimes con them into selling us stuff. You know you can't just take the Kolsch glasses, if anything those are the hardest - they count them in order to charge you for your drinks!

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Hong Kong, also a very market-driven place.

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We saw these red lamp shades everywhere, so we asked a man at the hardware store where to get them and we found the manufacturer through him.
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How we transported items through the markets ( the hotel was not very happy when we drove up to the door in this vehicle! ).
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NECCO factory, we were able to get a tour.
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This is a small manufacturer we work with called Steel Canvas. It's a father & son team.

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We feature one of their basic bags in the store.

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We now produce a bag with them that's a log carrier bag.

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Boat factory in MA. We really wanted to visit, as they are one of the last dory makers in New England.

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Obviously we can't have a boat in the store, but we saw them using a wooden Jorgensen clamp and we decided to carry it. We still have it in the store today.

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Jorgensen clamp.

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This is the man that makes the lavender oil we sell. He's from Provence.

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Here they are producing the oil.

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We stood on the lavender crusher with them!

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Bordallo Pinheiro factory in Portugal.

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Inside the factory, the item featured in the foreground is the cabbage plate we currently feature in the store. I remembered this dish from childhood and just had to track it down for the collection.

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Cabbage dish.
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Gentleman making traditional Portuguese toys.
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Piles of toys. These are all made on equipment that he inherited from his grandfather.
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Salt from Portugal.
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Hammock swing from Cobble Mountain, a Vermont store. The hammocks are made by a husband and wife team who were working in optics and were bored, so they created this hammock and launched their business.
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This is from a gentleman who has a company called Catamount Glass.

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We carry the gravy separator and the bean pot.
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Bennington Potters, a fabulous pottery establishment in Vermont.

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The factory.

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Machine &#amp; hand-finished work.

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The Bennington Potters creamer, which we're giving away tonight.

Q&A WITH THE AUDIENCE

Thank you for speaking with us tonight. I'm curious about how you determine pricing. Do you work with each artist?

They sell to us at wholesale, like they would to any retailer. Each retailer decides on pricing depending on location, market, etc. so we follow the same practice. Since our focus is on everyday products, we really try to keep the pricing down. Of course, since these items are only available through us, we could charge whatever we want. But our focus is on bringing these items to market - even with freight costs, we try to keep it down.

Have you had any stand-out items? What's the most popular?

That's hard to answer. We have an ongoing collection from every show we've ever done, which contains some of the most-popular items. For example, we carry aluminum clothes pins that are very popular; the older man who makes them is very confused why! Also, one of our favorites is a teaching tool for kids made of Styrofoam - it's an open mouth with tonsils and all of the teeth. All of them are labeled, but it's in Spanish! Still, it's a top-seller.

What places are you looking to go next?

Gosh, it's an ever-growing list. Right now, I'd really like to go to Iran. We'll see if that happens.

Maxwell:
Are there places that aren't as good to go to?

Alisa:
Actually, yes. Bolivia is a difficult place to travel and get manufacturing information in my opinion. But most of them we've figured out a way to get the info. we need.

Your store is fairly small, which of course is part of the charm, but are you looking to grow at all?

You know, it is small, but as I mentioned to Maxwell, it feels right. We would grow only if it makes sense. For example, about a year ago, Areaware moved out of the space next to us and we took over that space. Others have also asked us if we'd expand to other locations. If we did that and were able to keep the integrity of the store, that would be ideal. But you can see that it takes a lot of work to curate the collections, and our fear is that it would become something that isn't what we have worked so hard for it to be.

I have a question for you about profitability. The pricing is pretty low on your objects, so how do you make it work?

Yes, it takes a lot of hunting and gathering, and travelling around to do so. It's a great question. Having a shop in NYC is definitely costly. We basically re-invest everything into the business and have seen steady growth. We don't move fast or make bold changes so we can keep doing what we're doing.

We'd like to be able to grow and make more so we can do that, and in fact we've learned that many small shops around the world would like to have a KIOSK outpost. For example, the Cooper-Hewitt has asked us to do this. We've tried it, but it's very tough to fulfill orders and keep things going. For the low-priced items, we obviously have to increase volume, and we'll keep exploring ways to do that. Also, a ground-floor space could definitely help.

Do you think you could do online only?

We really want to meet the people who are interested in the products, that's one of the best parts of this work. A lot of folks also really want to experience the object, to be able to pick it up, and to touch and feel it, which obviously requires a brick-and-mortar presence.

Maxwell:
You know it's interesting because we've seen a shift in people's buying habits over the past few years, where people are interested in small, unique stores with hand-made and unique objects, and they're growing in place of some of the bigger stores. It's the opposite of what we saw in the past - like in the movie "You've Got Mail". It's pretty exciting from a design perspective.

I just wanted to say that I saw your Mexico collection, and having grown up in Mexico City, I have to say that it was very representative of the culture. It was really a joy to see. Also, just wanted to comment that the Whole Earth catalogue is displayed at MoMA near the auditorium if anyone wants to see what you've been referencing.

That's right, I'm so glad it's still on display. Everyone should go take a look if they get a chance. It really gets to what we're trying to do here and is a great historical design catalogue to see up close and personal.

Maxwell:
Thanks so much, Alisa and Marco, for joining us this evening.

Congratulations to the two winners of the KIOSK giveaways!

• Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!
• Special thanks to our volunteers, Georgie Hambright and Lisa Hunt!
• Images: Apartment Therapy

Thanks to our host and sponsor, ABC Carpet & Home!

The evening's wines are graciously donated by Seven Daughters!