In a desert of concrete buildings with the occasional construction partition lies what appears to be a mirage. Outside of International Square along 19th Street, vibrant green turf covers the once barren sidewalk with sprouting pale pink palm leaves and matching pink chairs. Black-and-white striped cabana umbrellas dot the landscape and a yellow cube at the far end is accompanied by bar stools.
The space, aptly named Studio Outdoors, is real estate investment firm Tishman Speyer’s new outside office workspace created by the founders of creative production brand No Kings Collective: Brandon Hill and Peter Chang.
“I want people to feel good in the space,” Chang says. “I want them to feel comfortable. Downtown is pretty beige in every direction. Everything is brown and tan and black glass — even the signage. We wanted to bring reprieve.”
The whimsical installation is visually reminiscent of computer game animation, with bright, sharp graphic design features comprising the different seating arrangements. Hill acknowledges how it unintentionally took on a Sims-like aesthetic, especially from a bird’s eye point of view. But that was not their original intent.
“We were thinking about the nostalgia of summer itself, like how you think about it as a kid,” Hill says. “Summer is activities with family. Summer is activities with friends. Summer is the beach. So, when we were creating a mood board for how to plan the project, we were thinking, ‘What images come to mind?’ Fruit, gingham, baseball, grass, green itself. In a design sense, [we were] trying to figure out, ‘How do we communicate the vibe of summer at first glance?’”
The space, which opened in June, allows anyone to freely reserve a maximum of two hours for a group of up to eight people. Additional amenities include free Wi-Fi, laptop chargers and a curated list of dining options from local eateries that can be delivered right to Studio Outdoors.
“This is an interim installation we are doing as part of a broader conversation about what the future workplace looks like in a post-pandemic world,” says Tishman Speyer’s regional director, Jeff Chod. “[We want to] create alternatives to what people were accustomed to pre-pandemic [and] help become a gateway for people to come back downtown. Our goal is really making employees’ workdays happier.”
The project came to No Kings Collective in January 2021, at the height of the second wave of Covid. Planning a communal outdoor space with weekly changing guidelines posed an ongoing challenge.
“There were multiple iterations,” Chang says. “Initially, they were individual cubbies where maybe two people could sit and then walls to separate [them]. We didn’t really have a good line of sight. It was really just for Covid restrictions so that people could be separated. Every couple of weeks, the rules kept changing. It was a moving target. Finally, Brandon and I were like, ‘You know what? By the time this thing opens, [the city will] probably be fully opened.’ Outdoor parks were already Covid compatible, so we started thinking about this kind of like a park.”
The park mindset is reflective in the open layout and multiple seating options at both communal and single tables. The different arrangements allow people to choose their own adventure based on their current comfort level with social interaction. Although the design process took longer than normal, Hill notes they shared an innovative vision for what they wanted the space to embody.
“Fundamentally, the office is not a place you actually dream about being in the first place. With the aesthetic, we were thinking about summer. But with the functionality, [we were thinking about], ‘Where do you actually want to be?’ For us, we want to be in a museum. We stopped thinking about an outdoor office and started thinking about, ‘How do we take an outdoor art installation and make it office compatible?’ If you didn’t know it was a coworking space, would someone naturally just want to sit down in this thing?”
Hill and Chang successfully executed this vision. Upon visiting the site after-hours when the tables and chairs have been removed, I see a couple lounging on the built-in grassy seats of the installation catching up on their day. A woman in a pressed suit paces back and forth in the outdoor space while on the phone. People are clearly drawn to its inviting atmosphere.
“Any time we put up a mural or installation, I’m happy with it,” Chang says. “I’m proud of the work, but you just never know if people view it the same. They could think, ‘Look at this crazy amalgamation of colors that doesn’t make sense in the middle of downtown. What were these guys thinking?’”
Despite these concerns, most people who see No Kings’ works respond positively, if not enthusiastically. Unlike most artists and creators during the pandemic, Hill and Chang have been at their busiest due to their popularity and field.
“We never stopped,” Chang continues. “It got busier for us because all [of these] places that couldn’t really shut down their establishment to make these improvements all of sudden closed [because of Covid]. So, everyone was like, ‘This is the time to do it.’ And then everyone started hitting us up.”
Since their work is categorized as construction work with contractors, they were considered essential workers and could continue with their projects during the pandemic.
“Even though it was a traffic jam of work and made life harder, I’m not going to complain,” Hill reflects. “We were fortunate that we could work.”
With the opportunity to continue projects, Hill says he gained new motivation for what he wants to achieve with their pieces in the future.
“I think art is a necessity, but sometimes it’s an amenity. I know what places were like before we painted them, and I know what they are like after. Sometimes, the perception of the place is completely different. Going forward, I [want to] push that more to the forefront. We want to make sure what we make is going to improve the area. We want to be more vocal about our impact, and more purposeful.”
The increase in demand for their work is not lost on Hill or Chang; the road to success was long. Starting first as friends after meeting in their senior year of college, they worked together and unofficially started No Kings in 2009 before officially becoming a company in 2013.
Before No Kings was a duo with a handful of core team members, they were a group of four friends promoting their art and working together to push their own individual pieces. In 2009, one of the original members stole money from their first show and left them. In 2010, the third member chose to part ways, causing the group as whole to disband — including Hill and Chang.
“We were doing shows and not making any money,” Chang says. “It was a lot of work.”
Their luck changed in 2011 when Chang was offered a large space for an art show. He reached out to Hill and the third member.
The show was based off Nuit Blanche, an all-night art show from France, and was a promising opportunity.
“I went back to Brandon and the third member. I said, ‘Hey, I think we can figure this out. We can make some money off of this.’ Brandon was like, ‘Alright, why not? Let’s try one more time. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’ The third member was like, ‘Nah, I’m out. You’ll never make money with this.’”
With Chang and Hill reunited, the show was wildly successful. Chang estimates roughly 9,000 people attended.
“That art exhibit was the catalyst that made us think, ‘Okay. Maybe we can do something with this.’”
From there, No Kings slowly gained recognition and requests, but still struggled financially and for consistent work. People would congratulate them on their growing success, but on the backend, they were just trying to make ends meet.
“We were still broke,” Chang says. “We didn’t have health insurance. No one really knew what we were dealing with. We’ve worked together for 16 years, [but] the last four years are when I’ve really felt stable.”
One hurdle over the years was learning how to manage logistics on the job. Creating public art involves communicating and balancing their craft with building contractors, architects and PR agencies.
“It’s just a lot of figuring stuff out,” Hill says. “We are between a lot of worlds: public art, fine art, entertainment and construction.”
If you’ve ever walked around D.C. in recent years, there is a good chance you have seen much of their work. Some of their most notable murals include 2017’s “Work It, Gurl” on 14th Street and the baseball-themed “Washington” at Nationals Park. They’re also well-known for their epic art parties, including 2019’s UMBRELLA, a three-day, pop-up art party featuring over 240 pieces from local artists.
With so much success, Chang now wants to pay it forward by helping other artists who are trying to navigate in a similar space.
“I think a big thing for us is always trying to instill our experiences in a newer generation of artists. We’re always trying to get the blueprint out.”
As for the secret to Chang and Hill’s successful partnership of nearly two decades, each has a different perspective on what they’ve learned from one another.
“I’m more intelligent,” Hill jokes.
Chang deadpans, “I’m more patient.”
Switching to a more serious tone, Chang notes the overall growth he has gained over the years by collaborating with Hill.
“A lot of our processes and the way we do things have been challenged over the years. Every year, we are both faced with new problems. Just navigating together has strengthened our friendship and business partnership, and individually, what we take from it and how we apply it to our trade and craft. I used to be very methodical about the process. Breaking out of my box and comfort zone has been challenging, but overall, [it has been] great.”
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