It's hard to sum up 29Rooms, Refinery29's interactive space of 29 individually curated, artist-collaborated rooms, into one, succinct definition. That's why Albie Hueston, Refinery29's creative director, opts for an amalgam of descriptors.
"29Rooms blurs the lines between an art exhibition, a fun house, and a choose your own adventure novel," Hueston explains.
This weekend, 20,000 people will travel to a warehouse in Williamsburg, for the (now sold out) third year of 29Rooms. Take note: Your Instagram will probably be packed with photos and Boomerangs of neon contraceptive signs, glittering disco balls, and giant flowers (#sorrynotsorry). It's fitting that The New York Times called it a "creative playhouse for the Instagram set." Even if you can't make it out to Brooklyn in person, you can fall down the rabbit hole on your feed — just search for #29rooms.
For those who attend, the experience is whatever you want it to be: There is no one way to feel, touch, taste, and smell each of the 29 rooms. That is, after all, the beauty of a choose your own adventure space.
Ahead, Hueston and Piera Gelardi, Refinery29's creative director and co-founder, talk about how 29Rooms went from idea to reality.
When did you dream up 29Rooms?
Piera Gelardi: "29Rooms developed when we were approaching our 10-year anniversary as a brand in 2015. We saw that as an amazing opportunity to do something big and splashy. So we had a creative brainstorm with a bunch of different people to talk about what we wanted to do and what we wanted to say about ourselves. We started with thinking about who we are as a brand, and our history over the past 10 years. We talked about the values of our brand — inclusivity, celebrating individuality, self expression, and imagination. We wanted to take those values and tell an origin story."
Why the number 29?
PG: "We just liked the way it sounded. When we first launched the site, it was this map of 29 independent designers and boutiques in New York. It was a good variety, but not an overwhelming number. We started it to celebrate independent style, style as self expression, and cultural curators. Similar to that original map of 29 spaces, we loved the idea of creating this wonderland of 29 different spaces with 29Rooms, where we would work with 29 different creative collaborators that really represented a lot of the different viewpoints and disciplines that are creating culture in this moment. As a brand, we've always been about putting forward this chorus of voices."
What's the thinking behind the timing of 29Rooms?
PG: "We wanted to do something with New York Fashion Week timing, because our brand has its roots in style. New York Fashion Week is a cultural moment everyone's aware of, but that so few people are invited to. We wanted to take New York Fashion Week and create an inclusive brand moment that showed how we have our roots in style, but also how our brand is really 360-degrees of a woman's life."
How do you work with brands to decide what will go in each of the rooms?
Albie Hueston: "Piera and I talk about what's happening in the world and what's timely. We really do try to shift perception within the experience. When you come out of 29Rooms, you feel different. There's a change in how you think. You might, for example, experience empathy with a transgendered person who really struggled with coming to terms with that. We're exposing our audience to these different types of experiences that create empathy within the moment."
PG: "We'll reach out to talent and once they're interested, we talk to them about what they're working on and what they want to express. For us, we love working with visual artists, but we also love working with non-visual artists because it's so fun to take something that's sort of intangible and find a way to turn that into a physical, visual, immersive experience. For example, last year we worked with a group called Gurls Talk, which is all about women talking openly and transparently about challenges and struggles they've had in their life. We had a room with hundreds of phones hanging from the ceiling. You'd hold one up to your ear and you could hear women talking about a challenge or a struggle they'd overcome."
How did personally feel the ways in which 29Rooms was a success that first year?
AH: "I think it's successful on different levels. One of the things that made me realize it was successful was there was this huge social halo. But, more importantly, what people were saying in their posts completely reflected the intention and creative concept we had for the event. People were saying this event made me feel creative, this event was magic, this event was transformative."
How do you decide on the theme each year?
PG: "We try to make it inclusive on multiple levels. The first year, we were doing the event for the first time, so we were trying to create this imaginative playground of ideas. Last year was 'Powered By People,' so it was really all about interactivity in every single room, and action, and how the people in the room power the experience.
"This year, we came up with the theme, 'Turn It Into Art,' at the beginning of the year, post-election. In our minds, we thought about the power of art to start conversations, to be something that's self-care and healing, and can also incite new ideas, concepts, and be a catalyst for movement. Given the climate and the amount of fear, anger, sadness, and pain, we were also thinking about that famous Carrie Fisher quote, 'Take your broken heart, make it into art.'"
AH: "That's the beauty of this experience. You get one-on-one time with each of these artistic experiences. It's such a strong narrative that will stay with the audience for a long time."