What makes you post a photo to Instagram? What space is truly worthy of a post? Are we willing to destroy nature for a good pic? This week on Why’d You Push That Button, Vox’s Kaitlyn Tiffany and I discuss the characteristics that create an Instagram-worthy place. We talk about the old underground restaurants in New York City that have been co-opted by influencers, and we talk about those Instagram playgrounds where adults can take photos of themselves in colorful ball pits. I also spend about 10 minutes talking about my love for pierogi. It comes full circle!
First things first, we talk to former social media manager at The Verge, Zainab Hasnain, about all of the Instagram-oriented pop-ups she’s visited. We also chat with Kristina Alaneisse about parties she hosts at local cool-kid spot China Chalet. Then, as a special treat to wrap up our Instagram mini-series, we have two expert guests. The first is Eliza Brooke, a freelance writer who has incredible design sensibilities. The second is Piera Gelardi, executive creative director and co-founder of Refinery29, about the media company’s 29Rooms exhibition where visitors can play in 29 different rooms and snap some photos while they’re at it.
Listen to the podcast above and follow along with Gelardi’s transcript below. Of course, feel free to subscribe anywhere you typically get your podcasts. You know our usual places: Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and our RSS feed. Subscribe your friends, too! Steal their phones and just sign them up for the podcast; they’ll love it.
Ashley: Okay, so we are back with Piera Gelardi. She is the executive creative director and co-founder at Refinery29.
Piera Gelardi: That’s me.
Ashley: Can you tell us a little bit about 29Rooms for people who don’t know what it is? How long has it existed?
Absolutely. 29Rooms started in 2014. We were celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Refinery29, which is a media and entertainment company focused on women. And we wanted to bring our brand to life in a physical space and really do something that would be a gift to our audience. We felt like we had made it to 10 years, and we wouldn’t be there without our audience. And we also wanted to celebrate the different creative voices that bring our platform to life. So we had this idea to take over a warehouse in Brooklyn and turn it into 29 distinctive rooms, each created in partnership with a different creator or brand. And we were really thinking at the time about how we could create this space where our audience could also create their own content because we were seeing sort of this shift in people’s choices of where they were going to places based on if they could take great photographs or create great content.
And so we made this event. It was free and open to the public the first year, and we really tried to design it in this way where each room would be really immersive, have a story behind it, and allow the audience to create content within our walls. It was a total experiment. It was meant to be a 10-year birthday party, and we opened our doors and just saw this huge wave of interest — epic lines around the block, which wasn’t our intention. And we saw people just really loving the experience, being transformed by it, coming through and saying how creative it made them feel, how transformative it was for them, and then, just seeing the content that they created within our walls, people making art films, music videos, doing fashion shoots, and just it really had this enormous social halo. So the first year we reached one in six people on Instagram. It was such a big success that we ended up making it an annual event, and now it’s scaled, so this year we did it in four different cities across the US.
Ashley: When you first opened 29Rooms, did you post about it on Instagram? How did people know about it?
So because we were working with so many different creative people that first year — we were working with Saint Herron, Solange; we were working with Petra Collins, Shantell Martin, a lot of really amazing creatives — as we were building it, we started to share it on Instagram, started to share their progress, and our creators were sharing the progress as well. So I think that was sort of how the buzz started to build, and every year, we curate a different group of people. And so that is pulling in the people that just have seen 29Rooms and love Refinery, but also the audiences for these different creatives that want to see their work in real life and be able to interact with it.
Kaitlyn: So you have called this a “funhouse” and a “museum” and probably a “pop-up,” right?
We don’t call it a museum. For us, we sort of see a museum as a very specific cultural educational space, so I think of it as sort of a hybrid between a funhouse and an exhibition because we are bringing in all these different creative people, but we’re reframing art and fashion and tech in this extremely immersive, fun way that I think people aren’t used to seeing, and I think that often art can feel really intimidating for people. You walk into a gallery space, the person at the front desk doesn’t even say hi to you. It’s all white. You’re just meant to look at the work. The descriptions are super intellectual. And so I think for most people, they don’t feel like they have an entry point into that world. They don’t necessarily feel like they have an entry point into fashion. So for us, what we were trying to do is take these areas that we knew our audience was interested in, but make them much more interactive and much more inclusive.
So our staff is more like a staff you would maybe see at Disneyland or something. A lot of the people that we hire are dancers and actors and really meant to speak to our guests about the work that they’re stepping into, the experience that they’re about to have, and really making it a welcoming space that people don’t necessarily get when they go through some more traditional kind of cultural spaces.
Kaitlyn: Would you steer clear of the word, “activation,” or some of these terms that come up when people talk about brands doing experiences or pop-ups that are obviously inspired by the 29Rooms?
There are certain words that feel like are marketing buzzwords that I try to stay away from, but sometimes when you’re talking in the industry, you end up using them anyway. I think our event is a little hard to define because it mashes up a lot of different types of experiences. I’ve been calling it a tasting menu of experiences because you can come through, you can dance in a House of Yes dance club, you can do a blindfolded ASMR maze. There’s a lot of different touch points within it. There’s certain words that you hear a lot like, “immersive,” “experiential,” “multi-sensory,” and they all, I guess, technically describe the event, but they’re definitely buzzwords.
Kaitlyn: I definitely use the word “content” to describe my own work sometimes just by accident.
It’s hard to escape, although I try to speak in plain English.
Ashley: It’s interesting that you brought up art galleries because I was really trying to think back to when people started taking photos at places and then posting it specifically because it’s a cool place. I was thinking of the Infinity Rooms.
Ashley: Was that an inspiration for you?
I went to art school, and I do go to a lot of galleries and museums, and interestingly, even though I do that regularly, I still find the experience to sometimes be a little alienating. But I was noticing, even in my own patterns, what was motivating me sometimes to go to a show would be the fact that I knew that I would get a really amazing photo, and I was realizing that there was this new motivation that people had as creators on these new platforms, like Instagram and YouTube and everywhere, that all of a sudden, people were motivated to go to things because they would be able, to use our buzzword, to “capture great content.”
So yeah, a friend of mine worked at David Zwirner and invited me to go see the Yayoi Kusama show, and Yayoi Kusama is an artist that I’ve loved since I was a teenager and wasn’t someone that really I had ever experienced having huge name recognition or being like a pop star. And I went to the show, and there was this line around the block, which for me, that was definitely something when I thought about the design of our show, I thought, “Well let’s use that as a way of really creating value for our audience.” We want to create a really great in-person experience that’s thoughtful, that’s meaningful, that’s transformative, but we also want it to be a place where you can get great images of yourself because I think that’s really a value to modern people that are content creators of whatever scale that is, whether it’s a total personal hobby or professional.
Ashley: How have you seen people change their interactions over the years? Like that first year, was there a learning curve or was it a natural instinct to take a photo in the rooms?
I think it was pretty intuitive for people. I hadn’t really seen anyone lean into it the way that we did, but people naturally were already taking pictures in that way because Instagram had reached a point that it was pretty ubiquitous. I think we’ve learned a lot about what makes great experiences, and we’ve learned a lot about how to design our space, and for us, we know that our audience values the ability to capture images and videos in our space, but we also really want to build for a great in-person experience. So for us, that’s been the evolution, is thinking about both, and also recognizing that there is a portion of our audience that really wants to experience our space, experience the artists, have these meaningful moments and doesn’t necessarily want them interrupted by phones.
So it’s this balancing act. I think even people that maybe don’t consider themselves aspiring influencers, they still take pictures. They still document themselves in different places. But this year, we brought in a lot more performance. We brought in a bunch of phone-free rooms. We focused on some of the feedback that we got from the audience that they wanted more hands-on creativity. They wanted more opportunities to connect with each other. For us, it’s ever-evolving, and it’s interesting to see the two different camps emerge of people that really are motivated by the content creation aspect and then the people that are really coming to interact with a new kind of cultural experience.
Kaitlyn: Yeah, it’s so interesting to me that you had the phone-free rooms this year. I feel like the general idea of these kinds of experiences has gotten a lot more scrutiny recently. The New York Times did that piece about the existential dread of Instagram museums, and just in general, with brands picking up on it, it’s gotten more and more cynical. They’re just like, “Well if we give a young person a place to take a photo, we’ve given them an experience.”
I think for us because 29Rooms is rooted in Refinery29 as, media, entertainment, storytelling, that’s what we do, I think for us, that’s always important.
So we kind of started our creative process thinking about, “What are the topics that are really interesting to our audience right now? Who are the voices within those topics that we want to elevate in our space?” We think a lot about elevating women’s voices in our space, and LGBTQ voices, etc. I think a lot of this scrutiny is based in this judgment around selfie culture, and I’ve seen how that narrative has built and how people are really quick to jump onto it and make it about the vapid nature of millennials.
But I think what we see is that I’m not here to judge how people want to spend their time, how they want to experience something, or what makes them feel good. But I think what we see with our space is that a lot of the way people use the selfies or the pictures that they take, or self portraits that they take, however you want to frame it, are actually to speak about issues that are really important to them. So we just had National Mental Health Awareness month. We had National Coming Out Day, and on those types of days, we see, because I follow our hashtag, we see this surge in people using the images that they take at 29Rooms to talk about these deeply personal, meaningful aspects of their life.
So I see where this scrutiny comes from, but I feel like it’s not really taking into account the full story, at least not with our space. I think also social media has allowed a lot of people that were previously sort of excluded from the visual landscape, or just the editorial landscape, to insert themselves into it, and tell their own stories, and find other people that look like them or have similar experiences to them. It’s much more complex, as is the whole world than it’s kind of laid out as. I’m interested in where the trend goes, especially in the space of people, like the concept store you were mentioning, where it really is just about the backdrop, and there’s not really a narrative. There’s not really an artist, or someone who has an interesting voice, creating this space.
I’m curious to see how that evolves. I think we’ve seen an uptick in Museum of Avocado, Museum of Piñatas, museums of all these different things, and I think we just have to see how that plays out. For us, we’re trying to incorporate a lot more storytelling and a lot more meaning into our space. Having people have conversations with strangers, having them tap into their inner child and write a note to their inner child, so things that are trying to uncover something deeper. I do think that also requires a level of openness that not everyone has. And I often think that people that kind of lean into that surface narrative haven’t actually taken the time to follow our instructions and be blindfolded, or have an intimate conversation with a stranger, or dance in our dance club. In order to have the type of experience that we think we can provide, you kind of have to be open to it and let your guard down and be a little bit vulnerable in this space.
Ashley: How do you think about brands’ relationship to the experience?
With the branded rooms in our space, we try to make them additive to guests’ experience. We try to follow the same creative principles with our brands and provide a level of transparency, too. So there’s 29 rooms in the space, and usually between six and eight of them are branded, clearly marked. The vast majority of the rooms are editorial or artist-created. For us, we’re kind of trying to accept like the whole of our lives, like yeah, we have a business to run, and part of the business model for the event and the way that we’re able to put it on and not have $200 tickets is that these brands come in and sponsor parts of the space, but we also try and make those experiences that we create with brands something that’s additive. So like a Revlon photo studio, knowing that our audience loves taking great pictures of themselves, or a Bai tasting room, so people can have beverages in a fun environment while they’re in our space.
We try and be really thoughtful about how the brands are integrated. That’s kind of our take on it, is we’re trying to work with brands that our audience is interested in, and we always tell our brands, “If you’re interested in just making the logo bigger, this isn’t the experience for you.” We give them our principles, so that it’s as authentic an experience as we can.
Ashley: So on this episode, we’re talking about what makes a place photogenic, or what makes a place Instagram-worthy. Do you have any pro tips of what you think makes a space when you’re thinking about each room. What are the top-line things you should include?
Kaitlyn: Or some ideas that flopped.
We think about framing a lot, so sort of how the how the space frames the person. We usually try and design for having multiple areas that frame a person, so thinking about how people are going to interact with the space, in and where they could take a picture.
Lighting is so critical. I’ve been to so many brand events where they’ve clearly designed them for social sharing, but then they have terrible lighting that you can’t actually get a good picture, or you’re lit but the background is blown out, or vice versa. So I think that’s really, really a critical element. And then when we play with scale or with pattern and repetition that tends to be something that is popular for photography. In addition to lighting, what I have seen not work at other events is just thinking really carefully about where the logo and hashtag is. Like, I’m not someone that’s going to post an image of myself with a really prominent logo in it. Even my own logo or a really prominent hashtag. That to me just feels cheesy. I think it’s fine to have a hashtag in your space, but I don’t know. I was just laughing so hard walking here because half the New York Stock Exchange has the Instagram handle, and it’s like, “tag us in your picture.” Oh, I really want to tag the New York Stock Exchange, but I can’t figure out what the handle is.
Our radar for being marketed to is so high. You have to be really thinking about not what you’re going to get from someone, but what you’re giving to someone, and it’s kind of like you have to give freely and hope that maybe that person will feel inclined to share the experience, or they’ll have a really great, favorable opinion of your brand as a result.
Ashley: Yeah, it really feels like this market is maturing.
Ashley: And that’s what’s interesting to watch because it really has happened very quickly. Even you incorporating some no-phone rooms, for example, is a very different take on what these experiences can become. And it’s just really fascinating to me to see how that goes down.
So the only experience isn’t just taking pictures because I think actually what we were trying to get away from with building the space in the first place was this view-only experience that a lot of things you go to are. Even when you go to a movie, when you go to a play, when you go to an art gallery, when you go to a fashion show, you’re just sitting and looking, or standing and looking. So we have been evolving it to think about how do we provide a lot more layered experience.
Kaitlyn: Do you think that 29Rooms could have existed at another time? Like would this have been successful in the ‘80s, in the Polaroid days? Or is it reliant on Instagram?
I think yes and no. Part of what inspired us to create 29Rooms was actually thinking back to different parties and art shows and things that I had gone in my days in New York pre-Instagram that were so memorable to me. Part of it was leaning into the unexpected, like thinking about parties that I’d been to in a warehouse where you’re like, “Where the hell am I?” And then all of a sudden you go inside, and it’s this world of wonder and delight and surprise.
So I think those types of things have existed far before Instagram, and as humans, we want to be wowed. We want to be in spaces of beauty and wonder and have transformative moments. I think in that way, it could totally have existed before our Instagram era, but it’s definitely taken off, and we’ve been able to scale it and grow it and bring more audience and sponsors to it because of Instagram. Instagram is this marketing tool that gets the word out that this event exists, so in many ways, it markets itself because many people are sharing it on Instagram, so I definitely don’t think we could be as successful with it if it wasn’t for Instagram, but I do think that it would still be a great experience even if Instagram didn’t exist.