If ever there was a place that totally shattered all of my expectations (in a good way!), it was Minneapolis, Minnesota. Being an East Coast gal living on the West Coast, I’ll admit that most of “middle America” has been “fly-over” for me, with the exception of Chicago. I know people from Minnesota (in fact, more people than I realized!), and once I landed and made my way around town, I started to understand why so many people made it their home. I immediately realized that I should spend more time talking to my Minnesota friends about what they love about Minneapolis and its surrounding areas!
Thanks to modern, American-made home furnishings retailer Room & Board, who brought me out to tour their headquarters and kick off our series of three in-store events (more on that a little later on), I had the chance to spend a few days in Minneapolis exploring. Minneapolis and its “twin city” St. Paul are absolutely adorable. Clean, easy to navigate, with lots of interesting architecture and an active art community. Full of industry, old warehouses and former mills (think General Mills), bridges, beer, farm-to-table restaurants, sculpture gardens… you name it, MPLS has it. I’ll start with the architecture. Thanks to an amazing city tour from a local friend, I got to check out the highlights from the old Pillsbury mansions along the lakes to the warehouse district:
The Guthrie Theater is located adjacent to the Mill City Museum along the banks of the Mississippi River, making for an interesting and beautiful architectural (and natural) juxtaposition. The Guthrie, designed by Jean Nouvel in 2006 is a very modern navy blue-ish building with a 178-foot cantilevered endless bridge. Adjacent is the Mill City Museum is actually built inside the ruins of what was once the world’s largest flour mill. Super cool stuff.
Also nearby is the infamous Grain Belt Beer sign.
Another great piece of architecture is the Weisman Art Museum by Frank Gehry. The no-so-awesome photo above was taken with my phone, but here’s a better shot of it:
And downtown sits the gorgeous Northwestern National Life Building, later known as the ReliaStar Building, then known as ING 20 Washington and now known as Voya Financial 20 Washington (phew!). It was designed by Minoru Yamasaki and opened in 1965. I could sit by that water and eat lunch every day…
Throughout the city, there are some gems, too, like The Foundry, a cute shop that stocks what appears to be beautiful Scandinavian and Japanese goods built at the front of a very old building with ruins in the back. We snuck back there to take a peek:
And now let’s talk about the art. Just a few blocks from my hotel was the Walker Art Center, one of the most well know contemporary art museums in the United States and it just so happened to be celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. It’s an interesting building designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes with a 2005 expansion by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. Adjacent to the museum is the city’s renowned sculpture garden.
Here are some of my favorite pieces from my visit:
And, of course, I had to stroll through the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden!Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen
Here you can see sculptures by Sol LeWitt, Isamu Noguchi, James Turrell, Mark di Suvero, and others. It was pretty impressive and I could easily have spent all day here.
You can check out Frank Gehry’s glass fish and its accompanying greenhouse (I don’t suggest doing this on a 90-degree day – it gets pretty hot in there!)
The majority of my trip was spent visiting with home furnishings retailer Room & Board in their newly renovated Gold LEED certified building right outside of the city. To be entirely honest (and no one is paying me to say this!), if I wasn’t writing a blog, I would have submitted an application to work there—right on the spot. First of all, I thought that they were bigger than they are: in fact, they’re a medium-sized company with just 14 stores that’s more like a giant family than anything else. Secondly, there aren’t too many companies that you visit where everyone you meet has been there 8, 15, and 20 years…! It was incredible how much loyalty there was on both sides—you just don’t see that too much anymore.
Since 1980, Room & Board has focused on the simple idea that good design should be beautiful, affordable and long-lasting, so it’s only natural that their headquarters is also absolutely beautiful. They’ve been here a while but recently expanded their facility to accommodate current and future growth. Founder John Gabbert made it a point to create a space that gave his employees more than just a place to work: from its lush indoor and outdoor courtyard spaces for lunching or meeting, to an abundance of skylights, and even a gym that includes regular classes and staff challenges! Not to mention the beauty of its architecture… marrying modern design with features from the original building—for example, making good use of the old exterior brick walls and old windows:
I love how they also incorporate all of their own furniture and accessories throughout the space, even creating unique “non-office” style meeting areas with comfy couches that feel more like miniature living rooms than meeting space.
However, one of the most impressive aspects of my visit was how Room & Board embraces what I was seeing all around Minneapolis during my trip: local and American made art and design. Their commitment to American made products seems rare for a company that you thought would need a slew of overseas factories to churn out the number of pieces that they have in their collection. In fact, more than 90 percent of what they sell is handcrafted in the U.S. by American artisans. The strong relationships that Room & Board has created over the years with companies like Minnesota-based Bell Manufacturing, who makes all of the Room & Board steel pieces and has been doing so for more than 30 years.
Did you know how they get all those gorgeous catalog images? They do it in their in-house photo studio! It all happens right there. In fact, it was happening right before my eyes!
Shhh… don’t tell anyone about the prop room. I want it all to myself.
Room & Board has three main designers—yes, there are ONLY THREE IN-HOUSE DESIGNERS. I sat down with two of the three designers, or “Merchandise Managers”—Jenon Bailie (accessories) and Michael Brotman (casegoods)—to talk about how they come up with so many ideas and so much product with such a small team. They take short, yet intense “design inspiration” trips to places all over the world, collecting inspirational photos, which often help determine the next collection. They also work together to identify holes in product lines and new finishes, additions or modifications to existing collections. What I really loved after speaking with them that their golden rule is actually avoiding trends (or, as I was told, “the ‘T’ word”). The Room & Board philosophy is to create products that people will live with, and love, for a very long time. Their pieces are designed to coordinate with trendy pieces, fit into any kind of decor, and be a sort of modern design chameleon that can be handed down or moved into new homes without question.
So how do they get it all done with such a small team? They work closely with outside designers, artisans and manufacturing partners to create custom and exclusive pieces. Some of them you might know already: Pendleton, Loll Designs, KleinReid, Pablo Pardo, Pigeon Toe Ceramics. Only a very small percentage (less than 10% according to John) is bought directly from outside manufacturers. This way, not only are they supporting the US economy, but they’re also reducing their carbon footprint. And they have been doing this since the very beginning because it makes better business sense.
Another one of Room & Board’s newer local partners is the glassblowing duo of Hennepin Made. I stopped by their studio (located less than 10 miles from Room & Board’s corporate office) and was given a tour and a glassblowing demonstration – more on that in a future post! In the meantime, LA and Orange County: mark your calendars for our two Room & Board events, featuring Hennepin Made: October 1st at Room & Board Culver City, and October 2nd at Room & Board in South Coast Plaza.
This post was created in collaboration with Room & Board. Our partners are hand picked by the Design Milk team because they represent the best in design.