About six months ago, Schoolhouse opened their third store location in Pittsburgh’s renovated Detective Building – the building’s architecture alone being a perfect fit for the brand that began over a decade and a half ago. In addition to their Portland and New York City outposts, Schoolhouse Pittsburgh carries the industrial light fixtures they’re known for, as well as a line of decor products made in-house and a small collection of highly curated goods. We talked to owner and founder Brian Faherty about making the decision to branch out further, what makes up the foundation of Schoolhouse, and what advice he might give to someone following in his footsteps.
Why did you pick this city/neighborhood/storefront?
Over the years, I’d frequently traveled through Pittsburgh for business and I always enjoyed its spirit and specific type of Americana. In some ways, it reminds me of how Portland felt fifteen years ago when I started the company. The city has the same optimistic and upwardly mobile energy. But I didn’t know I wanted to put a store there until I came across the Detective Building. Seeing this unique architecture that was unlike anything else around it, and imagining all the potential it held made me feel like I could see the next chapter in the company being written in front of me.
Where did you get the name for the store?
The name of the company has evolved and adapted with time. The original name, Schoolhouse Electric, comes from our first products: schoolhouse-style light fixtures. I’d found these cast iron lamp shade molds in upstate New York and had them returned to service to produce the same type of lamp shades that were common in homes, businesses, and yes, schoolhouses, throughout the early part of the twentieth century. After creating light fixtures to go with them, Schoolhouse Electric was a natural choice. In 2011, we moved into our current building, which is a 125,000 sq. ft brick factory, and we also added a line of home goods to our selection of lighting. At that point, we added the “& Supply Co.” portion to reflect our new dry goods. Most recently, we simplified to just “Schoolhouse,” which is crisp, clean, and reflective of the “want better, not more” mindset we operate under.
Has it changed much since it opened? How?
The Pittsburgh store has only been open about six months, and since the building is much bigger than just the store, we’ve had a few projects to tie up both inside and out. Our new sign was finally installed on the side of the building, which was the last stamp of our presence in the building. But in terms of our approach to the look and feel of the store, the clearest evolution is visible in our different stores. This is our third retail store, including Portland and New York, and each store has its own personality. Whereas our Portland store is located in a century-old brick factory that carries a long history of manufacturing and maker spirit, the Detective Building is this bold, geometric office building built in the New Formalist style.
What’s one of the challenges you have with the business?
Whenever you move to a new city, you have to work hard to establish yourself in the city and neighborhood. I always felt like there is a cultural connection shared between Portland and Pittsburgh, but it’s on us to make ourselves known in the community so that people can judge what we’re doing for themselves. Getting people in the door is one thing, but making people feel like they can linger and enjoy a cup of coffee and feel a mutual sense of belonging is a much bigger challenge.
What’s your favorite item in the store right now?
Choosing a single product might be impossible for me since I’ve put so much of myself into just about everything we release. But in general, my favorite products can be found in the Iconic Schoolhouse collection. The Iconic Schoolhouse collection is composed of our most time-honored, beloved products like the Studio Desk Lamp, the Winter + Summer Cotton Coverlet, and the Utility Stool. Every new seasonal collection we launch has a different inspiration or motif, but when you look through the Iconic Schoolhouse collection you can see the things that tie it all together into a cohesive whole. It’s sort of our visual thesis statement.
What is this season’s theme/inspiration/story?
For Spring this year, we wanted to focus on the spirit of hospitality, inclusivity, and making time to spend with friends and family. Welcoming people into your space, whatever and wherever it may be, is something of a disappearing art, but it’s something we think is incredibly important. We shot our most recent catalog in the home of a woman who has an almost preternatural ability to make people feel welcome. She doesn’t just offer you drinks, she lets you know that she hopes to catch you making your own drinks because then she’ll know you feel at home. That’s taking hospitality seriously.
Are you carrying any new products and/or undiscovered gems you’re particularly excited about?
I mentioned our Spring catalog, and the themes present there really translate to the products in the Spring Collection. The bedding, which includes the Blooming Field Family and Waffle Stripe Throw, are designed to be the perfect weight for nights that get steadily warmer. The Ion – Workshop Edition has a bright, playful color line, and its scale gives it a very personal, almost intimate feeling. It doesn’t just feel like a lamp, it feels like your lamp. On the opposite end of the size spectrum, you have the Ostara, which is this very large, friendly chandelier that emits a soft and pleasant glow through its specially designed diffuser. It’s easy to imagine people sitting under the Ostara and around a dining table, chatting through the evening.
In the Fall, we also launched a collection of products based on Pittsburgh. The Andy Collection is composed of stools, coffee tables, and side tables that all share the same tulip-shaped cast aluminum base. The Charles Side Table is another really fun, modern side table that combines oak, chrome, and leather.
What’s been a consistent best seller?
The items in the Iconic Schoolhouse collection are all quite popular. Lighting, like the Luna Pendant and the Alabax Surface Mount, are perennial favorites. People seem to really like our bedding, too. We try to use patterns and materials that play well together without feeling too matchy. Then we either make them ourselves or source them from the best makers we can find to ensure a quality difference you can feel.
What’s your process for selecting + curating the objects in your shop?
We manufacture the majority of the products in our stores, so our seasonal collections will obviously dictate what’s for sale at any given moment. But when we do choose to sell products from other makers, we have a very high bar for what we select. First, they have to align with our particular aesthetic sensibility, which can be hard to pin down but involves things that feel both of their time and timeless. A product might have been been designed in the 1960s, but we want it to also feel contemporary and timeless due to the strength of its design. Beyond just aesthetics, though, we ask some more difficult questions that start to thin the herd of products we’re considering. Does the product tell a unique story? Can it be ethically sourced? Does it solve a problem for our customers? Only products that can produce satisfactory answers to all these questions will ultimately make it into our stores.
Do you have anything from the store in your own home?
My family’s home is kind of like the testing ground for Schoolhouse products. Throughout the years, we’ve moved into homes of disparate architectural eras, and designing products that have felt at home in any or all of them is an interesting problem to solve. Most recently, we redesigned our home in parallel with the renovation of the Detective Building. This gave me the opportunity to test how certain types of lighting, flooring, textures, color stories, and materials work together. Sometimes I’ll have a custom piece built for our home which we like so much that we develop into a product for Schoolhouse. The Leo Mirror, for example, is closely related to a custom piece in our bathroom.
What’s been one of the most fulfilling aspects in opening your store?
Taking on a project like the Detective Building renovation is a huge undertaking, but it also comes with a multitude of very fulfilling moments. In the beginning, the plans unfold and you see the lines start to intersect and form a picture, which is an incredible, optimistic place to be. Then, as construction progresses, you have all the moments where something is finished or installed and it looks better than you even imagined. Seeing the core of this magnificent old building restored one day at a time is a special experience. But I have to say the most fulfilling aspect is seeing the reactivation of the neighborhood around the building. An abandoned building can’t contribute to the neighborhood in the same way an occupied building can. Seeing the lights come back on in our little corner of East Liberty has been fun.
What’s one lesson you’ve learned since opening your store?
We’ve learned that brick and mortar isn’t dead. Not only is it not dead, there’s reason to believe that people are hungry for more and better retail experiences, and it will grow in the future. People may use their phones and computers throughout the day, but in some ways, that provides all the more reason for them to want to log off and experience something in person. If you put the investment into creating a space that’s a resource for the community, people will respond.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who wants to follow a similar path to yours, what would it be?
Never underestimate the power of “we.” Nothing is easy about building a business from the ground up, so it’s important your teammates share your vision. Once you’ve selected that team, it’s your responsibility to do everything you can to help those people grow. The good news is that the more you help those people grow, the more that generous spirit will be reciprocated. That’s how you create an environment and a group that can accomplish big things.
Visit Schoolhouse at 5811 Broad Street Pittsburgh, PA 15206 or schoolhouse.com.
All photos courtesy of Schoolhouse.