A few years ago, you might have caught Ari Heckman and Jonathan Minkoff–cofounders of the New York–based design company ASH–loading up a station wagon with flea market finds to “stage” properties on the real estate market, a fairly common practice to furnish empty spaces to make them more enticing to potential buyers. Since then, the company has grown into a thriving company that specializes in both design and development, all while still sticking to its roots in the staging business.
Heckman and Minkoff founded ASH in 2008 on the heels of the financial crash, a risky time to start a business and an especially volatile time for the design and construction industry. However, through a few strategic decisions, big-name partnerships, and the core belief that it’s better to keep it unexpected and interesting than stable and even-keeled, they’ve been able to parlay their brand of warm, minimal, organic design into hotels, private residences, rental properties, luxury condos, and even a vintage furniture boutique.
The total value of all ASH’s development projects on the boards is more than $100 million–and that sum doesn’t even include business generated from the design and staging side of the company. “If it’s just ‘let’s focus on what we’re good at’–that’s so boring,” Heckman says of the company’s ethos. Here’s how ASH evolved from its unlikely start into one of the most thoughtful and ambitious design businesses operating today.
Transitioning from a staging company to a multifaceted design brand didn’t happen overnight. But the lessons from its early success continue to inform how ASH conceives of its brand. It’s about maintaining a clear point of view–which is more of an outlook than a checklist of attributes.
Heckman and Minkoff met while working at Cayuga Capital Management, a Brooklyn-based developer. The two pondered how to break into the development business themselves, and simultaneously noticed that a lot of properties they were working on entered the market without their best foot forward. “They needed to be positioned somehow,” Heckman says. “At the time, all of the staging companies were just going to Ikea or putting crap into an apartment. I thought, ‘Why don’t we just make this a little more point-of-view centric to the neighborhood and development?'”
Instead of shopping at box stores, they trekked to antique stores and flea markets and called upon their contacts in the art world to lend original pieces. Impressed with their work, the company asked them to stage another development. Word got around of their strategy, and Heckman and Minkoff decided to cast out on their own and began to get more clients. They worked their Rolodex and networked to get business and start partnerships. “It was a snowball gently rolling down a hill,” Heckman says. “It gained traction. In so many ways, the staging and furniture-rental business started to finance the greater aspirations of the business at the beginning.”
The mindset that Heckman established–which was to do something very specific to a project based on its location and context–informs everything that ASH does today. For example, the branding and concepting for its hotels are based on their respective city. The Dean, its first hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, wouldn’t exist elsewhere. Honing a “signature style” isn’t as important to ASH as creating a space that seems like it sits naturally within the urban fabric.
“With real estate, when someone sees one project that’s done really well, then they’re willing to give you work,” says Will Cooper, ASH’s creative director. “They say, ‘We love what you did for them, can you do it for me?’ We say, yes, but we’re not going to recreate the same thing.”
“We view design and development as the same thing in many ways,” Heckman says. “It’s not even opposite sides of the same coin; it’s the same side of the same coin. We try to view design and commerce in a symbiotic relationship to one another rather than oppositional, which is too often how the world sees design and commerce or finance.”
ASH is currently divided into five different divisions: design, development, hotels, staging, and products. Since ASH operates as both a designer and developer, the negotiations and compromises stay internal. It can better understand where the costs lie and allocate budget accordingly. For example, finishes and detailing are very important to ASH’s design vision, and thanks to their business model, they can make all those decisions internally without having to justify the expense for custom fixtures or a specific design element to the client.
Cooper argues that this strategy allows the brand to exert more control over its identity and to ensure that the projects it executes are done so to their standards. “Design and development also go hand in hand in controlling the message and not diluting it,” he says. “When you start looking outside for consulting–like if you hire an architect who hires a designer who hires someone else–you may not have that original vision come to fruition.”
Additionally, this makes the company more financially sustainable. “When I began at ASH, there was a moment where one side of the business was supporting the other and it’s flip flopped so many times since then,” Cooper says. “That’s the ethos of a big brand. When I worked at Ralph Lauren, the biggest secret to their business was the stores that everyone sees and the clothes that everyone sees don’t make the money. The wholesale accounts and their outlets make so much money that it allows them to position themselves as this brand.”
At ASH’s inception during the financial crisis, Heckman and Minkoff saw many un-diversified businesses lose their financing sources and fail. Moreover, the timeline of architectural projects is typically long (two to three years is the average for ASH), so seeing any return on those projects takes time. Having shorter-term work in the pipeline ensures a constant revenue stream. “Because we do so many things–from staging to production to hotels to low-end apartments and high-end apartments–it’s not recession proof, but it tries to accommodate the fact that markets change often and rapidly,” Heckman says.
The way ASH is structured, one division feeds into another. For example, it produces furniture that it uses in its staging projects, which can then also go into its hotels. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Cooper says. “We don’t design for the sake of designing; it’s for a specific moment or project and that allows it to be more appropriate and have more gravitas instead of just making something out of thin air.”
The Dean in Providence–a former strip club that ASH renovated into a boutique hotel–opened in 2014 and brought a lot of publicity for the company and has since become a calling card of sorts. “Part of the crazy reason why we got involved with hotels is they’re sort of an ideal position for us, given our interest in development, design, and operations,” Heckman says. “A hotel flexes all of those muscles more than anything else.”
For the Dean, ASH mined Providence’s history as an academic and design-minded town (RISD and Brown are near the hotel) and worked to revamp a derelict property into a type of destination hotel that the city didn’t have before. In addition to 52 guest rooms, there’s also a cafe, beer hall, and cocktail bar within the building. Rather than stripping the building down and making it feel entirely new, ASH retained historic design elements and inserted modern features where appropriate. It worked with a local fabricator to make the beds in each room, and handpicked antiques to adorn the spaces.
“We try to go to places where we can serve the market with something interesting that doesn’t already exist,” Heckman says of opening in Providence, which is also his hometown. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been hesitant to do a hotel project in New York. The city already has a plethora of options. You have your moment that fades as soon as the next one opens up, but when we open a hotel in Providence, Detroit, or New Orleans, we have real community impact and staying power.”
Right now, ASH is working on redeveloping a church and rectory in New Orleans into a hotel, and it’s also overhauling the Wurlitzer Building in Detroit. “We’re cognizant of not being the big, bad New Yorkers coming into New Orleans to build our dream,” Cooper says. “We’re refurbishing these beautiful spots and making sure our food and beverage partners are of the community and have grown up there and are contributing to the rebirth of the city.”
Heckman adds: “We try to elevate as many talented local makers, doers, artisans, food businesses, and incorporate them into the hotel. It really is a hotel for those cities, of those cities. It’s not something that lands from Manhattan. . . . That’s why we like adaptive reuse projects–it’s taking something and turning it on its head and reinterpreting it. It’s seeing what other people don’t see.”
As ASH continues to build its business, it’s keeping an open mind as to how its brand evolves. It plans to expand the staging part of the company–what Heckman views as having the most predictable, sequential growth of all its divisions–to the West Coast and further build out its presence on the East Coast. Everything else is based on their gut feeling.
“People always ask, so how many hotels do you want to have open in five years?” Heckman says. “I don’t know, maybe just the two more we’re doing, maybe 50. It will depend on how we gauge the market and if we’re still interested in it. We’re not going to do projects to force them.”
For ASH it’s less about metrics and numbers than allowing things to grow organically. “From the beginning, it was about crafting a brand and a story and seeing where it goes,” Cooper says. “As opportunities come, we take them or we don’t take them and that contributes to what’s on our plate. We can’t be pinned down, which I like.”
“I think it’s just keep on keeping on,” Heckman says. “People at ASH come to work because they are problem solvers and they enjoy the challenge of what we do. That to me is what’s motivating. I’m lucky in that I can pay my bills and not be on the street, but I don’t think we’re looking to conquer the world. It’s just taking it one day at a time.”
All Images (unless otherwise noted): courtesy ASH