Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sneak Peek: Red Dessert Dive

Jessica Lusk grew up in Tomball, but with strong ties to the Heights. Her grandfather grew up here, her mother lived here until high school, and her family still owns her grandfather's Heights home. These ties make it no surprise that this community has drawn her in, this time to start a small business in Houston's most local-business-loving neighborhood.

While attending Texas A&M, where she would eventually graduate with an Environmental Design degree, Lusk left Texas to head to New York City for an architecture internship, where she fell in love with the small spaces occupied by unique businesses. So much in New York seemed "tiny and weird" compared to what she had always known in Texas, but she relished it. She returned to Texas and then stayed close to home, earning a Masters in Architecture at University of Houston.

When Lusk began her career in Houston, she soon realized that, despite her excellent education, the working environment of architecture was not where her heart was. She decided she wanted to be an entrepreneur and Stella Bakes was born. Stella Bakes, a homebaking cupcake business, was an experiment; a way for Lusk to see if she had the mettle to own her own business- to do all the work and assume all the risk. She decided she did and put together a business plan for... more work and even greater risk.

1045 Studewood, next to the new SOHO boutique
When Jessica Lusk was living in New York, one of her favorite places was the original Magnolia Bakery. Tucked in to a tiny space in the West Village, Magnolia Bakery was practically an institution the day the doors opened. Inspired by the Magnolia and encouraged by her experience with Stella Bakes, Lusk decided she wanted to own a dessert shop. Unlike both Magnolia and Stella Bakes, Lusk did not want this dessert shop to be "cute." She doesn't think that desserts, whether it's cupcakes or cheesecakes, need to always be so "girlie." She wanted something decidedly different and came up with the concept of Red, a business named for her grandmother, a "feisty redhead and amazing baker."

While the general aesthetic of Red will be very different from it's inspiration in New York, one similarity remains in Lusk's new venture: small. She knew she wanted the Heights area and she knew she wanted less than 1200 sq feet. What she has ended up with is a little sliver of Studewood, coming in at a very New York-ish 961 sq ft.

The state of 1045 Studewood 2 weeks ago, when Jessica invited me in to chat

Jessica Lusk's background in architectural design has definitely helped her dream of tiny become a big reality. Lusk did all the plans for Red herself and has plans to put every inch of the space to use. As plans developed, the concept became clear for Lusk. Red will have "classic American desserts with a twist" plus a nice selection of beer and wine. There will also be a strong coffee program from Boomtown Coffee on 19th Street. Coffee "was not am afterthought" for Lusk, and in it's final incarnation, Red be more "of a coffee shop with an emphasis on desserts" than a bakery itself.

The Fredricksburg light fixture that is dictating the interior design of Red
Red will share parking with SOHO Boutique, eeking out just enough to allow permitting for eating and drinking in house. Right now, there isn't much to see inside, but that isn't stopping Lusk from holding to a May opening. What you will be able to expect come May is a "a funky, fun, eclectic bakery," where the Rolling Stones provide the soundtrack and funky versions of desserts you love will satisfy your sweet tooth. Lusk has drawn interior design inspiration from an amazing light fixture she found outside of Fredricksburg, TX. A subway tile wall will give focus to the service area, where you'll find eight bar stools and a window bench for enjoying your sweet with your beverage of choice. Materials like reclaimed wood and cast iron piping will create an environment, Lusk hopes, that bucks the trend of cutesy when it comes to desserts.

Service area will be on the south wall,
eye catching white subway tile and rustic elements for an almost masculine aesthetic

Plans for the finished space, including a micro-office for Lusk

True to the neighborhood, Lusk is focusing on using local vendors for everything from beer selection to coasters to employee uniforms. While she is getting help on the wine list, Lusk will be putting the beer list together herself. And she is no longer doing the baking. Focusing on operations is where she thinks she's best used, so she has a pastry chef, as well as a barrista to handle the front of the house. When the doors open for business, Red is going to be open from roughly 7 am until 8 pm. Lusk is open to changing this as she is able to see what her customer base prefers. With hours and some other aspects of the business, Lusk is willing to remain flexible and experience some trial and error "until we find our sweet spot." Pun intended?

As of today, April 16, some good progress toward Red's anticipated May opening
Red Dessert Dive + Coffee Shop
1045 Studewood
Houston Heights
Twitter/ @Red_HoustonTX

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

All Signs Point "True North"

My interaction with True North started with this email from Heights Kids Group early Saturday morning:
Bungalow Rooftop in the median on Heights Blvd 
Does anyone know anything about this? Someone put a rooftop (and part of a house/garage?) in the median on Heights between 4th and 5th. Looked like workmen were arriving with tools to remove just now. (hope not) Looked like a statement to the death of the bungalow. Spot on IMO. Go see quickly if you are interested.
A quick update shortly after noted that they were not removing it, but had actually added a steeple to it. Someone wondered if it had to do with the fire at Heights Presbyterian... Then someone announced: it is an art installation. The rooftop at 4th St has had everyone talking, with multiple pictures posted to The Heights Life Facebook page and in my Twitter and Instagram feeds.

So, what's the real deal on the project? It's called “True North” and has been a long time dream of Gus Kopriva, owner of Redbud Gallery on 11th and an icon in the local art scene; a name recognized both nationally and internationally.  Kopriva has long dreamed of producing large scale public art exhibitions in Houston. He hatched a plan "to expand the placement of public art pieces to numerous locations throughout the city and particularly along the esplanade of Heights Boulevard." The esplanade, which is a Scenic Right of Way from White Oak Bayou to 20th Street, has long enjoyed the tender, loving care of the Heights Association with native trees, flower gardens, irrigation systems, drinking fountains, the much-loved jogging trail, plus memorials, benches, gazebos, and public "Thank Yous" to the likes of long time residents, business owners, and volunteers like Carl and Melvalene Cohen. With much effort and cooperation, this project got approval from the City’s Parks Department and Public Works as a major location for a public art exhibit. And now we all get to benefit.

What is True North about? The idea is for a sculpture project that "is a representation of local works of contemporary art along the esplanade for the enjoyment of our community and visitors.  Exhibits—produced by highly recognized Texas artists—will foster the understanding and advancement of art." Sounds good.

The first True North sculpture installation will be in place for roughly nine months.  There will be ten total sculptures from eight artists, including a 2-piece project from Lee Littlefield, who passed away last year and to whom the show is dedicated. 

Here is the line up, in no particular order:

Carter Ernst- The only piece by a woman artist, "Pointing North" is actually not installed yet.  Weather caused some delays, but sometime on the weekend of April 4 you can expect to see a large fiberglass dog on 600 block of Heights. Her piece is inspired by Ernst's own dog and, as Gus Kopriva noted in our chat, is perfect for the Heights, a very dog-centric neighborhood.

Dan Havel- Pictured above, the church that launched so much speculation is "Wildlife Sanctuary." Back in the 1990s, an old church was torn down/converted in to a funeral home on 18th at Columbia. Havel is re-introducing a piece of Heights history back to the neighborhood, but he is also making this architectural remnant functional with a purpose. If you get close, you'll see small doors that hold bird seed for the many feathered friends that live in and travel through the Heights. Another elemtnet of note: the steeple was once hit by lighting, which twisted it.

Paul Kittelson- Lawn Chairs (my apology to the artist. I failed to get the official name of this really awesome piece). Kittleson is known for large scale, whimsical art like giant popcorn pieces and lighting strike. He also does a lot of public works. A sculpture prof at UofH, his piece is simply "about furniture that is utilized a lot in the Heights." A piece of wall art with the fabric used for the chairs will be available at the Heights Association auction next weekend.

Lee Littlefield- His "Cypress Flowers" should look familiar to anyone in Houston. He took cypress and pine wood and used those materials to create brightly colored trees which are installed all over town.

Patrick Medrano- "From the Hood to The Heights" --- Medrano has taken the common architectural element of the shotgun house, suited it for dogs, and gave the dogs' house oars for a canine escape from some kind of imminent flood or hurricane. Once again, we love our dogs in the Heights.

Steve Murphy- "Things You CAn't Get From Books" Kopriva isn't sure what that means! LOL! In any case, this abstract sculpture is found in a small stand of trees, giving it more of a presence.

Dean Ruck-  "Hourglass"- This sculpture on 18th, is 14' tall with 150 5" mirrors. Dean is well known for his previous works with Dan Havel, most notably the Inversion house in Montrose. 

Ed Wilson- "Folded Plane" Wilson created a giant stainless steel paper airplane.

A year of planning and a Mayor’s Initiative Grant through Houston Arts Alliance, along with private donations, has made this project possible. There has been effort from many notable locals working with Kopriva. A Heights icon herself, artist Chris Silkwood is a long time community activist and was also leadership for this bunch of loveliness. 

It's only been three days and I already love everything about this art installation. I asked Kopriva if there would more sculptures or other projects after these are gone in November? He can't say right now but I think he hopes so. He sees Houston really bursting in to the national art spotlight right now and believes that there ample room for projects like this around our lovely city. We "have a lot of Boulevards," he noted. He wants to see the neighborhood's reaction and take community in to consideration. I think this is a thoughtful way of operating. I feel pretty sure, based on the excitement I've seen so far, that our community will welcome projects like this many times over. 

Like all art, our interpretations will be subjective. I imagine the piece open to most interpretations will probably be "Wildlife Sanctuary." Kopriva shared a story with me about being stopped by a pastor during the installation of the piece. "Is this a church?" he asked. He was concerned about a sinking church and what that might be symbolic of. "Oh no," Kopriva told him. "It is arising. It's being re-born." The pastor was lucky to have someone to work on his perspective with him that day, allowing him to leave in a more positive place than he arrived. Not everyone will be able to interact with the curator of this project or the artists who created it, but certainly many discussions will be had about all of it and what it might mean.

Some might muse about the meaning of True North and how it applies to each sculpture. The name  is the most literal part of the project: it is a reference to Heights Boulevard, which does, indeed, run true north.