Made in America

Shinola's New York store blends 1930s industrialism and clean minimalism to highlight handcrafted products
Posted January 7, 2014

It’s been said, “As General Motors goes, so goes the country.” During the boom years of the automobile industry, the city of Detroit was a bustling center of American industry. Now, with off-shore manufacturing; the economic struggles of the last few years; and the waning fortunes of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler; Detroit has become a poster child for the de-industrialization of America. And while the automobile industry is showing signs of resurgence of late, Motown has slipped into the throes of bankruptcy.

Tough times, however, call for creative thinking. In 2011, a small group of entrepreneurs dusted off the name and logo of the iconic Shinola Shoe Polish Company to use as the standard bearer for their new line of American-made luxury watches, leather goods, bicycles and journals.

Detroit is a great American city with deep manufacturing roots. The vision was to help revitalize this once bustling town by creating product that is made to last – and made in America. So last June, Shinola opened its first store, and what better place to open than Detroit?

In July, the fledgling company opened its second store in New York. The site was formerly a church with great bones and great history. Working with the design team at Rockwell Group (New York), they maintained the integrity of the existing building at 177 Franklin Street in TriBeCa, and stayed true to the nuances of the neighborhood. “We wanted to create a retail environment and café that’s an aesthetic blend of 1930s industrialism and clean minimalism to highlight and not compete with Shinola’s amazing handcrafted products,” says David Rockwell, founder and president of Rockwell Group.

The combination of the name of the mid-century shoe polish company (your father’s shoe shine) with existing architectural conditions provides a perfect experiential environment for Shinola’s product assortment. An expanse of white-washed brick walls, along with the warmth of oak fixtures and trim is a clear nod to American industrialism of the 30s.

The environment features oak library tables and shelving units adorned with decorative brass lamps that also serve to highlight merchandise. Art is seamlessly integrated into the space in the form of a bronze Mercator map purchased from the lobby of an oil company based in Rockefeller Center. The wall-mounted piece celebrates machine-age craftsmanship; a gesture appropriate for Shinola’s support of American industry.

“To reference the industrial culture of the 20th century, we incorporated found objects,” Rockwell adds. A century-old quarter-sawn oak display vitrine, discovered at a junk shop in Seneca, N.Y., was carefully restored and strategically positioned as a focal point on the back wall. The found treasure presents Shinola’s collection of men’s, women’s and unisex fine watches.

Nearby, a spiral staircase leads to a steel and brass catwalk, manufactured by one of New York’s remaining blacksmiths, above the selling space. The catwalk together with backlit ceiling panels suggestive of a skylight, also pay homage to the architectural genre of the day. A framed vintage American flag helps set the tone, while three sets of oak tables with woven leather-backed chairs provide lifestyle vignettes of watches, leather goods and bicycle accessories.

Upon entering the store, customers are treated to a curated newsstand featuring a wide assortment of periodicals, bicycling magazines and books. In addition, customers can get their morning coffee with scone, muffin or cookie at a café in the front of the retail space operated by The Smile, a trendy eatery on Noho’s Bond Street. The café opens at 7 a.m. for the convenience of passersby on their way to work.

The telling of a monthly story is the merchandising approach. Pop-up presentations within the store feature select product offerings that may include color groupings or merchandise from collaborative partners such as Hickoree's, a Brooklyn-based brand; Map of Days, producers of items such as leather-covered bike locks; and Elysia Vandenbussche, a local Detroit artist making ceramic vessels. 

The Shinola brand is a classic American story. Its mission is to celebrate America’s great manufacturing roots, and build on its industrial legacy. Through creative thinking and visionary merchandising, Shinola hopes to help move great American cities like Detroit into the future. With this kind of vision, the term “Made in America” will once again be highly respected and worthy of its renowned history.

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Photography: Eric Laignel, New York