“This is my living portfolio,” says Moises Esquenazi as he reaches out to greet me on the lip of a raised platform. His Waowig Studio jumps out at you unexpectedly, with no conventional point of entry or threshold, such that he might be advised to place a sign that reads: “CAUTION: Design Incubator Ahead!” In this open book, interior merges with street, street funk merges with high design and street becomes interior.
Two garage doors of industrial heft are rolled up to reveal Esquenazi’s active mosh pit of hybrid design. The studio on the right is walled off from the street with a smooth concrete wall penetrated by a burst of transparent acrylic hemispheres, or lenses, that reveal distorted glimpses of what lies within.
In the adjacent space or stage — it’s hard not to see it as a movie set — hangs a huge day bed, measuring 12 feet by 10, hanging from four slender steel cables. The ceiling had to be reinforced to handle the weight, but it’s a full-out levitating act as the bed appears to float just above a mirrored platform and the ceiling drops down like a cloud. A black ovoid lamp by Portuguese designer Nina Andrada Silva hovers below the ceiling as a kind of alien presence — think Magritte — and like the bed, appears untethered to earthly gravity.
But what is this place, exactly? And who is this quietly confident man wearing a blue shirt and hand-stitched espadrilles?
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Think of it as the ultimate interpretation of the contemporary shopping experience: part design studio, art gallery, retail shop, Austin Powers man-cave and surreal hipster womb room.
Through the retail universe, the boundaries of the consumer experience have changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Pop-up stores, niche marketing, cool hunting, the whole “artisanal” mania and other innovative forms of merchandising were, for the most part, developed in response to the withering ascendancy of online shopping. Today’s ever-agitated, ever-needy customer seeks a deeper level of experience, through expanded authenticity — the hand-made, the interactive, the local, the personal, the tactile, the organic. For many shoppers, this is more important than global brand recognition or any of the traditional markers of status.
Esquenazi plays on that edge, riding the wave of Wynwood gentrification. His spaces merge with street funk while bringing a more experimental level of design that suggests a kind of incremental bridging of low and high culture. He pushes the frontiers of the patron-vendor paradigm to a new level of personalized domesticity, almost to the verge of ambivalence.
The studio carries artifacts designed by people Esquenazi likes: a multifaceted glass vase (Guaxs); a “slant dish” with flowers coated with cloisonné enamel (Haäm); a hand-knitted “yoga instructor dog” named Murakami (Miga De Pan).
But only a few objects in Waowig Studio are actually for sale. Rather, the space was created as a personal experience and expression, like a Wynwood street performance: fleeting, ephemeral, impossible to pin down. Retail never used to be about the shopkeeper, but now it’s almost as if the shopkeeper has become the artist while the consumer is merely a guest walking into his/her curated environment.
“I just wanted to show off my aesthetic and bring people together,” says Esquenazi, inviting me inside. “I wanted to create theater.”
A group of workers wearing bright orange vests and construction helmets is walking by on their lunch break, curious and obviously tempted to climb right in themselves and lie on the hanging bed. But something holds them back, an invisible line between street and curated chaos that seems to be as strong as a laser beam. The workers move to the edge of the opening, peer inside, laugh amongst themselves, but go no further; this seems to be the kind of interstitial space — the liminal corridor of chance, voyeurism and expectation — that Esquenazi likes to inhabit.
His bio is as eclectic and contradictory as his collection of artifacts. He grew up in Bogotá but moved to the U.S. in 1982 and attended Avon Old Farms, an all-boys prep school in central Connecticut. He studied architecture at Cornell, then went to Barcelona to work on a movie called “The Flemish Board” directed by Jim McBride and starring Kate Beckinsale. (She played a young art restorer who discovers a secret message hidden in a 15th century Flemish painting).
Esquenazi returned to America and attended the Eastman Kodak School of Visual Arts, where he studied animation, then moved to Los Angeles (in 1994) where he worked in computer animation, founding a company called See3 in Las Vegas and working for Steve Wynn, the hotel-casino mogul. For 14 years, he stayed in Los Angeles, where he worked for a spell in Hollywood movies. “I hated it,” admits Esquenazi.
He moved to New York in 2008 and started working on interior design projects in the city, as well as the Hamptons. But Miami lured him south, and that’s when he discovered the property in Wynwood — a quiet block on Northeast 27th Street — and decided to renovate the former Crate & Barrel furniture factory. And thus he created Waowig, a pop-up studio, art gallery and showroom that crosses the line between experimental lab, personal space, loading dock, retail shop and urban street theater to invite participation and introspection.
Inside, there’s an infectious sense of something nonlinear and hoodoo happening. Whatever edge Wynwood may have once possessed as meta-neighborhood in transition still seems alive and festering within the Waowig Studio.
In a side room, a dozen disco balls with mirrored surfaces hang from the ceiling, reinforcing the subaqueous sense of being in an underwater world with bubbles percolating to the surface. A circular moon-gate echoes the shape of the hemispheres and connects the two front studios. In lieu of a conventional portal, the round opening is hung with translucent yellow freezer flaps that slap and slide against one another when entering the womb-like cavern.
An antique papier-mâché ostrich stands guard in the middle of the room, while the image of a yellow ottoman — in the shape of a demented amoeba — hangs from the back wall and reinforces the yellow palette of the freezer flaps. The painting is by Los Carpinteros, a Cuban Artist collective. Seven self-portraits by Juan Pablo Echeverry show the Colombian artist disguised in the costumes of various superheroes: Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman.
The space is punctuated by a pop-art collage by conceptual artist Jonathan Rosen featuring the words “I want the limelight” and a jumpsuit filled with blue butterflies by Paul Villinsky. A large self-portrait by Nick Lepard, “Every Ghost Story,” hangs on a far wall, while stuffed birds are attached to the innards of an old computer.
It feels like being inside Esquenazi’s head — a moment free of all finalities, somewhere between inception and realization — inside a process that is still unfolding. I walk back outside and onto the street. A light rain has begun to fall.