Column: The Perceptive Consumer

Camp David: Mazdack Rassi’s latest project, an anti-WeWork, signals a newer (more upscale) Brooklyn.

NEW YORK — The architect David M. Sullivan has a way with industrial spaces. He already conquered one of the most forbidding in New York City, after all, when he created the below-ground bar and cafe space in the Met Breuer, the pre-Brutalist building the Metropolitan Museum recently took over from the Whitney. That space is a plush den of low-slung couches and chairs surrounding a gleaming Art Deco bar, like what you dream the entirety of Manhattan is like while growing up in the suburbs (or at least I did).

More than flashy design, Sullivan’s mission is to stimulate lasting, quality culture. It’s on display in his latest project, Camp David, a shared office space and lounge that just opened in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Camp David is in Industry City, a sprawling, six-million-square-foot complex of warehouses that now hosts Time Inc., Design Within Reach, dozens of artists’ studios, and an extensive food court. It’s becoming a post-DUMBO oasis for creative Brooklyn.

Camp David provides a much needed focal point for the development, which tends to feel eerily quiet and remote since the buildings are currently two-thirds empty. “We looked at Camp David as this central hub, having a social aspect as well as a workplace,” Sullivan tells me. It will evolve with Industry City. “It’s a litmus test to understand what the culture is and what the needs are,” he said.

Founded by Mazdack Rassi and Erez Shternlicht of Milk Studios (the Meatpacking District photography studio turned bi-coastal fashion-media platform), Camp David’s ambition is clear from the start. It’s less about bohemian Brooklyn, and far more about creating a Mad Men-esque playground, importing some of the glossy glamour that the borough has, until now, never laid claim to. (The pair came up with the name for the brand before determining what it would encompass.)

The space’s ground-floor lobby is a landscape of clean marble and natural wood, with chairs from Jean Prouvé and Hans Wegner around sturdy custom tables made by Sullivan. The coffee bar is long and low enough to be an airplane runway. On the fifth floor, the only floor of the building turned into coworking offices so far, glassed-in offices face the windows while meeting areas, contiguous desks, and conference rooms are distributed through the space’s center.

Sullivan was concerned with permanence and stability, the trappings of an adult working life that are all too rare in coworking spaces. “We hope it looks better in a year than when we install it,” he said. “I don’t like things that are only skin deep.” The approach is in stark contrast to Camp David’s Silicon Valley equivalents, the WeWorks of the world, which come bedecked with pithy motivational posters and faux-exposed brick, a design template meant to be slathered cheaply wherever new locations open, like so many McDonalds interiors.

Camp David is more social club than coworking facility, at least in the way we usually think of them. The tenants aren’t solo tech entrepreneurs so much as fellow designers, architects, photographers, and other culture creators; there’s even an accountant who caters to artists. Sullivan compares it more to Soho House, NeueHouse, and the similarly styled Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg — spots where hipsters congregate of their own free will, not just to pound keyboards during working hours.

The new facility trades on aspiration, which is exactly what far-flung Industry City needs. Camp David membership is expensive, even by WeWork standards — a permanent desk is $700 per month and a private office $1,500 — but free meeting spaces, an Industry City gym, and under-construction production studio in the basement sweeten the deal. Still, the upscale decor has to be matched with effort from its tenants to give Camp David an identity. “We want to let the members define the culture, not impose the culture on the members,” Sullivan said. “It’s you being told what to do versus discovering it.”

Comparing upscale operators like Camp David, NeueHouse, and Soho House’s new London members club, The Ned, against the more standardized WeWork (and cookie-cutter co-living concepts like WeLive and Common), suggests that hospitality businesses are better at making livable spaces than startups that are looking to scale as fast as possible. There’s a difference between using an app and actually being in a physical environment, after all. Most creative entrepreneurs don’t need to be told “DO WHAT YOU LOVE”; ideally, they’re already doing it.

Once upon a time, the artist’s studio in an abandoned warehouse stood as the declarative symbol of incipient gentrification. The transformation now happens on a wider, quicker scale, as Industry City’s comprehensive master plan shows. Artists still roost in the half-renovated buildings, but concepts like Camp David herald the arrival of a wider workforce demographic set to remake the surrounding neighborhood. Sunset Park isn’t quite the next Williamsburg, but it has the potential to be.

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