Read Design

Interview: Albie Alexander Hueston, Refinery29’s Creative Director, Experiential

Discussing radical creativity, digital inspiration and what makes for a perspective-changing experience in light of the site’s 29Rooms exhibition

For a third year, Refinery29‘s immersive spectacle 29Rooms will unfold during New York Fashion Week (from 8 to 11 September). Quite literally 29 rooms worth of color, creativity, genuine substance and savvy for the digital generation, this experience has found a way to combine important messages with selfie-taking. Brands have a presence, as do charities, but artists are the stars here. And Albie Hueston, Refinery29’s Creative Director, Experiential finds the components and helps to bring them all together. It’s an impressive annual undertaking underscored by scouting missions and a momentous installation period. Hueston’s insight on everything from social media to the future of art gallery presentations comes from a place of success—not just media impressions but thousands of people who have stepped foot into his vision and left inspired.

This year, the theme is “Turn it Into Art,” and everyone from Transparent’s Jill Soloway to fashion designer Jason Wu and artist JeeYoung Lee are represented. 29Rooms sold out quite quickly—dishing out 20,000 tickets to expected visitors. A room dedicated to postcards that will be mailed to senators reminds guests of 29Rooms’ activism roots, and Soloway’s gender-neutral bathroom (done with artist Xavier Schipani) offers a refreshing future-forward perspective. It’s really a wonderland and Hueston explains why.

Where did the initial 29Rooms concept come from and what was your role in its inception and execution?

It was the 10-year anniversary of Refinery29 and we wanted to do a big event that brought our brand to life and would be a gift to our audience. After many brainstorming sessions—and thousands of Post-Its on the wall—we dreamt up the concept of creating 29 different rooms, with each shedding a light on the important topics, issues and independent voices that Refinery29 as a brand embraces and celebrates every day. Many of us shared a childhood obsession with funhouses and thus landed on a loose concept of creating a “funhouse of creativity, culture and technology”—appropriately called “29Rooms.” In essence 29Rooms was to be the physical manifestation of Refinery29—from the topics we explore, to the creative tools we yield, to the inclusivity we practice. We believed it would be a safe space for sharing, wonder and most importantly, a place where our audience could come visit to simply get lost in their own imagination, connect with others—and themselves—on a much deeper level.

What sort of research goes into building this? And why is it unveiled when it’s unveiled each year?

It really is about taking a deep look at the world around us and capturing the cultural conversation each year in a way that is imaginative, inclusive and ultimately telling a story that drives empathy, provokes new ideas and actions, and empowers the creative spirit in those attending and beyond. We draw inspiration and touchpoints from everywhere—from art history to cinema—putting depth and effort into creating the overarching vision to create visually arresting experiences all tied together by one common narrative thread informed by the 29Rooms theme of the year.

The timing around New York Fashion Week was really in response to not seeing enough inclusive experiences during this very exclusive season. Fashion is inherently rooted in self-expression, and while 29Rooms touches on a diverse range of topics outside of fashion from body positivity to LGBTQ+ rights, we felt that there was a huge need during this time for an inclusive experience that celebrates creativity in all its many beautiful forms.

How do you continue, year after year, to up the ante and dazzle? Really, experiential is everywhere now, how do you solidify your position/importance/distinction?

The rise of digital has led to the rise of experiential and there is a true nostalgia for physicality that is only getting more prevalent. To put it quite simply, we are hungry to connect again and engage with each other and ourselves so the desire for shared live experiences is growing. I think what sets us apart is our ability to create dream worlds that fully crack open our guests’ imaginations. When designing the space, we really look at first crystallizing the narrative of the room and what we want each guest to feel when they step inside the experience. From creating an experience made to feel like you are back in your mother’s womb to a floating field of orchids whispering erotic secrets to you, we plunge guests into a world where senses are heightened in an immersive and pseudo-reality enabled by otherworldly design. For this year’s 29Rooms, with our “Turn it Into Art” theme as the north star for the creative, we set out to explore thought-provoking and some controversial issues such as reproductive rights and gender-neutral bathrooms. Still we always maintain the playfulness and whimsical elements that truly make 29Rooms a destination that has guests leaving the experience with a big smile on their face.

I think our biggest distinction though is the team. Guided by Piera Gelardi (Executive Creative Director and Co-Founder of Refinery29), the 29Rooms crew is a relatively small gang but we have hands-down the best talent in the experiential world that live and breathe the work and push the boundaries every single year.

Where do you look for inspiration these days? What role social media play regarding inspiration?

Of course in the age of digital, Instagram is a great tool for inspiration too and I love following accounts that feature unique environments such as @designboom, @_art_psycho and for a steady stream of beautiful visual stimuli… I look for inspiration absolutely everywhere, from cinema and politics to art and theater and even the mundane like a paper shredder—and of course my own childhood. From funhouses to choose-your-own-adventure fairy tales, it is a combination of our team’s many different life experiences and obsessions that inspired the cadence of 29Rooms. We break down the fourth wall and put the audience at the center of the experience, blurring the lines between an art exhibit, theatrical experience and whimsical funhouse. As human beings we are curious by nature and by creating experiences where there is more than meets the eye, you invite guests to challenge themselves, take risks and give them an opportunity to become an “explorer.” There is something truly magical about giving guests the power of choice within an experience that evokes wonder.

What sort of partnership goes on with the artists involved?

We collaborate with a range of different talent every year that really does run the gamut of style, culture, entertainment, art, and technology. This year alone we have actors, singers, visual artists, technology labs, non-profits, comedians, poets and more ranging from the emerging, the well-established and the relatively unknown. From actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Emma Roberts, to poet Cleo Wade and visual artist JeeYoung Lee—we love to bring together collaborators that complement each other and bring our mission and editorial voice to life. The creative partnership with each differs but in essence it really is a two-way process and incredibly collaborative. The way we construct the room concepts is very much like trying to assemble a very large puzzle, but essentially the 29Rooms team ideates different themes with talent that are culturally relevant, inspiring and embody the bold and creative spirit of Refinery29. For each room we have a very clear idea from inception what we want the experience to be visually, what action we want guests to take and what emotion are guests feeling in the room. We then present our vision to our collaborators and work with them closely to bring it to fruition. This year’s 29Rooms was a truly special year where we got to collaborate with a diverse slate of talent from all across the world, and used our 2017 theme “Turn it Into Art” as the guiding force.

For example, this year’s “Erotica in Bloom” room was inspired by how fertile flowers and flora have long been drenched in sex symbolism throughout art history. The 29Rooms team and I have long been fascinated by the photographer Maisie Cousins who blurs the lines between sex, art and nature. Inspired by her work, we designed an experience with thousands of flowers suspended from the ceiling with a few oversized flower pods. Inside of these pods we commissioned Maisie to create provocative and playful videos that celebrate sexuality and engage all the senses. Each video is a visceral trip into femininity and in one of my favorite videos you watch intimate and tight cuts of her sensually massaging her own body with a mix of oil, sweat and small blades of grass. Inside the flower pod, you hear giggling and insects evoking the sense of a warm summer’s day which is enhanced by the subtle smell of freshly cut green grass. Ultimately, through our roster of creative visionaries, we turned our values into multidimensional experiences that elicit emotion and create memorable moments for everyone.

What role has charitable organizations played and how do you determine these?

Each year we have collaborated with non-profit organizations on rooms, from the Lower East Side Girls Club to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, and determining these is a combination of assessing what is happening in the culture at the time, and how we can tie it to the 29Rooms theme for the year. For this year’s theme, we were inspired by the power of art and how it can change your outlook, mindset, and ultimately your life. With this in mind, we reached out to Art of Elysium, an organization that empowers artists and communities of need to emotionally triumph together through art, to collaborate with us on a room. Refinery29 has always, and will continue to, create content that matters to women—whether that be a short-form video online or a room at 29Rooms. That is why this year there was no hesitation on partnering with Planned Parenthood to create an experience that sheds light on personal stories from women who have been touched by this organization, especially during a time when women’s reproductive rights are at risk.

What is the lead-up week like, with all of these installations?

As you can imagine, the lead-up is pretty insane with so many moving parts but the greatest thing is the collaboration that happens on-site. This year’s production team is comprised of over 200 people and the experience took a full month to build, so you can imagine teamwork is the key to success. Working in live experiences can be very intense at times and you go from one extreme to another, so keeping your focus and not losing your sense of humor is super important. The 29Rooms team works very closely together and we pride ourselves on the support, respect and trust that we show to one another which ultimately makes the work so much better in the end.

Your title, “Creative Director, Experiential,” how does one prepare for such a position? Or even end up in such a position?

I think true radical creativity is being unafraid of your own mind. It has always been my mission in life to create beauty through experience, but it has been one big experiment along the way. There is no real formula to prepare for a position like this except for being passionately curious. As children, curiosity fueled our actions and we thrived on the thrill of new discoveries whether it be in the playground or a daydream. That is what I did as a child and I look to bring that fearless spirit and intense imagination into my work every day. For me it’s not just about creating beautiful environments, but more so about altering reality to provoke honest emotion in people and in that moment give them a sensation of true escapism.

I know it can’t be distilled down to a simple formula, but is there one element that you recognize will make a room pop?

It’s funny because the 29Rooms team and I often speak about this but I think it really boils down to creating a room that is both transformative and transportive. When entering the room, we want guests to experience the sense of being invited into another world layered with a narrative that creates an emotional connection with them. Upon leaving the experience, that person must feel transformed—it can be big or small—but they must leave the experience changed in some way.

Lead image courtesy of Getty, all other images by Cool Hunting


More stories like this one.