The space at 467 Washington St. in Downtown Crossing is prime retail real estate: It has floor-to-ceiling windows, a spacious footprint, and is just steps from the T.
All it needs is a tenant.
That’s where Stephanie Lee and Ellen Shakespear come in. The duo are cofounders of SpaceUs, an organization that partners with landlords to bring art, events, and commerce into lifeless storefronts around the city. This month, they are hosting a temporary holiday pop-up on Washington Street. It features works from more than 40 local artists and an array of gifts for sale.
They started SpaceUs while attending graduate classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in part as a way to break outside of the bubble they felt they inhabited on campus.
“We were studying architecture and urban planning classes and thinking about what makes a city vibrant,” Lee says, but they recognized they weren’t actually engaging in their own community. “We weren’t being honest with ourselves, because MIT is a bit cloistered from the city.”
So they began working with landlords to identify vacant spaces and open temporary storefronts to enliven the streetscape.
The Downtown Crossing space is their seventh installation. They’ve also had storefronts in Faneuil Hall, Harvard Square, Roslindale Village, and East Cambridge.
For each project, they start from scratch, inviting artists to propose site-specific works that will help fill blank walls. The entire space ends up being a mix of art and commerce. The aim is to make experiencing art more accessible, and to make the idea of patronage more attainable, Lee says.
Among the events they’re hosting before the pop-up ends at the end of this month are William Wegman-inspired holiday photo shoots, workshops to make custom wrapping paper, and regular tea gatherings.
Running the SpaceUs operations means Lee and Shakespear don’t have an office, per se. And while they were enrolled at MIT they were like ships passing in the night, arranging their class schedules so someone could always be on hand to manage whatever space they were occupying at the time.
They also had to find ways to create objects that could work in whatever setting they found.
“When we got started, a lot of our thinking was ‘How do you create a suite of furniture or objects that can move into different size spaces, in different neighborhoods, serving different purposes?’ ” Shakespear says.
The resulting spaces feel both flexible and fleeting and are meant to drive curiosity and draw people in from the sidewalk.
“Artists are earning. Spaces are active. The city feel more accessible culturally,” she says.
Every time Lee and Shakespear do a pop-up, it means installing an entirely new store. But some things are constant: like the wooden cubes they built in MIT’s woodworking shop. “We got a huge plywood delivery there one day, and it’s been following us from storefront to storefront,” Shakespear says. These modular plywood cubes serve as building blocks — they're held together with clamps — and have been reassembled at various heights to serve as displays, pedestals, and tables for serving meals.
Some other highlights of the Downtown Crossing pop-up:
Doors and sawhorses from hardware stores serve as tables in the center of the store. The elements have been reconfigured in various ways with each installation. “It’s very Home Depot chic,” Shakespear says.
To move things from one space to another, Lee and Shakespear install wheels on nearly every piece of furniture. “We’re obsessed with wheels,” Shakespear says. “We’ve put walls on wheels to make spaces feel smaller and more intimate.”
Lee said that she came across research that found that installing mirrors in retail settings creates more a social experience for shoppers. In the current installation, the mirrors create odd Dada-equse reflections where guests’ heads and bodies and other body parts are compressed. It makes for great social media content.
In the Downtown Crossing location, huge velvet curtains add a dramatic feel to the space, and an art installation by Zak Jensen printed over them — “The Grate; B Yawned” — makes a joke of what might be behind them. (In truth, it’s just a large area the women use for storage.)
An installation by Tianna Rivera features a giant wall with the phrase “Yikes” printed over and over. It serves as an Instagram background, and, according to the artist, poses this question: “How do you successfully take forgettable moments of everyday life and make them feel important?”
A stairwell becomes a site for “Over and Over,” a long silver Mylar art piece by Elle DioGuardi that cascades down the stairs. The artwork is also depicted on a large video screen in the store.
And an upstairs room overlooking the bustle of DTX is now an atelier for Katytarika Bartel, an artist-in-residence who has been hosting portrait shoots during the holidays.