Showtime for a showroom

American Street Showroom. Its three firms hope to start hosting events there - design-focused salons, perhaps, or pop-up shops.
American Street Showroom. Its three firms hope to start hosting events there - design-focused salons, perhaps, or pop-up shops. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 26, 2014

Over the last several months, architects, interior designers, and buyers for glamorous brands like Saks Fifth Avenue, W Hotels, and Restoration Hardware have all been making the same pilgrimage - to a decidedly unglamorous corner of Kensington.

Their destination, hidden incongruously within a Philadelphia Electric Co. substation that dates to 1921, is the American Street Showroom, a dreamy, steampunk fantasyland of high-end furnishings and refurbished flea-market finds that blurs the line between retail and exhibition space, gallery and retreat. It's the showcase for three design-driven fabricators - Amuneal, Groundwork, and Robert True Ogden - all in the vanguard of Philadelphia's nascent manufacturing revival.

All three firms have long attracted big-name clients from across the country, but before this year, none had a local showcase for their work. Now, their products mingle seamlessly in the 11,000-square-foot showroom.

"It's just one of those spaces where everything looks amazing - a raw industrial space, but industrial from when industrial was also beautiful," said Kim Kamens, who runs the showroom, a job that's part curator, part stylist.

Kim and her husband, Adam, chief executive of Amuneal, came across the building in 2010.

Beneath its gritty exterior, they saw potential.

"We thought, 'If we just remove 40 tons of concrete from this building, it's going to be beautiful,' " Kim said.

They took down a warren of interior concrete structures, replaced 135 windows (a corps of enthusiastic firefighter trainees had broken them to clear out smoke from a small blaze), painted the walls white, and began looking for a tenant.

But in the interim, they began using the space for Amuneal photo shoots. After seeing his products in the space, Kamens was inspired. The showroom, he realized, could be a springboard for his company, which his parents founded as a maker of magnetic shielding but which diversified dramatically under his tenure. (On a recent day, workers were making a staircase for an UnderArmour store, furniture for the revamped Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, several thousand defibrillator paddles, and an elaborate custom home entertainment center.)

Demonstrating that range to clients remained a problem the showroom could solve.

On the drive back to Amuneal's Frankford headquarters, Kamens made calls to Ogden and to Brian Foster and Ernie Sesskin, owners of Groundwork.

"I said, 'If I built a showroom, would you guys do it with us and show your work there?' And in the 10-minute car ride back to Amuneal, it was all set up," he said.

All three firms share a similar aesthetic, which puts equal emphasis on original design and fine craftsmanship and on bringing new life to found objects and salvaged industrial materials.

"Looking around the showroom, you can kind of tell what's found and what's made, but it's really a blurred line," Kim Kamens said.

Products are arranged in vignettes, with items from all three companies jumbled together. (There are no product labels or price tags, though a book of prices is available.)

Groundwork's zinc-top tables with tree-trunk bases appear to sprout from the concrete floor amid vintage kilim rugs and reclaimed-wood tables from Ogden's Lostine brand, metal shelving units from Amuneal, and framed botanical prints that are a byproduct of Adam Kamens' eBay addiction.

"It's not a concern, generally, if something will work in the showroom or not," Foster said, "because we're all, maybe not on the same page, but in the same book."

The showroom has been fully up and running since January, and is open by appointment to clients and design fans.

What's on view changes from week to week; it's reconfigured frequently for the purpose of photographing new products or showcasing work for visiting clients. And visiting is an experience that often includes fresh-baked pizza made in a wood-fired oven repurposed from the building's old smokestack.

It's as much about inspiring customers as selling them a coffee table.

Ogden, who makes lighting under his own name (his work is on view at the redesigned Tavern on the Green in New York), and sells furnishings and found objects as Lostine, said he used to take clients like Ralph Lauren, Restoration Hardware, and Anderson Cooper to his Mount Airy workshop, a converted theater. But his designs just look better in the showroom, he said.

"It allowed customers to see beyond a certain part of what we do and to see what the capabilities are," he said. "Between the three of us, it's really one-stop shopping. We can really outfit your entire restaurant or retail chain or hotel or home."

Once people visit the showroom, they tend to tell others about it. In certain circles, it's raising awareness of Philadelphia as a design destination, he said.

"Customers we've brought in are from all over the United States, and that only used to happen in New York," Ogden added.

Still, the Kamenses will admit anyone determined enough to find the place and have on occasion opened it on a Saturday so a customer could buy a picture frame. Expect anything from a $75 cutting board to a $20,000 shelving unit.

They hope to start hosting events there - design-focused salons, perhaps, or pop-up shops. And in the meantime, there's a lot more square footage to fill.

Adam Kamens said all three firms had taken that as a welcome challenge.

"That's what we knew would happen - that it would be a catalyst for design," he said. "I think the objects there will continue to evolve, to tell the story of our own design evolution."



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