Gensler New York—Making a CoolMess

Located on New York’s Upper East Side, CoolMess is a unique new retail concept that focuses on the joyful experience of making ice cream.  A savvy restaurateur-owner, an unconventional research phase, and a very cool experiential graphic design team from Gensler’s New York office teamed up to re-define the ice cream parlor.

Marguerite Loucas always wanted to open an ice cream shop. She is part of the family which owns and operates New York’s iconic Burger Heaven, so she knows a thing or two about opening an eatery. The East 62nd Street Burger Heaven location had an upstairs space that could work. She decided to bring on a branding team from Gensler New York (whose success with Dylan’s Candy Bar she admired), and the concept began to become much more than a shop.

The design process started with a visioning session to discuss long- and short-term goals, user profiles, competitive analysis and initial ideas for how the store might look and feel on the second floor above Burger Heaven, whose clientele were a different demographic. The space took form through a ground-up brand development process that sought user input from children and teens—the target audience—and looked to social media opportunities to guide design. The team worked strategically and tactically, while continually encouraged by Loucas to let their imagination soar.

"Working with Loucas was an amazing partnership," says Molly Murphy, brand design practice area leader and principal at Gensler.  The partnership was mutually rewarding on many levels, from the work itself to the ice cream samples the team frequently enjoyed.

Marguerite Loucas reflects: "I knew CoolMess was going to be good, but the collaboration with Gensler made it great. They brought the exact vision in my head to life".

The team knew they wanted to create a defining experience—something that would connect with guests on a personal level, bringing the brand to life. So they embarked on a brainstorming process that resulted in four different initial brand concept packages. Armed with these, Loucas hosted a party where her kids and their friends provided focus group style feedback and discussed the possibilities of each concept. She shared the results with the design team.  

"Their insights were very helpful," says Jessica Beck, senior associate and graphic designer at Gensler. "The party's research findings were a perfect testament to the power of engaging your target audience early. The kids guided us to the current concept and logo—it was their unanimous direction—and subsequent work ensured that the design would resonate with kids and grownups alike." Once they chose the initial big-picture concept of “ice cream you make”, the project unfolded organically with every design idea adopted based on how well it supported the concept of “contained mess”.

The CoolMess brand is bright and playful. Every element in the physical space, website, and printed collateral—from the custom ice cream makers and sprinkle shakers to the party invitations and menus—was intentionally designed to encourage guests of all ages to feel comfortable interacting, playing and participating in the space.

"When you’re in the space you feel so good. It made me feel so happy the first few months, I never wanted to leave!" says Loucas.

From a prominent street corner otherwise dominated by Burger Heaven, CoolMess's magenta awnings and neon logo attract attention. Inside, guests enter a white space at the bottom of a staircase. The stairs are part of the magic—the path to “ice cream heaven.” As guests climb to the top of the stairs, bright colored 'sprinkles' on the walls become more and more densely arranged. Durability drove the choice of custom-designed vinyl wall covering and let the designers have better control over the project timeline. The bold pattern and the fun neon signage on the stair that proclaims "#cool is the new hot" add a playfulness that appeals to kids while also being sophisticated enough to delight grown-ups. Working closely with talented neon sign makers who balanced luminosity, the designers were able to use customized colors that are right for the brand. 

And, CoolMess is a concept that promotes culture—#instagood culture—an integral part of the brand concept from the beginning. The designers created photo ops throughout the interior—a #coolisthenewhot frenzy on Instagram is a testament to the photogenic quality of the space. Kids use the neon sign that reads #coolisthenewhot as a bold backdrop when they pose on a ladder attached to the wall to snap selfies. Even the bathroom provides a "selfie moment" with bold inkblot graphics and backward messages that are right-reading in the mirror. 

CoolMess achieves success by offering something for everyone. Adults who are not making ice cream can sip champagne from the bar downstairs or enjoy ready-made gelato.  During the seven-minute wait required to for the ice cream to form, kids can select candy toppings, snap photos, and browse cool branded merchandise. And, of course, share their CoolMess experience via social media.

The candy wall in the communal area is a main graphic attraction, but the eye is drawn to the same happy sprinkles on the underside of the exterior awnings. The sprinkle form is repeated in magnets that hold up polaroid photos (yes, there are Polaroid cameras for guests to use!) to a bold magnetic wall graphic. The custom colors, patterns, and neon lights add focal points to an otherwise simple, minimal palette and interior design; white marble and light wood details are offset by a mirror-polished logo on the magenta brand wall and punctuated by chairs which match the colors of the graphic sprinkles. Selecting materials that would keep clean, clean easily and last was always part of the design conversation.

From concept to grand opening, the process took two years. It was the hardest part for Marguerite Loucas, but it was well worth waiting for. Since its January 2016 opening, CoolMess has blown up on the internet and has been featured as the new, hot, family-friendly activity among New York City blogs. One video posted on YouTube had 5 million views in a matter of days. Because of its success, CoolMess will be expanding to additional locations.

And the name? There were a lot of good name ideas floating around during the early phases, but coming to a decision was difficult. "But one day I sat down and said to myself, 'I’m a hot mess' and that’s when I realized that "CoolMess" was it!" laughs Loucas.

Check out the CoolMess Galleryfor more sweet photos.


Project Name: CoolMess

Client: Marguerite Loucas, Nicholas Cyprus

Location: New York, NY

Open Date: January 2016

Project Area: 1,500 sq. ft.

Experiential Graphic Design: Gensler: Molly Murphy (Project Principal), Beth Novitsky (Design Director), Jessica Beck (Graphic Designer), Kevin Carlin (Design Manager), Holly Murphy (Designer), Kerra Sunderlin

Interior Design: Gensler: Kathleen Jordan (Principal), Eileen Memmesheimer (Project Manager),  Rob Jarshke (Designer), Michael Waddell (Designer), Lucy Stamper (FF&E – Interior Design)

Fabrication/Digital Integration: Design Communications Ltd.

Photos by: Chris Leonard, courtesy of Gensler

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