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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.
Back in 2013, when Brooklyn's home décor landscape was (as it is now) strewn with Edison bulbs and earnest, harvested-wood side tables, the quickest way to stand out was by having fun. Which is one reason why Williamsburg shop Beam—with its purple velvet Chesterfields, constellation-print plates, and slap-in-the-face motivational posters ("Constantly fucking challenge yourself," one reads)—was an instant hit.
Reason two: owners Ali Arain (right) and Greg Coccaro (left) are committed to discovering and showcasing local designers who share their playful sensibility. "We love things that are quirky and that have this sense of humor, but in kind of a smart way," Ali told us during a recent visit. "New Yorkers are smart, so oftentimes products need to function on a couple different levels for people to truly appreciate them." Read on for the pair's favorite home décor trends, their tips on navigating estate sales, and why you shouldn't make any redecorating decisions before seriously examining your closet.
Whoa! This store is twice as big as it was when you opened.
Ali: We expanded in October—we had always wanted to do furniture and with the size of our space before, we were just really limited. We work with a company in North Carolina, it's called The Comfortable Couch Company, and everything is made to order, but the lead time is really fast.
Greg: It's all pretty much made by hand, upholstered my hand.
How fast is the turnaround time?
Ali: Six to eight weeks. There's hundred of different leathers, fabric options, velvets. They're really known for their Chesterfields, but they can do sectionals, they can do chaise lounges, they can go up and down in about six-inch increments. It's amazing, especially for people who want to bring a little extra character to their apartment, and want something that's almost designed by themselves.
"I think there are a lot of frustrated designers who become lawyers for one reason or another."
Tell us about your design backgrounds.
Ali: So I was a full time lawyer working at a firm, up until last summer and then took some time off to work on the store and the expansion. So I don't really have a design background other than having a love for art and design.
Greg: Ali's an amazingly good attorney, but he's equally talented in design and merchandising. His taste level is really high. I'm an interior designer—we have an interior design portion of our company, so I still do projects.
Ali: I think there are a lot of frustrated designers who become lawyers for one reason or another.
How did you guys meet and decide to collaborate on this?
Greg: We were at a club...
Ali: No. We met years ago in New York and bonded over our love of art and design. Since Greg had a background in retail, we always kind of joked about opening a store.
Greg: Oh yeah, he used to say, "we should own a store," and I was like, "whatever." I was working as a showroom manager for a French crystal company. I just blew it off like nonsense.
"The concept has always been a mix of old and new, because that's how people live."
Ali: Greg had been selling mid-century modern antiques at the Brooklyn flea, and it was a lot of work to be bringing stuff back and forth. So we just started talking about a store one day. We have some vintage and antiques sprinkled in. The concept has always been a mix of old and new, because that's how people live.
Greg: But literally, Ali just called me up saying, "I found a space."
Did you always know you wanted to be in Williamsburg?
Ali: No, the first space that we looked at was in Fort Greene. But as the idea for the store started to get a little bit clearer, Williamsburg seemed like a natural fit because there are so many creatives here. People really appreciate art and design. There are a lot of tourists here who are also attracted to Williamsburg being a creative hub.
And part of our concept is working with local designers—we really prioritize local folks to the extent that we can. And there's just so much great stuff coming out of Williamsburg.
What's the Beam aesthetic?
Ali: We love color, obviously. We love things that are quirky and that have this sense of humor, but in kind of a smart way. New Yorkers are smart, so oftentimes products need to function on a couple different levels for people to truly appreciate them.
I think Southern California is a big inspiration. Greg used to live there, and I love the whole indoor/outdoor lifestyle.
A mix of high and low is really important to us. We think that's where people live, you know? You'll find like a really amazing statement piece of art that you love, but you mix it in with something from Ikea.
Greg: Or something you found at the flea market or that you inherited from a family member. You stole it out of your family home, and stuck it in there. That's how we designed the store really, to have that feel.
Ali: I think we tend towards more organic shapes, and we really don't do a lot of plastic in the store. We really like metals and marble and wood—stuff that feels like it's gonna last for a long time.
What's your price range?
Ali: We have things in the store that are $2—like food-shaped erasers from Japan—and then we have custom furniture that goes all the way up to $5000.
Greg: We have this really great wish paper that you write a wish on it, and then you light it on fire and it flicks up and disintegrates. That's really cool, and it's like $8 for a canister. It runs the gamut. Like we have a decanter set that's $400. We have a nice balance.
What are some design trends you're into at the moment?
Ali: I think geometrics and metallics are huge right now.
Greg: I would say I see a huge trend in metallics going towards warmer metallics, like rose-colored metals and copper tones, not just chrome and brass.
Ali: Lighter woods. Marble. Neon.
Greg: Lots of neon. We have those new neon tube lights that are hanging in the window. You can hang them up and clip them to your walls at all different angles, or put them in a stand so they turn into floor lights.
Ali: We're also heavily influenced by fashion and art and music, and popular culture, and that stuff changes. When we're buying for the store, we want to buy stuff that is going to have a place in your home for a long time, but we would lying if we said that we don't look at trends.
The concept for the store really is to keep it fresh as much as possible. We do floor moves constantly, and we're getting new product as often as possible. We'll buy things in limited quantities, and when they're sold out, they're sold out and we move onto the next thing.
"You don't just compartmentalize the way you design your bedroom from all the rest of the things that are going on in your life."
Greg: It's important. People want to feel that they've seen something new and different when they come back, for a second, third and fourth time. We don't carry clothing in the store, but we go to fashion shows just to see what's going on—what colors are trending, what embellishments are happening in clothing that will translate well into home decor.
Ali: From time to time we use the tagline ‘for the well designed life' and what we mean is that everything's interconnected. You don't just compartmentalize the way you design your bedroom from all the rest of the things that are going on in your life.
Greg: When I do interior design, the first thing I ask a client when I go to their house is, "Can I look in your closet? Can I open the drawers?"
Ali: That's the first thing he does.
Are there any design trends that you guys are sick of at this point?
Greg: I'm just kind of tired of that whole Edison lightbulb thing. It's been done really well but it's had its shelf life.
"It bothers me sometimes when people associate that whole reclaimed wood, Edison bulb thing with the Brooklyn aesthetic."
Ali: It bothers me sometimes when people associate that whole reclaimed wood, Edison bulb thing with the Brooklyn aesthetic. Not that there's anything wrong with it, it's definitely a good look when done right, but Brooklyn is so much more than that.
Is there ever any push and pull when you're buying? Or do you guys usually gravitate towards the same pieces?
Greg: Ali being a lawyer, if I like something he's like, "Argue your case! Why do you like it?" I'm like, "Alright so this is how it's gonna go." Sometimes if we don't agree we definitely have to talk it out.
How do your styles differ?
Ali: Greg has better taste than I do—he definitely has pushed me more into appreciating more premium luxury materials, whereas I'm totally happy with colorful. I over-intellectualize things, so you'll see a lot of text as art.
Greg: That's very nice of you to say. I don't agree. I don't think that at all.
Do you have an all-time bestseller or something that you just can't keep in stock?
Greg: One of them is the "Fucking Advice" poster by Good Fucking Design Advice.
Ali: It's really positive and inspiring and I think it really resonates with a lot of people who are designers or designers at heart.
Greg: I think it really helps you to redirect your focus back on what really matters. They're taking a word that's been used very negatively and turning it around to use it in a really positive, motivating way.
When you shop for vintage, what do you zero in on? What's always the one thing that you're always scanning the room for?
Greg: I have to take into account the size and space constraints that we all live with here. So I look for smaller pieces. Clean lines, simple construction—that tends to sell really well.
I do have a thing for vintage barware and that seems to sell well in Brooklyn. We usually get cleaned out on all our vintage barware. Decanters being number one.
Even for vintage, we try to keep prices realistic. We have this bronze brutalist coffee table from the 1960's made my Daniel Gluck that we sell for $4600, and it's on First Dibs by another vendor in Manhattan for over $9000. Exact same table. Signed, dated, everything.
Ali: When I've gone with Greg on buying trips to estate sales and auctions and stuff like that, I was shocked at how aggressive people are.
Greg: People will steal stuff. It's always good to go with two people so someone can stay with the stuff, because other people will grab it even after it's sold. Before I go to an estate sale, I look at photos online so I can get a sense of the layout of the house. That way, I can go in and find what I'm looking for quickly.
Ali: People take their vintage very, very seriously.
Which local designers are you really excited about?
Greg: Kevin Wilcoxson, he's a local potter. He's unbelievably talented and he makes these incredible pinch bowls by hand in his studio here in Williamsburg. He's a fine artist, he's also worked at United Nations, restoring mosaics.
Ali: I love Mark McGuinness. He has this alphabet poster series where it says "P is for Peyote," "A is for atomic."
We love Westkill—both of those guys are also trained as fine artists and they have a line of clocks and coasters that are really beautiful. The colors are awesome, the shapes are great.
Have you thought about opening a second location?
Ali: We did a pop-up during the holidays in the Union Square Holiday Market. We're always thinking about opening another store. We want to make sure that we have made a mark in Williamsburg first.
Greg: But it's definitely there. We have definitely thought about it and it's something that eventually will happen.
Time for the lightning round!
Beer or wine?
Whiskey or tequila?
Greg: Iced tea.
Ali: Diet coke. Iced coffee.
Bagels or croissants?
Tea or coffee?
Ali: Coffee all the way.
8am or 8pm?
Greg: You're such a liar.
Cats or dogs?
Beach or mountains?
Favorite neighborhood lunch spot?
Favorite vacation destination?
Mad Men or Game of Thrones?
Both: Game of Thrones
Scandal or Homeland?