One of Pittsburgh’s most beloved cafés is Commonplace Voluto Coffee
in Garfield. Part of the Voluto experience is to sit outside and wonder what is that store across the street
? At 5450 Penn Avenue sits a beautiful old building with four store windows facing Penn Avenue. One window features a sign that says Daily Bread
while another advertises vintage designer furniture. The person behind the building’s ongoing renovation and the curation of the collection of mid-century tables, armchairs and armoires is 27-year-old Pittsburgh designer and Carnegie Mellon architecture grad, Nico Hartkopf.
Walking up to the door of the shop, formerly known as 5450 Modern
, now working under a new moniker, the Penn X Roup Gallery, I found it half open. I went in, called, Nico
: no answer. The space looks raw and unfinished. I started taking pictures of the work in progress, the remodeling, the shelves and the stage that was used at the last gallery crawl. Hartkopf made a deal with the owner, Gus Lewis, to renovate the building in order to offset the cost of rent. When he took posession in 2012, the building was abandoned and very run down. Wandering through the rooms, I ended up surrounded by old furniture, stacked high. I pointed my camera to the window and saw Nico crossing the street, holding a coffee.
What’s your story with Pittsburgh?
I grew up here in Pittsburgh. I'm a Highland Park kid— studied architecture at Carnegie Mellon and moved to New York after. I always saw myself living this urban life in the big city where I would be walking distance to my job and work for a good architecture firm. Living in New York, I quickly realized that things work a bit differently there. I couldn’t just go up to a firm and say, here is who I am and here is what I want to do for you
, so I survived there with my mid-century furniture business. But even selling old designer furniture was hard. You couldn’t even talk directly to retailers: you had to get on email lists with hundreds of other people trying to sell pieces and at the same time, retailers wanted exclusive rights to your offer. Eventually, I became unhappy just getting by in New York and came back to Pittsburgh.
Now, I run this space here on Penn Avenue. It’s a kind of trade agreement; I remodel and it balances itself out with the rent. People in the neighborhood really appreciate what we are doing here, and not just because we removed some of the blight. Together with my friend, Alex Avakian, who is co-owner of the fashion label, Daily Bread, we now put up great events with music and performances for Unblurred
, the first Friday gallery crawl on Penn. I am particularly proud of the fact that we manage to have people stroll into our space at the end of their crawl and hang out for the rest of the night.
What will this storefront be once it’s finished?
Well, I imagine it will be ever changing. Daily Bread and Refresh
, the buildings third tenant, specialize in streetwear and they generally have a much bigger following through social media and the Internet than my niche of designer furniture. So, one of the recent ideas we've had was to have a vintage clothing shop specializing in streetwear. Instead of having vintage Lacoste polo shirts for example, we would sell vintage Nike t-shirts or both. Refresh PGH has already started retailing clothing as well as footwear.
I approached the owner of Avalon Exchange
with the idea. His reaction made it clear that there are some outdated ideas people have about this area that I want to prove wrong. Beside the fact that he is not a huge fan of the hip-hop culture associated with streetwear, he also believes that there is not enough foot traffic on this section of Penn Ave. He is wrong! I often sit at my desk and watch people walk by in streetwear. It’s not Squirrel Hill residents but rather, East End residents. The character of the Garfield community is becoming more apparent thanks to the galleries, cafés, stores and most importantly the people who participate in gallery crawls. It’s on these nights that we see what this area is all about and the potential for businesses and organizations to truly thrive—without bringing in an entirely new culture and displacing what is already there.
If money weren’t an issue, what would you do here in Pittsburgh?
If money were available, I would push what people think of as weird or disruptive to our day-to-day life. It would be really nice to just make different things happen, even if it was just once. For example, the pop-up beer gardens Bar Marco put together were really great. The farmer’s market is great too and it belongs in East Liberty but perhaps is in the wrong location. You know, they did a night market up here during gallery crawl and people loved it. The whole block was closed down for the night. I would like to see more of that. We should be able to just close Highland Avenue down for a day!
So, you would like to see the community come together more.
Yes. Community action is often driven by this thought of, we need to come together or else we will fail as a community
. People should come together because it’s fun. East Liberty Festival used to be this thing that happened, I don’t know, 10 years ago or so. I, as a Highland Park kid would come around to watch the graffiti artists. That was what I connected with; I thought that was powerful. Same thing with VIA music festival
; the one year they did it outside and closed off a whole block there were so many people there that had never even heard of VIA before or never hung out in the streets of East Liberty. It was $10 to get in and there were thousands of people in the street and empty buildings having fun. Try getting that many people together in a meeting hall to show support for the area will never happen.