A Conversation with Pawn Shop Designer Kurt VanNostrand

Categories: Interview, Q&A

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The Pawn Shop Mastermind
Since opening in early March, former Miami haunt Pawn Shop has been a hit at its newer, revamped location on Clematis Street. Some may have been skeptical how a club, formerly based in the rougher parts of Miami-Dade would translate on the glitzier Clematis Street. But judging by the masses of people that have been frequenting the newer, snazzier West Palm Beach version -- what operating partner Paul Brown called a "Pawn Shop on steroids" -- we'd say the proof is in the dance floor pudding.

While still maintaining that kitsch factor that made the original Pawn Shop such a
unique nightlife destination, Pawn Shop version 2.o ups the ante in a big way, with design elements that are truly eye-popping -- like the celebrated school bus, a DJ booth designed out of a Mack truck, a 1950s Rambler fitted for the VIP section, airplane fuselage, and a freaking Ferris wheel.

Behind all the quirk and circumstance is celebrated nightclub designer Kurt VanNostrand who was responsible for laying the framework for the original Pawn Shop. We had a chance to speak to the lauded designer (winner of 2005's National Club Award for Best Designed Night Club) to understand how he brings his singular ideas to fruition. We had to ask, where the hell does one pick up a used Ferris Wheel these days?

"It's not like I could walk into a Circuses-R-Us, and be like, 'Today I need a twenty-foot Ferris wheel,'" VanNostrand responded. The successful club courtier tells us that the fun is the hunt for him He takes cues from the History Channel's smash show American Pickers. He's a bit of DIY treasure hunter himself. "I found the wheel seats from this old carnie from Alabama," said VanNostrand. He found the bits and pieces for the killer Mac truck DJ booth from a firetruck. "I actually found this used firetruck in the middle of a field in Homestead, with leaves growing out of it, it took me three days to get it fabricated."

VanNostrand strives to utilize everyday items that aren't typical design elements and making them "living, functioning art."

The remarkable part of VanNostrand story is that he is not a trained in design, he picked everything up on the job. A self-made man who got his start in the nightclub biz as a dishwasher in Miami. He worked such South Beach hotspots like Set and Rebar and climbed through the ranks as barback, bartender, and finally landed a job as manager of the famed Bed. VanNostrand tells us he has worked just about every type of job in the hospitality business. "My experience in the industry influences a lot of my designs. I always consider the operational side while trying not to do anything cookie-cutter either." His first design was a hair salon he opened up with a girlfriend in Virginia.

He worked alongside famed designer Andre Balazs after moving to New York City, the man responsible for the Standard and Mercer hotels. VanNostrand also landed on TV too, serving on the design crew for HGTV program Get it Sold. All of these invaluable real-life experiences made him a designer that plays by his own rules.

When Paul Brown approached VanNonstrand about designing another Pawn Shop, like he had done back at the turn of the century, it was VanNonstrand that insisted it not be a carbon print of Miami version. "I didn't want to use the school bus, but Paul (Brown) said that the bus was kind of a staple, so I went with it." He tells us that the school bus one sees inside West Palm Beach's Pawn Shop is not the original school bus that existed in Downtown Miami. That one, friends, was demolished like the rest of the vacated old real pawn shop property, to make way for Arsht Center parking spots.

VanNostrand's key to success in making Pawn Shop such a one-of-a-kind venue did not involve any market research. "Mostly what I went for in the design is reaching for a sense of nostalgia, and bringing back childhood memories." For example, VanNostrand points out the Andy Warhol "Moon Man" piece that hangs on Pawn Shop's wall. "People my age (VanNostrand is 46-year-old, married with two kids) say, oh it's Andy Warhol's piece but people in their twenties might say it reminds them of MTV." Minor design elements like the school lunchboxes that are scattered throughout the club tie-in to his bigger picture too.

But VanNostrand doesn't loose sight of the most important aspect of a nightclub, the party. "You can spend millions of dollars creating a great club, but if the party isn't there, if the music isn't right, it's not going to work." Its about finding the whole package, a visually nice place with a cool eclectic vibe. We'd say, mission accomplished.

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