Feb 17, 2015

Brand Builders: Environmental Curating with Rust & Varnish


Subscribe to directly receive the latest and greatest from BrandJuice.

In today’s fast paced, web-driven world, venturing into hospitality can be a challenge. Turnover is often high, and nailing the right concept at the right time has become increasingly difficult. Environmental branding is paramount when crafting a unique experience. We’ve noticed many of the concepts that succeed in the space have an authentic soul that is undeniable in the hearts and minds of consumers. As technology continues to seep into every touchpoint, it comes as no surprise that many design trends are reverting to a retro sensibility. Simplicity rules in fabrication, with a dedication to richness in touch and texture. Denver’s own Rust & Varnish is a budding hospitality group in the city, capitalizing on this soulful eye for style. Their growing list of concepts has expanded from coffee houses, to juice bars, a nail salon and boutique hotel in the works.

With every facet of design, Rust & Varnish concepts are defined by well-worn surfaces with luxe, modern updates, crafting a world that is as nostalgic as it is avant-garde. We took a moment to talk with Ali Elman, co-founder of the group to discuss the project, and what it takes to design a brand with soul in our ever-evolving economy:

Black Eye

1. Tell us about the history of Rust & Varnish and your long-term goals for the business?

Rust & Varnish was an idea that took many forms over the years. It wasn’t until I shared many blooming ideas and several cocktails with a friend on a winter night in 2012 that it hit me. I just want to be in hospitality. This friend soon became our business partner and Rust & Varnish Hospitality was born with lots of grand plans. Long term goals are to put no limits on what our company can do. That’s what is so great about hospitality– it can cross all boundaries. Our dream is to open a boutique hotel –  a big long term goal for sure.

2. Today’s most successful brands are built with an authentic story and positioning all their own. What do you feel is necessary in building a brand with a soul?

The people are the brand. When your intentions are pure and driven by your love of the thing you do, the brand comes to life, that and the soul of the business shines brightly. If the foundation of a company is people, who are doing what they are meant to do in life, everything else falls into place and there is a very clear vision from both the inside looking out, and outside looking in.

Black Eye 3

3. Rust & Varnish is a beautiful example of lifestyle branding. Where do you draw your inspiration for concepts and design?

Obviously inspiration comes from every where. I feel I have absorbed a lot just from traveling. Oftentimes though, when I am in the thick of pulling together a concept, I do not like to look outward for inspiration because it can be overwhelming. I like to use my imagination and I think a lot on how I want a place to look and feel. Funny enough, a lot of my inspiration comes to me while driving alone and I can let my mind wander a bit.

4. What do you believe are the core components to creating a brand with a distinctive aesthetic?

Definitely not trying to recreate something that has been done. Also, for us a lot of our concepts are built around a neighborhood or a physical space. If you let these components lead you, it helps create something very distinctive.

5. As you grow, how do you plan to keep the integrity of the brand?

That is always a challenge with any growing company. There are several ways I plan to protect our integrity. One is to hire people personally. Making sure that the people who come into our company feel a sense of ownership in our brand and an excitement for hospitality – this will help maintain our core values. Secondly, we need to be selective in the projects we put our name on. We have found that saying no to certain projects is just as important, if not more important than the projects we say yes to.

Black Eye 4

6. What do you predict the biggest trends will be for food & beverage in 2015? For hospitality?

There are lots of juice bars popping up and I think that you will continue to see that trend in Denver through 2015. We are also seeing chefs get back to basics. Nothing too fancy- just good food, real ingredients used to their full potential. As for beverages – we will keep seeing coffee shops pop up and baristas trying to out do each other. Cocktails are now more about a well-balanced drink without all of the show. Meaning, it doesn’t need to take 10 minutes to make a hell of a good cocktail anymore.

Overall I think hospitality has been making a shift for a while. It is now less about “you are the guest and we are the host” in a formal way. It is more about, “welcome, be a part of this shared experience”.

7. What’s your guilty brand pleasure?

Honestly, Target is a guilty brand pleasure. I love going to the home section there and seeing what they have on sale. They have great knick knacks. Sometimes I have even been known to buy stuff online from them. Its terrible.

8. As an entrepreneur, what keeps you up at night? What are you most proud of?

There is no shortage of things that keep me up at night. It honestly depends on the project we are working on. Recently the decision on floor color and pattern for our second Black Eye location has kept me tossing and turning. Its one of the last components we haven’t decided on and it’s a big one. I am extremely proud of our little coffee shop Black Eye. It is our first baby and I am always going to have a special place in my heart for it. Its our little engine that could.

black eye 5

Black Eye 2All images via OurLoveIsLoud



Please enter your name.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a company.

Select one category

Please choose one category.

Select one or multiple services

Please choose at least one service.

Select a budget range by clicking on a price or a hash mark

Please choose at least one service.

Please enter a message.

We look forward to learning more. A BrandJuice team member will follow up with you directly.

01 / 07
01 / 04