This story begins with a botched night out.

Early in 2013 O+A graphic designers Jeorge Jordan and Will Chu met Fuzzco graphic designers Josh Nissenboim and Helen Rice at O+A’s office on Howard Street—their first meeting after a series of friendly exchanges on Twitter. The idea was to get drinks while Josh and Helen were visiting from Charleston, South Carolina, but scheduling conflicts gave them little time, and the partyers ended up walking around one of the seediest blocks in San Francisco in search of a suitable bar.

No luck.

Six months later Josh and Helen, preparing to move their Charleston office to a bigger space, but stuck with a few months left on the lease for their old space on Spring Street, hit on the idea of a pop-up shop. Specifically, they envisioned The Pretend Store with various cool associates assuming one-month occupancies. And remembering their stroll through the grit zone in San Francisco, they thought fondly of O+A…


85 ½ Spring Street in old Charleston was an empty rectangle with concrete floors and a glass façade that looked out to the picturesque streets of the Cannonborough / Eliotborough district. Tabulas don’t come much more Rasa than this, and that presented O+A’s pop-up team in San Francisco with a challenge. A space so bare is open to pretty much any transformation—all choices equally valid. As every designer knows, having too many choices can be as inhibiting as having too few, but in the end it was the spare quality of the space that suggested to O+A how to use it.


Team leader and O+A co-founder Verda Alexander came up with the idea. Since the old Fuzzco office was an empty box why not conjugate the pop-up concept one step further and make O+A’s pop-up month a series of other people’s pop-ups? O+A is known for workplaces tailored to the client’s culture—why not make that tailoring the theme of the exercise?


Verda designed re-usable cardboard building blocks that snapped together and could be assembled in unlimited ways. To add strength to the seams, Verda, graphic designer Olivia Ward and O+A’s friend Ann Greiner knitted sleeves of thick yarn. A week before the November kick-off Pretend Store’s San Francisco team packed up cardboard planks and yellow yarn and shipped them by truck across the continent to South Carolina. Verda flew to Georgia where she had a Halloween speaking engagement at SCAD and then drove South to Charleston to assemble the planks—and the pop-up.

No show opens without a pre-curtain crisis and O+A’s was… no lights! Hours before Monday’s opening reception an electrical problem at 85 ½ Spring Street had everyone stumped– the electrician, South Carolina Electric and Gas, even Helen Rice’s dad… The overhead lights never did get fixed, but fortunately all the wall outlets worked and Sophie Treppendahl, Verda’s resourceful assistant in Charleston, brought lamps from home. The soft lighting gave the opening party just the cozy touch it needed to make the evening special.


Six Charlestonians—and one visitor from nearby Savannah, Georgia—signed up to participate in O+A’s Pretend Store experiment. Each brought a unique application to the space and each used the cardboard blocks in a different way:

Becca Barnet, an artist and taxidermist, created a Museum of Oddities and a workshop. She stuffed a fox over the two days she was there.

Jacob Lindsey, an architect and urban planner with a special interest in repurposing old spaces, used the pop-up as an annex to his office and a place to display his firm’s recent work.


Cone10 Studios, a collective of ceramicists—artists, teachers and students—turned the space into a gallery of their members’ and students’ work.

Finkelstein’s Center, a company that produces handmade animals and dolls, made stuffed toys at the location and encouraged people to come in and curl up with a giant octopus.

Redux Studios, one of Charleston’s most important resources for the development and dissemination of new art, used the pop-up as an office retreat.

Savannah College of Art and Design, perhaps the Southeast’s most prestigious design school, brought students to Charleston for a 4-day design jam.

Distil Union, a company of industrial designers and app developers, conducted a design brainstorm at the pop-up.


O+A came away from Fuzzco’s Pretend Store with a new appetite for design experiments, a new appreciation for the creative community in Charleston, a desire, on Verda’s part, to revisit the South and a fresh affirmation of something every creator knows:

Creativity is play. Artists and designers, entrepreneurs and innovators almost always look back to childhood pleasures to explain their grown-up occupations. What O+A affirmed with its Pretend Store experiment is that one of childhood’s most basic pleasures—an empty room, a cardboard box, unlimited imagination—continues to be a catalyst for fun and invention.

Image Sources: Remodelista, Tanya Boggs, and Michelle Jewell.