Iconica Social Club in Northampton, an art project made with misfit materials

  • Withenbury and Mulvaney built a kitchen table from old sewing machine tables, a box on top for drawers and a honey onyx slab for the table surface. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Real bank checks from the 1970s were glued onto the bathroom walls one-by-one by the couple. A stash of old photographs is displayed in front of the handcrafted wallpaper. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The Library at Iconica Social Club GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The Espresso Bar at Iconica Social Club GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Em Withenbury and Fitzpatrick Mulvaney moved here from California hoping to build out their own arts café. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Most of the furnishings and materials in the club are repurposed. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Fitzpatrick Mulvaney and Em Withenbury moved here from California hoping to build out their own arts café. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The Gallery at Iconica Social Club GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The couple cleaned out old wiring and plumbing from the ceiling in order to open up the space and expose the beams. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Old stock glass beakers from a water testing lab in Pennsylvania are displayed in the Espresso Bar. Withenbury and Mulvaney inlaid porcelain tile by hand to create the mosaic floor. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A staircase railing created by Em Withenbury and Fitzpatrick Mulvaney features reused metal from Associated Building Wreckers' salvage yard in Springfield. They added a spray-paint design to the railing. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The Gallery at Iconica Social Club. A collection of reused and rebuilt furniture is featured in the space. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The nose of each stair at the new Iconica Social Club features individually crafted spray paint art by Withenbury and Mulvaney. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • In the Espresso Bar, sheet metal bent with an angle grinder gives a geometric presence to the counter. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Em Withenbury and Fitzpatrick Mulvaney moved here from California hoping to build out their own arts café. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Miranda Columbia of Amherst cuts out magazine pages in the gallery of the Iconica Social Club to make pastry bags for the new Northampton establishment on Sunday, July 2, 2017. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Iconica Social Club co-owner Fitzpatrick Mulvaney serves free juice samples to Peter and Christina Brown and their daughters Charlotte, left, 5, and Maia, 3, of New York during a “dress rehearsal” grand opening for the Northampton establishment July 2. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Iconica Social Club co-owner Em Withenbury, right, pours a beverage for visitors to a "dress rehearsal" grand opening for the Northampton establishment on Sunday, July 2, 2017. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Customers leave Iconica Social Club after a “dress rehearsal” grand opening of free tastings last month at the Northampton establishment, which is tucked away on Amber Lane, just off Crackerbarrel Alley. In exchange for the free samples the owners, Mulvaney and Withenbury, asked only for feedback on the offerings. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Patrons visit the library on the upper level of the Iconica Social Club during a "dress rehearsal" grand opening on Sunday, July 2, 2017, in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/23/2017 1:48:37 PM

From the cement board front-facing material to the layers of patterned rebar, you would never know the space was once a law office.

“We have literally touched every square inch of this place,” says Em Withenbury of the Northampton carriage house she spent two full-time years renovating with her partner in love and life, Fitzpatrick Mulvaney.

The California transplants have transformed the space — mostly with repurposed materials — at 1 Amber Lane into a mixed-use arts cafe, called Iconica Social Club, which opened in early July.

At the cafe they are serving up snacks and light roasts, slow-style, out of a cone-shaped Hario V60 coffee dripper. Withenbury, 32, says the art of making beverages that arrive at the copper-colored bar top is just as important as the end product, which is why they call it a “slow bar.” They have designed the adjacent seating area for poetry readings and other forays into artistic expression.

It is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday, and 9 a.m. through 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 

There is an industrial vibe to the space, on which anodized steel casts a warm glow.

“We really got into the mixed metals,” she says, smiling.

The couple moved here from San Francisco, where Withenbury managed a modern dance company and Mulvaney, 36, worked in the tech industry. They wanted to build out their own arts cafe somewhere along the East Coast, where their families live.

“Northampton was this amazing fit for what we were doing,” Withenbury says.

Slow, DIY

They wanted it to be “a destination you could stumble upon.” They fell for the 1800s-era carriage house, which was in rough shape, bought it, and moved in November of 2014.

Mulvaney has a background in graphic design, and Withenbury worked as a barista as a side gig in San Francisco’s coffee scene, which is steeped in cutting-edge design with industrial flair.

“But no one’s doing it like this,” Withenbury says of the slow, do-it-yourself approach they took.

“The venture capitalist world doesn’t have time for this,” Mulvaney agrees.

They say they felt unfilled in their formerly fast-paced lifestyles, and craved creating something bigger than themselves.

While they may “look fresh-faced and excited about it” now, Withenbury says, it’s been a hard road. From late-night searches for instructional videos on YouTube to dealing with no running water for six months — and no toilet for a year — the past two years haven’t been all fun and crafts.

“We did a lot of bucket showering,” she says.

Now, guests enter the building via the coffee bar. Most of the seating is in the gallery, which also hosts nighttime events. It’s a flexible performance space for live music, poetry readings and guest speakers. There is also a screen, which can be pulled down to show films.

In the gallery, there is spaces on the wall for work done by local artists.

“The space itself is kind of an art project,” Withenbury says. “We didn’t know any of this stuff when we first started.”

While she brings her intimate knowledge of the art world, Mulvaney was able to apply his tech skills to the sound and light systems in the building. Together they cultivated three weeks’ worth of non-repeating tunes to pipe through the building’s speakers.

“All of this is a landscape of compromise,” he says, looking around at the gallery.

“He’s really good at letting go of an idea when it’s not going to work,” Withenbury adds.

Maybe it took them a long time to complete the renovation without more base knowledge, they say, but they wanted to show that most of the skills it takes to build a place out can be learned.

“It’s the fear of the unknown that prompts people to hire out,” Mulvaney says.

Doing most of the work themselves, they say, allowed them to infuse their artistic vision into every corner in a way that doesn’t happen when a large group of hired workers simply put in shifts. Plus, they say, they wanted to break away from the “unabashedly wasteful culture” that surrounds modern-day construction.

Salvaged materials

A lot of the raw materials featured within Iconica were scooped up from backyard sales and garage piles. Wood paneling in the second-floor library was up for grabs as firewood when they found it. A grainier, darker-looking wood throughout the first floor came for free out of a friend’s barn in Springfield.

A railing leading up to Iconica’s second floor was originally designed for a Greenfield hospital, but they spray-painted it and adjusted it for the slant of their building.

“Authenticity was what we were really going for,” Mulvaney says.

The space, they say, was originally littered with odds and ends they’d trip over and, in the right moment of inspiration, put to use. Some of the objects — like a green nozzle-looking item that decorates a piece of furniture in the gallery — they repurposed without ever knowing what it was in the first place.

“People thought hermits lived here,” Withenbury says of all oddball items, laughing. “It literally looked like a bomb had gone off.”

After they’d roughed out the building for inspection purposes, they descended on one room at a time for all the finer details.

The slow bar, for instance, makes use of depression-glass cafe wear from the 1930s. Mulvaney says he was drawn by the look of the old china, an attraction compounded by the fact these sets are hoarded up, unused, in hutches around the country.

“We’re trying to take the preciousness out of old things,” he says.

Hand-laid penny rounds adorn the floors of both bathrooms and the upstairs commercial kitchen, from which they’ll operate their juice business, called Minim.

“We want it to have its own identity,” Withenbury says of their hydraulic-pressed juice company.

While this mechanism for juice-making is more time-intensive — and the products have only a three-day shelf life — they say it’s worth it because pasteurization “kills a lot of the good stuff.”

They used blueprints from the 1920s for an old steel manufacturing company to wallpaper the men’s bathroom. A fencing mask, rusted with age, hangs above the mirror.

The women’s room, which takes on a warmer feel, is wallpapered with old bank checks they got from an estate they helped liquidate in California. Overdeveloped photographs of mannequins hang above the checks.

The upstairs library, complete with shelves of books, serves as a more solitary space where visitors can work. Brass-trimmed green lights sit atop aluminum-topped study tables, which Withernbury and Mulvaney beat with a stained rag to give a brassy color.

“Most of the furniture in here was free,” Mulvaney says.

When they first bought the building, they say the old floorboards were coming apart to the point they could look through to the coffee bar below. Instead of paying big bucks to have it redone, they researched a way to caulk it with rope, which they sealed with polyurethane.

The intricate design didn’t stop at the public spaces, either. The yellow-themed kitchen — that’s Withenbury’s favorite color — features arabesque patterns throughout. An old sewing machine services as a base for the broken honey onyx countertop they pieced back together.

The upstairs bathroom that adjoins their office features a clawfoot tub, a vintage corner sink, and slip shade sconces. They also built a structure resembling a phone booth to encase the elaborate bathroom.

While they talked a lot about the deeper meaning behind their work over the past two years, Mulvaney says it also was just about having fun, plain and simple — “a self-indulgent playground.”

And while they never imagined it would take so long when they first got started, he says, “the end product more than justifies the time that we spent on it.

“We may talk higher-level about it all, but let’s be honest,” he says, “at this stage in my life, this is my shiny toy.”

Amanda Drane can be reached at adrane@gazettenet.com.


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