EXPERIENCE! Behind Color Factory, one of the photogenic pop-ups trying to conquer the experience economy

By November 7, 2019News


Behind Color Factory, one of the photogenic pop-ups trying to conquer the experience economy

People can’t be left alone in a pop-up. Sure, most of the tens of thousands of attendees will get through the 14 rooms of photogenic eye candy just fine.

But there are exceptions: the ones that’ll write nasty things on your walls, tangle their hair up in your confetti, or chip your acrylic pegs that form a life-size Lite-Brite to create, essentially, pretty daggers.

“There’s only so much you can anticipate,” Tina Malhotra, chief experience officer at Color Factory, tells me from the company’s newest location in Houston, Texas, where she and her team have been working for the past 10 months to not only develop a new location near the Museum District, but also make sure it’s their most human-proof one yet.

“We’ve learned from the last two locations that if they can touch it, they will,” CMO Alison Piepmeyer adds. Malhotra says her team even instructed the fabricators in one room to make the art display “elephant-proof.” “Imagine an elephant running into here,” she says. That’s how intense people are when they interact with artwork.

“We chose Houston intentionally because we want to own the South,” says Color Factory CEO Jeff Lind. “We wanted to plant a stake in the ground and learn about this market.”

Color Factory already exists in San Francisco and New York City, as do some of its competition, like the Museum of Ice Cream and 29Rooms. None of the big names have laid claim to Texas yet, though. The new spot is 22,000 square feet filled with 14 art exhibits, including pop-up staples like a new NASA-branded ball pit, a room lit with neon signs, and another room that rains confetti.

The space allows up to 1,000 visitors a day, and it costs $35 for adults to enter and $28 for kids. The Houston location cost “seven figures” to build, according to Lind, but could theoretically bring in $35,000 a day, and that doesn’t even account for merch.

“We deliver what we say we’re going to,” he says. “So you don’t have that thing pinging in the back of your head being like, ‘This isn’t an experience, they said an experience.’” Some of the competition, he says, give more of a marketing message than anything else.

“We truly give you an experience that you go through with the artwork. You will experience art in the Color Factory more intimately and more powerfully, more interactively, than any other place on the planet.”

The rooms in Houston vary, and the ones I saw under construction all seemed designed with a photo in mind. A hallway decorated with a hanging chain link fence, for example, came from New Hampshire-based artist Soo Sunny Park.

It incorporates glass within the fence to play off iridescence. It’s shiny, naturally lit, and rough all at the same time — it begs to be photographed. The team didn’t install a camera in the hall, however, because it’s meant to be a thoroughfare. Still, I wanted a photo.

For Park’s exhibit, they shaved down every sharp corner and learned from her about how to best care for the fence, like wiping down the glass with soft gloves to clean it, almost like you would with eyeglasses.

Installation in progress of “Your Magic is Real” by Alicia Eggert & James Akers.

It often isn’t until Color Factory’s team sees how people abuse their space, though, that they figure out workarounds. They knew to order a machine called the HyGenie to clean their ball pit balls, for example, but their confetti room — which uses movie set snow tumblers filled with confetti to rain colorful paper onto guests — needed a unique solution to sanitize dirt and collect fallen pieces. They turned to snow blowers to congregate all the tissue paper confetti in one place.

All this maintenance R&D not only keeps the place running smoothly, but also safeguards Color Factory’s intellectual property. They aren’t patenting their ball pit, but rather making theirs the must-see ball pit. They’re fighting a pop-up arms race.

“We protect our ideas through scale,” Lind says. “Like sure, put a ball pit in, but you’ll never put a ball pit in like this. Yeah, do a confetti tumbler, but your confetti is going to be disgusting.”

Installation in progress of “Color Me ___” by Andrew Neyer and Andy J. Pizza.
Visitors of the “Color Me ___” room are encouraged to use oversized markers to draw on the walls.
I think of Malhotra’s team, as well as the day-to-day Color Factory staff, as professional resetters. The hordes of visitors are like toddlers let loose in a room, pulling out every toy and game and then leaving the mess for their parents to handle.
The team sets aside a day every week for a reset in which they touch up exhibits and undo the havoc people have wreaked. In New York, they’ll repaint handles, for example, that get chipped.
Every three months or so, they’ll also close for a full reset week during which they’ll fix more labor- and time-intensive projects, like creating new drawers or giving a worn-out room a full facelift.