Design Army Gives Back to D.C. With a Creative Space Everyone Can Use

Q&A: Pum Lefebure explains 'At Yolk'

Design Army co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Pum Lefebure checks on the construction progress of At Yolk in Washington, D.C.
Design Army

Design Army has made the chicken. Now it’s going back to the egg.

The Washington, D.C., agency, perhaps best known for its gorgeously crafted ads for Georgetown Optician, is planning to open a new space in a warehouse district over on the Maryland border. But it’s not another office, or even a traditional workspace. It’s intended to be a resource, testing ground and play space for a whole community of creators—a community that really needs one.

It’s called “At Yolk.” The “At” makes it a destination, and the “Yolk” refers to the act of creation. Thus, you could make music At Yolk, or hold a TED talk At Yolk. Design Army describes it as “a flexible multimedia space dedicated to supporting and nurturing the creative community … a living environment, a continuous work in progress—ever evolving to meet the needs of a community of creators. We look to inspire, to connect creative minds, to mentor, to collaborate, and to teach those who dream of creating their own culture.”

Adweek spoke to Design Army co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Pum Lefebure about At Yolk—what it is, why D.C. needs it, and why it was the right move for Design Army at this stage in its life cycle.

Adweek: Well, this sounds like a cool project.
Pum Lefebure: D.C. is not known as a creative city. It’s hard to recruit someone to come to D.C. It’s much easier to do in New York City. We end up having talent from all over the world, and they come here for this job, which is nice, because they stay a lot longer and they are rooted with the company. But it’s really hard. I talk to a lot of people in creative industry—not only design and advertising, but the food industry, theater, dance, writing—and they have the same problem. People come here, and they leave, because there’s not a lot of space, or community, in Washington besides political stuff.

So I thought, “Is there a way, instead of investing in a new Design Army office, to create something different? To build a space that inspires people to create the things that inspire them? It can be music, or experiential, or art, or multimedia. A lot of people have artistry, but we don’t have a space in this city. We have one of the best museums in the world, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art. And it’s great for Van Gogh, but for the kids who are starting out, they’re just not going to get into the Smithsonian. There’s that missing place.

The idea was to have this temple for creativity where everyone can come in and create their own culture. The idea was, you create your own “blank” At Yolk. You make your photos At Yolk, or design At Yolk, or food At Yolk. Whatever that blank is, we have a space for it.

"The idea was, you create your own 'blank' At Yolk. You make your photos At Yolk, or design At Yolk, or food At Yolk. Whatever that blank is, we have a space for it."
Pum Lefebure, Chief Creative Officer, Design Army

What is the space like?
We bought a big warehouse space. It’s on the border of D.C. and Maryland. It’s 10 minutes from D.C. It’s 10,000 square feet. We are planning to use a photo studio where we shoot things [for Design Army], so we have a beautiful daylight studio. They have a huge kitchen. We can create an event in there, or a chef can do a demo video for YouTube. I conceptualized it with the architect. We want a moldable space for the studio. Tomorrow can be an incubator for food, the next day can be a TED talk. The first floor is like a U shape, and then the upper floor is a loft. You can put DJ up there or project film on a 25-square-foot ceiling. So it’s quite high. It’s a moldable space. We can have an event there, or an art exhibition, or whatever it needs to be. It should be moldable and moveable, just like where creativity is going. It’s not one thing anymore. It’s everything. And it’s a way to create a community here in Washington.

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So, Design Army will work there, but others are welcome to use the space too.
We’ll shoot there, for sure, for our clients. I shoot in New York quite a bit. When I shoot the catalog for a retail client like Bloomingdale’s, we do like a 10-day shoot in New York. For $1,000 a day, times 10, that’s a lot. We do a lot of set design as well for our shoots. You should be able to create here, so we have a workshop. It makes a lot of sense to have that creative control.

"We can get people to see how fun advertising can be, how fun design can be. It can be a career. It's just as cool as being a doctor or lawyer."
Pum Lefebure, Chief Creative Officer, Design Army

Here in Washington, I feel like we have a bit of an education problem, too. I feel like a lot of designers and art directors, right out of school, they are not prepared for the real world. So the idea is to create a place where people can learn and try. It’s a place where we can support and nurture the new talent. When I’m doing a shoot, something for Design Army, we can open it up for the community to see. We can show kids how to art direct a shoot, how to work with the model, how to work with the photographer, how the whole process of a shoot can happen. I think you can do this on YouTube, but to see it in action in a live setting, I think people can learn a lot from it and it can help them prepare for their career. And it might help my staff to see how it works, too, because when I do this in New York, I can’t get the whole entire staff to go see what I am doing.

So, it’s a solution for Design Army, but also a solution for the D.C. community.
Yeah. I grew up as someone who loves art. The first thing the government cuts—when we have budget cuts—the first thing the government cuts is always the art. It’s not important. And these kids they don’t have anyone to support them. What if, on the weekend, we have a painting class or a creative thinking class? What is creativity? A lot of parents think you shouldn’t go to art school because you’re going to be a starving artist. This is no longer true. Look at Vice Media. Everything is changing now. So, if you are a creative person—a writer, a designer, a printmaker—there is a career path for you. And we can get people to see how fun advertising can be, how fun design can be. It can be a career. It’s just as cool as being a doctor or lawyer.

I understand the space is a former firehouse? How are you going about renovating it?
Actually it’s in renovation right now. For a long time it used to be a firehouse. The building was vacant for very long time. My husband, Jake, rents a space in the industrial park. He’s always fixing motorcycles and cars. I try not to go over there! It’s his man cave thing. But he saw this space, and it had a cool vibe—like a Williamsburg kind of feel, or Williamsburg like 10 or 15 years ago. No one’s there yet, but there’s a lot of potential there. The two-by-fours are up, and the drywall is up. We worked with Division1 Architects, which are a very cool architecture firm. It’s just a huge plain, wide space inside. It’s cool, modern, simple, clean, white. You should be able to dream. It’s a blank canvas.

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Tell me about the name At Yolk.
I just love the idea of the egg. The very core of the egg is the yolk. That’s where all the nutrients and proteins—all the good stuff is coming from the core. We want this place to be the core that can transform and morph into whatever creation you like. It’s also a symbol—the chicken and the egg. And the egg is birth, right? It also comes with a design order. The entire space is white and black, with the touch of yolk yellow all over. We are also going to create a magazine called Yolk magazine. Think of it as a small culture magazine where we are going to do creative content, like interesting articles that have nothing to do with the At Yolk space necessarily. We’re still working on a theme for the first issue.

And the “At” part of “At Yolk” just signifies that it’s a destination?
Yeah. You could call it Yolk Studio, but that’s boring! It’s the whole idea of “blank” At Yolk. Create your own culture At Yolk. Create your own design At Yolk. Create your own voice At Yolk. That’s better than calling it Yolk Studio.

So it’s opening in May?
Hopefully! Hopefully we’ll get the permit and get everything approved by May 1 and we can open.

It’s nice to create something that gives back to the community like this.
Yes. Once you get older as a creative person, and you have been doing this for 20 years, you just know that your next move is not so much to create a cool thing or a product or service, which we do anyway for clients. You have to have a mission, and you have to have a purpose. The kids, the millennials, they do question it. They want to know why are we doing things, and what we are doing them for. Just to make money for clients, it’s almost not enough. So I don’t think we will be relevant to the youth without rethinking why we exist, and what can we do, how can we use our experience and learning, and how can we contribute.

And this is a creative way to do that.
Yeah. I mean, I can write a check, right? I can certainly write a check to the Smithsonian Foundation. It’s much easier than getting a loan from the bank, going through all this craziness with construction. But at the same time, you have to ask yourself as a creative person, what have you done for your city? Purpose and profit are not at odds. They go together. You have to rethink. Otherwise you’re just like those dinosaur companies that just talk about profit. And I don’t think that’s enough.

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