Creating Experiums: Maryellis Bunn on Transformative Spaces for People to Savor
By Julia Gamolina
Maryellis Bunn is the Founder and CEO of Museum of Ice Cream and Figure8. Since launching her brand in 2016, Maryellis has grown Museum of Ice Cream from a small temporary installation in New York City into a nationwide sensation with five locations and counting, welcoming over a million visitors from around the world alongside the debut of their own line of ice cream.
As an entrepreneur and creative director, Maryellis specializes in designing and constructing socially-squared spaces, created to provoke inspiration, foster community, and celebrate the power of imagination. Bunn was awarded Forbes 30 Under 30 and voted Ad Age's 50 most influential creative figures. Museum of Ice Cream was also awarded Fast Company’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Live Events. In her interview, Maryellis speaks about creating spaces that are just as engaging as our online interactions and the small acts of kindness that drive her, advising those just starting their careers to seek a company whose mission rings most true to their hearts.
JG: Tell me first about your background prior to starting Figure8 and Museum of Ice Cream.
MB: Out of college I worked for Time Inc, helping the publication learn about new trends and adopt new forms of technology. I left that job and had a wandering period, and then I started Museum of Ice Cream, and eventually Figure8.
How did the idea for MOIC come about? Why the focus on physical spaces?
We live in a physical world. I spend my time thinking about how we create and design space because I wake up every morning and I live in it, especially in New York City. I remember thinking, as I walked around the city, about what affordances construction and architecture are giving us especially in the wave of the economy crash and this massive abundance of vacancy of brick and mortar storefronts. Thinking about how this can change and how we can start making buildings and spaces that truly transform our everyday lives is what got me interested in space.
I think now there is this battle, or race, or however you look at it, between the online and offline worlds. We are all in a fight for people’s time and how it’s being spent. Right now the digital space is winning and it’s not a good thing. I believe that the reason people are spending more and more time online is because they haven’t been given enough fruitful and meaningful creative experiences and spaces that are more engaging.
How did the Museum of Ice Cream, and your new company Figure8, come out of that?
Museum of Ice cream was built out of a desire to give something back to the world. We built it in the summer of 2016. The first space was 3000 square feet; we had an eighteen-day build and I physically built the space by myself. I had no background in this - I had never worked with drywall, I’ve never tiled anything in my life up until that point. The idea was that I was going to give this thing to the world for the summer, but I found that it was also the first time that I truly had a creative outlet.
Opening day was when I understood the magnitude of what we had created. We had sold it out before we opened, and we had thousands and thousands of people waiting and sleeping overnight to come to our experience. We then went on to build five other locations. What those were to the world and what they look like is that they were a true understanding of how people interact with spaces. There was no intention of this being a business or where it is today which has completely taken over my life and the lives of so many others.
What did you learn about how people interact with space?
I’d spend hours everyday just watching - whether that be by being physically present, or on camera - not necessarily the intricacies of what they were doing, but how they were taking the space around them in and what was truly garnishing of people’s attention and their desire to interact with the design. We look at that data to develop even better spaces for people. That is our true mission - to bring people together, engage them, and make better experiences for them.
What do better experiences mean?
For us it means how do we get people to engage with one another. How does space lift people up? How do people stay engaged? How do we heighten their awareness?
Awareness of what?
Awareness of many things. It depends on where they are in the context of our spaces - I want them to get something different from every corner. Whether that is a sense of their own understanding, whether it’s a sense of their own presence, or maybe it is a sense of, “Hey, there is beautiful lighting.” A key word we use is to savor - to take in and savor. We ask, “Hey, what does this taste like? Do you taste that hint of vanilla or the hint of fresh mint? What does that feel like?”
I think that so often these moments are no longer being cherished, but being washed through. We try to get to the point of savoring. A lot of it is the psychology of how we build these spurts of genuine happiness for people and how we use psychology and science to make sure that is being integrated into our built world.
I’m fascinated that you speak with psychologists and surprised that I don’t hear of more architects doing so. What advice are you getting from psychologists and what are you learning?
I wouldn't call it advice. It’s more of, “This is what science is telling us, what history has proven, this is the data. Use it or don't use it.”
The most interesting piece has a lot to do with social media and the perception of what we are creating through that lens versus the reality. Psychology tells us that as soon as you take a photograph with the intention of sharing it, it diminishes your ability to actually enjoy that experience. You are so fixated on the end result or the byproduct - the likes, the replies, all the things that come along with sharing your photo with the public - that you are actually diminishing your own joy that can come out of that experience.
What we think about everyday is how to reverse that. How do we get people so engaged in the moment that those eager itches to share are taken away. I think that is going to happen as we shift as a society and become more aware of ourselves and our surroundings. That is super important.
You’ve recently created Figure8, the umbrella company for the Museum of Ice Cream, to further this mission. Tell me about building that out and what it means.
When we set out to start Figure8, it was always from a drive to build the world we want to live in. I am not a builder nor a trained architect, so we test a lot of different ideas and try a lot of different things. We seek to understand them, to look at them, to digest them, and then we continue to create. One of the most powerful pieces of what we do is that we are owner operators. Being able to create something and then sit with the byproduct of your creation and get that everyday feedback loop of how those things are affecting other people, is amazing.
When we think about what this looks like for us as we build, a fundamental rule we have for ourselves is that we create experience. That rule transformed into tons of different verticals and tons of different industries, and continued to think about how people can spend their time with one another and how buildings can start to facilitate better relationships. Relationships of people with people, and people with architecture, and over time. Because I’m not trained in any of this, I have a lot of genuine curiosity. I approach all of this from a purely creative lens of trying to solve problems and then building a team around us of both architects and designers that think about how we can truly transform the way that buildings are both operated and created.
After working with architects, interior designers, and experience designers, what have you learned from them and what advice do you have for them?
I want to be cynical. Some of the things that I have learned as I have built is that a lot of the time architects come to me wanting to propose what they already know is possible. This stunts the creative process too early on. I would encourage more people to dream and seek to figure out how to create what they have imagined, even if it’s far out of scope or so far out of reality. We should be working and figuring out what are the new things we can invent and then invent them.
Another thing I see quite often is that what we are making is awash because we are all looking at the same stuff. We so much access to have amazing information that is online. I think that’s something that is going to shift and be radical in the next couple of years and decades. I also think that any interior design and architect, we have the biggest opportunity right now. There are so many amazing minds that have developed the world online and we have seen the fruitfulness and abundance and also the downfalls of that. We have an amazing opportunity to create a world that is equally engaging, equally reactive and interactive, and really create the world that we truly want to live in. That is the most powerful thing that anyone can have the opportunity to do.
Where do you get your inspiration?
My biggest inspiration is one that is so common; I always tell myself that I can never be the best because nature will always win. There is no better experience creator and no better designer than nature.
Who are you admiring right now?
Right now, I’m admiring the small moments of life. For example, just today I was walking out of a morning exercise class and there was a guy that just said hello. There are these small morsels of everyday humanness right now that are really pushing me forward - how do we encourage and evolve raw human emotion and kindness? I don’t think it’s these mega people or people of influence but it’s the micro moments that are giving me inspiration. I’ve just felt like I’ve been a little bit of a state of dormancy in terms of being able to emote anything to people, and expression is really powerful.
Last questions - what advice do you have for those that are just starting their careers?
Find a company where the mission rings so true to your heart that that is the thing you want to wake up to every morning or afternoon - depending on when you wake up [laughs]. Seek that out intentionally.
Anything specific for women?
We are in a new and exciting time. We’re striding forward and we will continue to stride forward. It’s amazing to align yourself in the workforce with other women who think and understand their worth and that can speak up. I think that we really can create amazing things alongside men - we just need to find those partners and allies and work alongside them.