How Refinery29’s 29Rooms Made Space for Politics, Brands, and Instagram

The media company’s interactive funhouse featured collaborative work from artists, organizations, and companies that was socially aware and shareable.

By Michele Laufik September 28, 2017, 7:15 AM EDT

Alexa Meade’s “Become the Masterpiece” allowed guests to turn themselves into art with painted props like coats, sunglasses, and umbrellas.

Photo: Taylor McIntyre/BizBash

During New York Fashion Week in September, Refinery29 brought back its funhouse festival known as 29Rooms. A sort of social media spectacle, this year’s activation aimed to inspire a greater call to action among its visitors—beyond an Instagram post.

Who Inspired the Theme
In reaction to the current political climate, the third annual iteration highlighted activism, with the theme “Turn It Into Art.” “It was the beginning of the year, and, for many, this was a very emotional time, but we also saw it becoming an exciting time for activism with more people joining together to create action,” explained Albie Hueston, Refinery29’s creative director of experiential. In January, the female-focused digital media company’s in-house creators had collaborated with a group of artists to produce a set of posters for the Women’s March on Washington. The power of that project in turn influenced this year’s 29Rooms.

“Through the designs we created for the Women’s March ... we saw how art has the power to unify, heal, uplift, and provoke new ideas and actions,” Hueston said. “When we encounter art, our spirits are lifted and perspectives are shifted and, as Carrie Fisher famously said, ‘Take your broken heart, make it into art.’ It was our mission this year to create a 29Rooms that would empower the creative spirit, which led us to the theme ‘Turn It Into Art.’ We wanted to ultimately celebrate art’s power to transform and open our audience’s eyes to the radical possibility of their own imagination.”

How Brands Get Involved
During the four-day event, which took place from September 8 to 11 in a warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, guests were able to explore the maze-like, multi-sensory playground of 29 curated rooms, which featured a range of mediums, from painting and poetry to virtual reality, music, and comedy. Some of the spaces were created in partnership with politically minded groups like Jill Soloway and Topple Productions, Art of Elysium, Women’s March, and Planned Parenthood, while other rooms offered brand experiences from Aldo, Clarins, Dunkin Donuts, Dyson, Juicy Couture Fragrance, Ulta Beauty, and Cadillac and Jason Wu. Even celeb collaborators like Jake Gyllenhaal and Emma Roberts joined in with rooms that promoted personal projects.

“Each creative partnership is unique, but the way we construct concepts is very much like trying to assemble a very large puzzle,” said Hueston who works with a team of 200 to produce the event in house. “We make sure to align each room with a collaborator that is culturally relevant, inspiring, and embodies the bold and creative spirit of Refinery29. Then, we work closely with them to lock down the visual and emotional experience—focusing on what we hope guests feel and what action they take after they leave.”

“We had no idea what to expect, but it was a beautiful moment to realize we had created something truly special.”

And because the Refinery29 team has been able to capture the attention of the much-sought-after millennial audience, more big-name brands like Cadillac and Dunkin' Donuts see the value in participating in the event. “Every year, brands are very excited to partner with us, and part of the appeal is that the event really gives brands the freedom to push the envelope a bit more than they are used to,” Hueston said. “We work very closely with each brand to co-create an experience that immerses guests inside the brand’s heartbeat. We help to align them with relevant cultural movements and trends, ultimately transforming them into both memorable and shareable experiences. 29Rooms is not just an event; it’s a moment that allows brands to tell their story through an imaginative and immersive lens and engage with each guest on a deeply emotional level.”

What's Next
With more than 20,000 visitors from 47 states and 24 countries, the 29Rooms franchise has grown to be the brand’s most expansive offline activation. It started as a “physical manifestation of the brand, reflecting the topics we cover in our content, our commitment to creativity, and the engagement we spark with our network,” Hueston said. “I will never forget the crowds of people who came to experience 29Rooms that first opening day. We had no idea what to expect, but it was a beautiful moment to realize we had created something truly special.”

Always evolving, for this year’s event, the team wove in more theatrical experiences, redefined what a “room” was by creating sculptural installations, launched an app (which featured information on the collaborators, an event floorplan, real-time updates, and an interactive neighborhood guide), and incorporated new tech elements. The media company also instituted its first ticketing system to minimize wait time. A portion of the sales benefited 29Rooms’ nonprofit partners.

Plus, the activation will make its debut in Los Angeles this December. In addition to some of the New York rooms, the Los Angeles activation will also feature a new set of spaces from brand partners and collaborators.

“[The] desire for shared live experiences is only growing, and I think what makes 29Rooms such a viral sensation is our ability to create both transformative and transportive experiences that fully crack open our guests' imaginations,” Hueston said. “When creating the 29Rooms experience, we approach it as an author would writing a choose-your-own-adventure novel. The entire event is anchored in a theme that is open for interpretation for all who experience it. We break down the fourth wall and put the audience at the center of the experience, blurring the lines between an art exhibit, theatrical experience, and fun house.”

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