Craig Palacios and Tina Wichmann want to show me the secret passage.
The principals of Bunnyfish Studio are walking me through Inspire, a three-story theater, café, bar and newsstand designed by their Downtown Las Vegas-based architecture firm, and they’re pointing out all the cool features they baked into it. There are quite a few, from the wall-mounted rails that act as Inspire News Café’s magazine racks, to the raw concrete finish of the building’s façade, to the 70-something-year-old Heywood Wakefield theater seats that Palacios and Wichmann salvaged from a church.
To my eyes, nearly every design element of Inspire is a capital-lettered Special Feature. And the architects had to fight for every last one.
“The contractor never really saw our vision,” Palacios says. “Until the day we opened, he would tell me straight-up, ‘I don’t see what you’re doing here.’”
That’s funny, considering how fresh and modern Inspire feels. The news café is a pleasing assortment of surfaces—glass, wood, concrete and glossy paper—framing an ever-changing human portrait. Walk a few steps and you’re in Wayfarer, a dark, mid-century modern bar straight out of Mad Men. Next to it is the 150-seat theater with the aforementioned cast-iron church seats, a theater that’s already seen heavy use hosting everything from late-night variety shows to independent film. You get several entirely different experiences at Inspire, and that’s even before you go upstairs and check out the casual co-working spaces, the spectacular rooftop patio, the cozy speakeasy bar Tokyo 365 … and, oh yeah, the secret passage, designed for building owner Tony Hsieh and Inspire proprietor Michael Cornthwaite to get from rooftop to second floor without fighting the flow of traffic to the rooftop party.
It’s pretty impressive stuff, and it seems even more so after Palacios tells me how little direction he got from Hsieh.
“He just said ‘Get on a plane and go check out the lobby of the W Hotel in Austin. It’s what I want,’” Palacios says. “It was difficult at first to figure out what he was talking about, but very shortly we realized that the lobby of the W is four or five distinct rooms with different purposes, and they’re very different architecturally. You don’t notice when you transition from one to the other, and there are bars everywhere. People are working there during the day, partying at night … and you don’t even notice that transition.”
“The circulation and destination components of the design were blurred,” Wichmann says. “Rooms there were destinations, but they were also part of the exploration. It’s fun.”
Somehow, Bunnyfish Studio was able to assimilate those offhanded instructions and convert a former one-level 7-Eleven convenience store into a vibrant, three-level urban space with virtually no local precedent. Before I can ask how, exactly, they managed to pull that off, both Palacios’ and Wichmann’s phones blow up, and the interview is cut short.
This won’t be the last time this happens. It’s pretty tough to find an interview-size hole in Bunnyfish’s schedule, because this one architectural firm, thanks in part to its gift for understanding what Tony Hsieh wants and what Downtown needs, is pretty much single-handedly reimagining the entirety of Fremont East.
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
Bunnyfish’s Downtown Project list is kind of like a friendly Godzilla: ever growing, ever advancing, and changing the landscape before our eyes. It includes Natalie Young’s breakfast-and-lunch joint Eat; the Hydrant Club membership dog park; Cornthwaite’s cocktails-and-charcuterie lounge Scullery; the Downtown location of local Tex-Mex favorite Nacho Daddy; the John E. Carson building and several of the businesses inside it, including Bud & Vine, Carson Kitchen, Grass Roots and O Face Doughnuts; the bar, lounge area, “backyard” and crash pads at the Gold Spike; the recently revived Bunkhouse Saloon and its outdoor campus; the former Azul club, now a multipurpose space called Place; the casino of the Western Hotel, which they turned into a convention hall; and several others in various states of planning and execution. And they’re not limiting themselves solely to Downtown Project or Fremont East spaces; Bunnyfish is currently helping a client to remake the interior of the Ice House on Main Street, transforming it from a nightclub to office space, and they were the architect of record for the first Strip location of beloved coffee bar Sambalatte, working from a design concept by VANROOY design.
And the neat thing is, you can see the through line in all these places. For such a relatively young firm—Bunnyfish first set up shop in Emergency Arts in January 2011—they’ve not only amassed an impressive portfolio, but have forged a recognizable style. The Bunnyfish look is a mix of the raw and the finished in a constant visual tug-of-war.
Wichmann offers an example from the Inspire build-out: “We had a discussion with the contractor, who said, ‘You’ve got these existing trusses, and you want to keep them. What do you want to do with them? Do you want to paint them?’ And we said, ‘Just dust them off.’
The contractor mused that such a design choice would have to be carried all the way through; surely, they’d have to make chairs out of barrels and create some sort of hackneyed country roadhouse. But Wichmann and Palacios stood firm: No barrel chairs, and no paint on the trusses. Just dust them off.
“We like the tension between new and old—to pay homage to the existing structure and its heritage, but not just add a bunch more old stuff in there,” Wichmann says. “For us, the challenge of design is to bring those two elements together and have them fit.”
David Baird, director at the UNLV School of Architecture, agrees that this approach to the old buildings of Fremont Street—keeping as much of the skeleton as possible, and laying down new skin only where it fits—is the correct one.
“Dealing with the existing building gives it a sense of continuity, [of] history, of the quirkiness that goes with having to deal with all the little peculiar things that were done historically in that area,” he says. “A lot of times, when you scrape an area and you build from scratch, you lose a lot of that character. Almost like a patina. Think about the pans that you cook in: You don’t scrub them completely clean. You let them have that patina, and they add to the flavor in a way that you really couldn’t [get] if you were just starting from scratch.”
HOW TO MAKE A BUNNYFISH
“A Bunnyfish is two different things,” Palacios says. “It’s like black and white coming together to become gray.”
The name Palacios and Wichmann chose for their firm is not only emblematic of their design philosophy, but of the partners themselves. At first blush, they seem to share a brain: Both are of similar age (Palacios is 42, Wichmann 40); both are stylish dressers; both have dynamic personalities. Yet they come from decidedly different sensibilities. The short story is “They met at UNLV,” but the long version is where you find all the flavors that make the cooking pan.
Wichmann, of Korean and Dutch descent, was born in Tehran, Iran—her father was a civilian military consultant—and when her family relocated to America, she was perpetually the new face in the neighborhood: She estimates that her parents moved around Southern California “maybe 10 times,” trying to find better schools for her to attend. Eventually, she got a bachelor’s degree in psychology “with a little bit of emphasis in neuropsychology,” and promptly went to work for a pharmaceutical research company.
“I’m a pretty detail-oriented and attentive person, and so I ended up moving into regulatory affairs and managing FDA audits and things that really are interesting, but not that fun,” she says. “I was in my mid-20s, and I thought to myself, ‘Do I want to still be doing this in 20 years?’”
What Wichmann did enjoy was architecture. Growing up in so many different new homes, she had almost continual access to construction sites, and took full advantage of it. “When I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, I would walk up the hill and make friends with all the construction workers. They would put aside refrigerator boxes or scrap pieces of marble, and I’d go up there, I’d bring them down the hill and I’d build things in my backyard.”
In 2004, Wichmann, who took some undergraduate architecture classes at UCLA while pursuing her degree in psychology, began work toward a master’s degree in architecture through a bridge program, which allows applicants with unrelated undergraduate degrees to accelerate their architecture education. By 2007, Tina Wichmann, unhappy FDA auditor, became Tina Wichmann, happy architect.
“I needed to do what was important to me,” says Wichmann, who sealed the deal in 2013 by moving to Las Vegas full time with her husband.
Her professional partner’s route was no less circuitous. A Las Vegas native—his mother was a cocktail waitress at the Four Queens, his father captain of the showroom at the Desert Inn—Palacios’ first interest was fashion, much to his parents’ dismay. “To come from two immigrant parents and be living in Vegas and tell them you want to become a fashion designer, they’re like, ‘Shut the fuck up. Get out of here. You could go park cars and make 75 grand a year. What are you talking about?’”
Palacios left town in 1993 after a short, unsatisfying stint at UNLV (“I was a crappy student”), decamping to San Diego and then Seattle, where he and his wife bought a condo and he did construction jobs. Construction came naturally to Palacios; he’s worked in that world since age 14, and alongside fashion, it’s kind of what gets his heart started in the morning.
But even that love had limits.
“I did concrete, masonry, foundation stuff,” he says. “But it got to a point where I realized I was maxed out, like I wasn’t going to be able to go any further.”
He returned to school, soon getting an associate’s degree in art at a community college. He attempted to transfer to the University of Washington, but was compelled to return to UNLV in 1999 because of a clerical issue. Drawing on his twin passions—construction and design—he decided to work toward an architecture degree, and he got one. He’s also about halfway to achieving a master’s in construction management, but says he’s unlikely to complete it. “You remember that part in Forrest Gump where he’s running, running, running, and then he’s just like, ‘I don’t want to run anymore?’” Palacios says. “Well, I just didn’t want to go to school anymore.”
Palacios and Wichmann met while in that master’s program, and soon struck up a friendship. “We had classes together, gravitated together, bounced ideas off each other,” Palacios says.
It’s fitting that the duo’s friendship and professional partnership emerged from … well, from both of them hitting a wall and turning left. It explains why everything they do is suffused with a sense of play—even the company logo is designed to be spray-painted on walls, like a graffiti tag—and why each of their projects is distinguished by a fun element: Nacho Daddy’s wall of beer bottles; the Hydrant Club’s namesake giant fireplug; the wonderfully gaudy, 1970s-inspired look of O Face Doughnuts.
This is the kind of stuff you do only after you’ve cleared a few hurdles in your life. You not only do what’s important to you, but also what feels good.
WHEN BUNNY MET TONY
When you look at the firm’s long list of Downtown Project-funded ventures, it’s easy to assume that DTP owns Bunnyfish Studio—or that Hsieh was given some sort of buy-12-get-one-free punch card. In truth, though, these two parties came together through what the DTP used to call a “serendipitous collision.”
Late one night, the Bunnyfish crew was hanging in their Emergency Arts office when an unannounced visitor arrived. “Suddenly, Tony pops in, and I didn’t know him,” Palacios says. “I didn’t even know what Zappos was.”
Hsieh politely inquired about the renderings taped to the walls, then disappeared for a week. When he returned, he brought several confidants with him, including Shift CEO Zach Ware; Zappos executive and Vegas Tech Fund partner Fred Mossler; and Todd Kessler, an attorney with Downtown Project’s real estate partner, Resort Gaming Group. “Tony goes, ‘You should come see what we’re doing,’” Palacios recalls. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, cool, give me your card.’ And he said, ‘No, no, grab your stuff. Let’s go.’”
Palacios followed Hsieh to his suite in the Ogden, where Palacios began rearranging the Post-it notes on Hsieh’s idea wall.
“It was, ‘Laundromat, dog park, grocery store, children’s school,’ and as an architect you realize that arranging things in that linear fashion doesn’t work. The deli should be with the grocery store, and so on. We started moving things around, and sometime during that process my heart started beating. I’m like, ‘I don’t even know this guy, and I’m rearranging his stuff.’ And I looked over, and he was smiling.”
That night, Hsieh gave Palacios several books on architecture. (“The list of architecture books that he had read surpassed most architectural professors,” Palacios says.) They looked out the window of the Ogden and discussed the growing portfolio of properties Hsieh owned. In the ensuing weeks, Hsieh invited Palacios to look at several vacant properties—“We’d go break into a building and crawl around the rafters and stuff; it was great”—but it was all on the level of two friends with a shared enthusiasm; there was never any business talk.
Then, one day, Downtown Project work began to trickle in. Ware brought them a project that was ultimately killed, and Young asked them to design the interior of Eat. And one night, while Palacios and Wichmann were having a drink at the Downtown Cocktail Room, Hsieh and Cornthwaite approached them with a challenge: a three-story theater, bar and café complex, housed inside a one-story building.
“I remember them saying, ‘We want a theater, we want the bathrooms to be front and center, and we have a lot of stuff we want to put into this very small footprint,” Wichmann says. “Craig usually has a roll of trace paper and a pen somewhere, so he was able just to go, ‘Well, da-da-da-da-da,’ and they looked at it and said, ‘That’s exactly what we want.’”
Continues Palacios: “They took it, rolled it up and said, ‘OK, this is as far as we want to go with this now,’ and we kept drinking and hung out with them the rest of the night. Two days later we get a call from [Resort Gaming Group CEO] Andrew Donner, who asked, ‘What was your involvement with these drawings, who are you, and how many people do you have in your firm?”
One day later, Bunnyfish Studio had a contract in hand to design Inspire, a project that would lead to many others. Not to mention Fremont East’s first secret passage.
During an increasingly rare free moment, Palacios and Wichmann join me on the rooftop of Inspire. The view from up there really is one of the city’s best; you’ve got the tourist-fueled chaos of the Fremont Street Experience on one side and the growing and ever-changing Fremont East district on the other.
After a few moments admiring that view—“You should have been up here on New Year’s Eve; there must have been 200 people up here, plus a llama,” Palacios says—the partners lead me around an inconspicuous corner, through an unremarkable door … and just like that, we’re in Inspire’s secret passage.
There’s really not much to say about it, to be honest. It’s an unadorned stairwell, which empties onto the second floor via another semi-hidden door with a key-card lock. There’s only one thing of interest inside: a piece of stenciled graffiti depicting a round fish with rabbit ears. In a rarely accessed hallway, Bunnyfish Studios actually managed to sign their work.
“We’re both architects and taggers, as it turns out,” Wichmann says, grinning. Then, right on cue, her phone rings.
Senior Writer Geoff Carter dishes about Bunnyfish on 97.1 The Point.