Yes, it’s a shipping container.
That concert stage? That mobile convenience store? That trade-show hangout equipped with glass doors, LCD televisions and Wi-Fi?
All constructed using metal enclosures formerly used to ship goods around the world.
David Campbell, founder and CEO of Charlotte-based Boxman Studios, is accustomed to incredulous responses from people who see one of his company’s masterpieces.
And, well, that’s part of the idea.
When Campbell bought his first shipping container five years ago, he wanted to build a company that used a novel idea and eye-catching designs to bring attention to other companies, their clients.
Since then, Boxman Studios has made hundreds of structures, many for big-name clients, such as Nike, Office Depot, Lays, Hyundai, Samsung and CoverGirl, for events and trade shows.
Perhaps their most high-profile local project was for tech giant Google during the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
Drawing the attention of international media outlets from ABC News to GQ, Boxman was the local name behind the massive “Google Village,” on Tryon Street, open to the public throughout the week.
The structure, painted in Google’s famous primary-color scheme, offered free Wi-Fi, sofas, chairs, air-conditioning, a refreshment bar and cellphone charging stations.
And over the last year or so, Boxman Studios entered the building-design sector. The business recently completed a four-container-tall arrangement of eight conference rooms – with an elevator – in the atrium of the new Citrix office building in Raleigh.
Boxman clients and academics agree on this much: The company’s wares have carved out a niche in the business-to-business marketplace, that capitalizes on a reality of the increasingly global marketplace: To stand out to consumers, you’ve got to be remembered.
And to be remembered, your business must create an experience worth remembering.
“The shipping container is but a piece of everything we’re doing on the design front,” Campbell said. “Our mission is to create ... experiences.”
Campbell, 40, has tried his hand at a number of industries. The journalism major was a stock broker in New York before moving to Charlotte to be a financial planner. In 2004, he switched gears to start Acer Development, where he oversaw construction of banks, retail centers and office buildings.
But when the financial industry collapsed in 2008, taking construction with it, Campbell looked elsewhere. And an article about shipping container architecture piqued his interest, prompting another entrepreneurial venture.
Boxman has grown so much in the last five years, that Campbell has had to pack up and move the headquarters – where they do everything from design to welding, sanding, painting and outfitting – five times. Their current office and warehouse is about six mile northwest of uptown Charlotte, off I-85. The company now has 35 employees.
The structures range in price from thousands to several million dollars.
“It’s sort of like how much a house costs,” Campbell said. “Do you want a Biltmore (Estate) or a starter home?”
Campbell also says his shipping containers save money in areas such as security (close it up and no one’s breaking through), transportation (it all fits on one large truck, provided by Boxman), and ease of setup and breakdown (Boxman does both).
Dr. Charles Davis II, an assistant professor in UNC Charlotte’s School of Architecture, said the popularity of these 21st-century shipping container structures is rooted in the post-war architectural design of the 1960s, when people were using industrial waste to build homes.
Now, Davis says, recycling materials in innovative ways is, once again, en vogue. And Boxman Studios isn’t the only company recycling shipping containers.
Davis points to LOT-EK, an architectural design studio based in New York and Italy that also uses old shipping containers. They’re even creating mobile homes from them that can travel along railways.
Businesses like Boxman’s clients use the recycled materials at events and trade shows to demonstrate how they’re progressive and interesting, Davis said. “It creates a fun kind of environment. It makes people want to play and do interesting things and think unconventionally and have conversations.”
That explains their popularity in Silicon Valley. Prior to Google Village, Campbell says Boxman Studios created a 3,000-square-foot for Google’s headquarters at the annual TED Talks conference. And more recently, they helped design an office building in the San Francisco area.
Davis says Boxman’s aesthetic and guiding philosophy reminds him of the Apple stores when they first opened.
“You could spend time playing with iPads and iPods and see what they’re like,” Davis said. “That immersive experience is a different model of consumer culture than, ‘Here’s the booth. Go up and get information and walk away.’”
Matt Matousek, vice president of local marketing agency HB&M Sports, has worked with Campbell and Boxman on a number of occasions and always, he says, to great success.
For example, when HB&M Sports was representing Sharpie at a local racing event, they asked Boxman to paint the shipping container white. Sharpie representatives then gave passersby Sharpie markers and told them to turn the pod into a piece of artwork.
For a different client, HB&M commissioned Boxman to re-create an old-time diner, complete with black-and-white-checkered flooring, custom stools and a custom bartop.
“It was different. ... We got a lot of attention,” Matousek said. Even other marketing companies were dropping by, taking pictures, he said.
The shipping container shell is what initially attracts people to the space. But inside that shell, the environment created by Boxman designers help create – that’s what engages the customer.
“There’s a special significance in what we create to initially draw people’s attention to what our client’s message is,” Campbell says. “Once we get that attention, it’s our job to hold that attention as long as the client desires.”
Portillo: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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