LA Designer: Coolhaus, Staying Cool While Business Heats Up

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Five years ago architecture enthusiasts Natasha Case and Freya Estreller created an ice cream sandwich concept called Coolhaus. Now the product has become a national brand. Can they maintain the archi-theme when their product is selling at Whole Foods?

photo (12)In 2009 a UCLA architecture grad named Natasha Case and a real estate developer named Freya Estreller (pictured left) came up with a clever concept for ice-cream sandwiches that would fuse their passion for buildings and cooking. They gave their product, titled Coolhaus, punning names connecting architects and flavor — Buck-mint-ster Fuller (Chocolate Chip cookie and Dirty Mint Chip ice cream); Tea-dao Ando (Vegan Ginger Molasses Cookie and Green Tea ice cream); Frank Behry (Snickerdoodle Cookie with Strawberries and Cream Gelato, below right) — and took off in a mobile truck to test the market, first stop Coachella.  

Five very successful years later, Coolhaus has become a brand, conveying digestible lessons about architecture via delicious, organic ice cream desserts sold at 11 mobile trucks in four locations; in Whole Foods and over 2,000 gourmet grocery stores and restaurants, hotels; online and at two of their own main street stores (Pasadena and Culver City); and now they have released a cookbook, Coolhaus Ice Cream Book, co-written with Kathleen Squires, designed by Laura Palese, with architectural illustrations by Design, Bitches.

Natasha and Freya, partners in life and work, came to KCRW to talk about growing a brand while maintaining their quirky architectural inspiration. The interview will air soon on DnA; below is an excerpt. Natasha Case will speak at the Dwell On Design conference on Friday, June 20.

DnA: Tell us about the origin story of Coolhaus. I know the architect Rem Koolhaus was an inspiration.

So I think I was always attracted to that interdisciplinary quality, and for me going through seven years of architecture school, there was this missing connectivity between architects and the audience that architecture needs, the public.

So my mission coming out of school was to make architecture as fun and accessible as possible, and the idea came to me that you could really use food to do that. So I started playing around with this idea of using food as the medium to talk about design, which I called Farchitecture, a silly sounding word. And I just started doing projects under that umbrella, Coolhaus really being one of the first that I really took seriously. Baking cookies, making ice cream and naming the combinations after architects and architecture movements.

Freya Estreller: But, Natasha, you also actually baked one of your architecture models for class, right. Wasn’t that the lightbulb moment?

DnA: Is that so?

NC: The big lightbulb moment for me was in one of my design studios. I had made this model, and the criticism from my professors was it looked like a layer cake, and I thought, why is that a bad thing? Everyone loves layer cake.

So for the next round for the model, I baked as a layer cake and I brought it in with cake and frosting and the whole deal. And I could just tell when I was presenting this cake model to my peers and the professor, everyone was interested in the product but they were also sort of thinking when are we going to eat this?

coolhaus NY Truck

DnA: Freya, you also have a background in buildings, albeit from a different dimension.

FE: I spent the first five to six years out of school doing real ­estate development and finance. I worked for a tract home builder, Ryan Home, putting up cookie ­cutter houses and then worked in affordable housing, so I was on the dark side and then went to the light and helped build about almost 300 units of affordable housing all over Southern California; then I went back to the dark side working for a real estate fund during the recession, but thankfully I had Coolhaus there to sort of balance that out.

DnA: Did you ever debate, for example, having an Eli Broad ice cream in honor of his tract housing phase? In terms of the architects that you chose to honor through ice cream, you went for the architects that are advancing the “art” of architecture.  

NC: We just need to come up with some more puns. So I urge all the listeners out there send us your architecture/developer/tract home builder puns.

We like to do a lot of up and coming designers. A good friend of mine Ari Heckman has a development side to his business and interior design, so we did the oreo heckman for him which is coffee, oreo and red velvet. The hope is that people can learn about him and discover his work through the ice cream. He’s mentioned in the book with a drawing of the latest hotel he did, so we try to champion the up and coming as well.

We’ve also gone into landscape, the Caramia Lehrer after Mia Lehrer and we did James Corner Field Operations (High Line; Tongva Park in Santa Monica); they did a contest for naming the flavor internally and they came up with “Landscape Bourbonism,” which we ended up doing as dirty mint julep so it kind of looks like grass and landscape.

Coolhaus jacket

DnA: Tell us about the cover of the Coolhaus Ice Cream Book, which appears to be a tower of  ice cream and cookies.

NC: We wanted the cover to look like a scale model. Hence the astroturf foundation that the tri-story sandwich is sitting on. We’re picturing this little building on a block with the blue sky behind it, so we are getting into that abstraction and we really felt if we are going to reference the architects in the book, which was an important part of the book, we’ll have to have a visual to explain it to people.

So when we pitched this book with the publisher, we said it’s going to be a cookbook, and it’s going to tell the Coolhaus business story, but it’s almost like it could be a very very entry ­level architecture textbook, if you didn’t know anything about architecture, you could learn about thirty architects or so and a little bit about their story and their connection to the brand and some of the building they’ve built, so it definitely gives it a whole other layer.

coolhaus culvercityLaura Palese and the graphic team at HMH did an incredible job of foraying the look and feel (and fun!) of our brand into a glowing and enticing book. They heard us on what the core visual values are, but I also feel the book is an evolution of the look of the brand: we added the graph paper theme (we dug the scrapbook look for the book) which we now use in many of our visuals outside of the book), and some additional fonts and color schemes.

DnA: You got your start selling Coolhaus Ice Cream from mobile trucks, which also reflect an interest in public space. Talk about that.

NC: I think ‘re-activating’ spaces is so much what the magic and I think adventure of the trucks is about—bringing life back to a forgotten space, and helping to bridge it to, often, a more permanent use. I can say particularly in Austin, TX, many of the vacant lots we park in inevitably end up getting developed once the trucks and trailers have built a following for those spaces. It’s like the lifecycle of urbanism! I love also watching people get creative with using alternative eating surfaces and being creative with their environment: eating off of parking meters, using cones as chairs, etc. It’s an urban adventure!

Coolhaus - Cherry Cheescase Ice creamDnA: You have grown so much you now sell your ice cream at Whole Foods? Were you able to maintain the architecture theme?

NC: We kept the flavor inspirational names, for example the balsalmic fig and mascarpone pint is called Eric Owen Moss­carpone after Eric Owen Moss, one of our favorites in Culver City, and then there’s a description of something about their work or an important fun fact about them, something about their story on the side of the pint. So if you inspect the packaging you’ll get a little mini architecture lesson. That’s been our unique angle on the product for some of these stores. If Ben and Jerry’s has rock and roll, then for Coolhaus it has architecture.

DnA: So how does architecture feed into the look of the ice cream?  You’re dealing with an imperfect, as in melting, medium with ice cream and cookies, how do you make it architectural?

NC: If we all lived in the arctic, then the ice cream would be more permanent in its architecture and design, but yes, once it’s in your hand, it is going to melt, I think there are beautiful and interesting things that come out of that in terms of the visual and the look.

Whiskey Lucky CharmsWhen we serve the ice cream sandwiches off the truck, they come in an edible wrapper, and I think that’s a fun play on the envelope of the building, that can absorb the drippings of the consumed little Coolhaus building and you can pop the whole thing in your mouth when you’re done instead of throwing it away.

DnA: As your company develops, are you going to stick to the architecture theme?

NC: It’s become more important than ever I think, it really differentiates us. It’s a lot of fun to play with, it folds in this whole other world, for example I’m speaking at the Dwell on Design conference about the business of design, I don’t think there’s another ice cream company on a panel at a design conference like that, so it gives us this whole other microphone and I do think it makes us edgy and fun, and the point is, if you get the architecture reference, great, if you don’t, you are eating delicious ice cream, so nobody is on the outside here, ice cream is all embracing. So I think it has been a really fun and key part of the brand and connecting it back to the story for people.

Frank Gehry

Images from top to bottom: Natasha Case and Freya Estreller; Coolhaus Strawberries and Cream Gelato; Coolhaus Ice Cream truck in Manhattan; Coolhaus Ice Cream Book cover photo by Brian Leatart; Coolhaus Culver City storefront; Cherry Cheesecase Ice Cream; Whiskey Lucky Charms Ice Cream; Frank Gehry page from cookbook (sketch by Design, Bitches). Images courtesy of Coolhaus.