Varyer and Asrai Gardens: How a Marketing Agency Found Itself Operating inside an Apothecary

Artwork by Audrey Valbuena

Artwork by Audrey Valbuena

By Sarah Rosenblum

A graphic design studio, bumping music and videos, right beside a store full of flowers, incense, jewels and aromatherapy is the unlikely but fully functioning collaboration happening between the new Varyer creative studio location and the Asrai Garden apothecary retail store.

Two members of Pitchfork, former creative director Mike Renaud and former president Chris Kaskie, left the media company to begin their own creative studio, Varyer. The studio’s mission is to build creative ideas for companies, agencies and artists, all while pushing marketing in a brave new direction. They reached out to an old friend they had met through the music industry, Elizabeth Cronin, to launch their partnership with her apothecary in the Ace Hotel on Morgan Street in a hip industrial area of downtown Chicago. Mike Renaud tells the story of how this came to be.

Renaud began as a freelance graphic designer around the time that he met Elizabeth Cronin and Chris Kaskie. Renaud, a musician working on branding, identity, and website design for different people, primarily in the music scene, had scored a few gigs with Pitchfork, and quickly became friends with Kaskie, who was president of Pitchfork at the time. Eventually, after a series of collaborations, Renaud earned the position of Vice President. His role in the growing media company connected him to a lot of people in the music scene - artists for whom he would also do design work. One of his friends, a musician who was working at Cronin’s shop, mentioned that she was looking to create a new website. Through this connection, Renaud and Cronin became quick friends. Renaud continued freelance work for Pitchfork for a couple of years until he decided to join the company full time. He stayed with Pitchfork for eight years.

Cronin sought Renaud as a friend to do her logo work and website. They had been working as friends for ten years when Renaud, joined by Kaskie, decided to leave Pitchfork in 2017 to create a new creative studio. Around that time, Cronin came to Renaud and asked if he would want to open a second retail location with her at the ACE hotel. Cronin had just been offered a new location there for her retail store, and she saw it as an opportunity to help Varyer take off. Renaud and Kaskie agreed, and they decided to situate their studio’s office inside of the retail store.  “The revenue from that project has a direct impact on our video and agency business,” says Renaud. “So it’s kind of a win-win thing, and also just a bunch of friends who get to work together.”

Image Courtesy of Asrai Garden

Image Courtesy of Asrai Garden

Around the time of this conversation, Renaud and Kaskie were at the earliest phases of conceptualizing what their business plan would actually be. Renaud had no intentions of staying within the traditional boundaries of a marketing agency.

“We didn't want it to just be about servicing clients and entering requests for proposals from businesses and having to be all service based; we want our business to have sort of a permanent fixture with which we can work,” says Renaud. Now, working together with Asrai Garden, both with a new staff, the employees from each group have practically become co-workers. The studio and retail store foster an open and collaborative environment. Although Renaud technically began the relationship with Cronin as his client, today they no longer have this client-agency relationship. They build their own land map now, deciding how to allocate their efforts and goals based off of who is more busy at the time. When Varyer is swamped, more of the efforts will be designated to their business. When Asrai is busy, the duo team will move more hands to the garden.  Each team works as separate entities, functioning with separate staffs, but both teams are communicating regularly, keeping the dynamic open and communal for social purposes.

While their teams do work cohesively, they both respect their distinct styles and aesthetics. Renaud recognizes that Asrai Garden has existed for 20 years prior to their collaboration, and that they have a pre-existing vision and vibe that they maintain. But, it goes both ways.

“We have to think about the music that's being played, and is it disruptive and distracting for the people that are working on our side,” Renaud says. “Chris and I have, you know, kind of run Pitchfork for the last eight or so years, and there's definitely a culture there that we have fostered.”

Renaud mentions that he wants to continue to have this culture within Varyer, but he also recognizes that Varyer is a new business. He is still getting used to the small business adjustments, from the new HR partners to location-based kinks. The two partners do frequently share common spaces for office meetings, and they augment the space based off of availability.

“It's becomes very nuanced, but we wanted to be careful of not trying to articulate how it needs to be more,” says Renaud. “So just try to, like practice empathy and self awareness and listening to everybody, and just sort of growing the culture naturally and organically as it comes along.”

Artwork by Cai Cramer

Artwork by Cai Cramer

These Pitchfork guys also are taking a lot with them from their past experiences working with music labels. Kaskie started with Pitchfork from the very beginning, and has experienced working with the larger music industry for media company’s annual music festival. Renaud, on the other hand, came from an independent agency. Moving into Pitchfork, he began applying his skills in detail and design to the already branded bands that he teamed up with to create creative campaigns. Their combined skills helped launch their new project, which they are continuing to figure out how to run together, taking their own individual prior work in Pitchfork with them.

“We're working on things for clients, sort of bringing our new employees into the fold of our mindset around how we execute on ideas using business strategy is sort of a core foundation of that” Renaud says.

Varyer has only been around for about 2 years. They are currently working on a marketing project with Asrai Garden as well as a rebranding initiative for the Chicago Blackhawks. Just like with Asrai Garden, they are currently making an effort getting to know the hockey team’s company culture in order to provide the best service possible for them.

“It's been really interesting trying to educate their team and trying to align their team with some ideas that are maybe a little bit untraditional,” says Renaud.

When it comes to the merchandise and marketing of Asrai Garden, Renaud has found that there is a lot of overlap between the two groups. He does recognize that, like with the Blackhawks, there has been a culture that has become tradition to Asrai with their ethertic garden side that Asrai handles on their own. Plus, Renaud gets to reap the benefits of being inside of a store where he can actually “get up and smell the flowers.”

“It's physically inside the flower shop, and you can you can kind of see over the wall. It's slightly exposed, so you know, it's really nice, because we've just got good smells all day,” Renaud says.

He works on the digital side, staring at a screen for a good portion of the day. Renaud mentions that getting to get up and walking around her shop, experiencing all of the apothecary and flowers, skimming through some of their magazines and books, and talking to people around the store is a big help to his day. For Renaud, a lot of his personal interests already aligned with Asrai’s aesthetics. Varyer was in its very early phases when they decided to merge their companies. Renaud notes that at the time, they hadn’t really created the visual identity for the creative studio. They developed their look with the awareness that they would be a part of Asrai in some way. While the two definitely have independent styles, they work well as a family.