Stewards of Beauty: Minneapolis’ Liz Gardner and Josef Harris of Bodega Ltd.
“Imperfection takes longer than perfection,” says Milano architect Vincenzo De Cotiis, referring to the process of building renovation. The quote appears Halloween night on the blog of Bodega Ltd., the multidisciplinary lovechild of creatives Liz Gardner and Josef Harris.
While the credo directly refers to the mammoth restoration project that the Minneapolis duo dub “Maison Bodega”— a 100-year-old building purchased last May to transform into a live/work space—it could just as well apply to their ethos at large. In a world airbrushed within an inch of its pixel-ridden life, design can often err toward the slick and pretty; a case of surface over substance, a pantomime of actual style.
Not so for Bodega, a studio as down-to-earth and multi-purpose as the neighborhood corner store for which it is named. “A bodega is an everyday spot where you get everything you need, but at the same time that experience can be elevated and made beautiful,” explain Harris, 30. “Not only are we a creative firm, but we also have aspirations toward product design and retail.” The pair are currently designing furniture and pursuing product design for a home brand to debut in 2019. “To stay interested, we have to do different things constantly.”
From creative direction for Adidas Originals to prop styling for Food & Wine magazine to curating a “capricious, biased, filtered, flawed, and very personal” guide to Minneapolis-St. Paul, the firm is a one-stop shop for an array of innovative platforms. “We try really hard to pull inspiration from places that don’t necessarily go together to create something interesting,” Harris says. “The idea of being a creative has become very sexy, but in actuality, it’s like, ‘What do you want to live out in your work?’ That’s the only thing that matters.”
Their seductive aesthetic notwithstanding, in practice Gardner and Harris are less glitz and more grunt—working veritable bodega hours to serve over thirty clients each year. Whether designing individual flatware tables for restaurant Upton 43 or meticulously vetting terrazzo for their new home, the pair are a rare example of self-described “control freaks” who are willing to compromise in the interest of progress.
“The reason Josef and I can have this unique partnership is that we have developed really good language around disagreeing,” Gardner, 34, reflects. “Sometimes people overhear us and ask, ‘Are you guys fighting?’ and I’m like, ‘No, we’re talking through this idea ….’”
From a couch in Maison Bodega—she wheat-blonde, donning a white top and clear plastic frames, and he casual in a gray tee and jeans, their Siberian husky Aggie snuggled between them—the couple comes across as both cool and minimalist and warmly unassuming. “She’s like Christy Furlington,” Harris jokes when Aggie abruptly ditches the conversation. “Only gets out of bed for $10,000 a day.”
Raised in St. Louis Park, a suburb west of Minneapolis, Harris studied studio art at Indiana University, later shifting to psychology and ultimately earning a business degree. Gardner moved from the logging town of Mora, Minnesota, to an advertising program at The Art Institutes International Minnesota. She then went straight into the agency world. “Because I was an outsider, I could offer a different perspective,” says Gardner, “and see us more clearly as a city. My work ethic has also been a major observational draw.
“My parents worked really, really hard—and taught me the value of that. I could work circles around people. It helped me progress really quickly—just the sheer volume of hours.”
“Liz is a Capricorn, and I’m a Sagittarius,” adds Harris. “Our backgrounds and our brains are complete opposites. When I’m like, ‘Freedom!’ she’s like, ‘We have work to do.’ But the more we disagree, the better the work is; the more contentious we are in the process, usually the better the product.”
Following a brief philosophical detour into the merits of dialectical thinking, it becomes clear that the pair’s synchronicity has as much to do with a shared respect for alternate perspectives. “You only grow by having those conversations,” says Harris. “Not by simply having your ideas affirmed by the person sitting next to you.”
A natural extrovert and raconteur, Harris waxes nostalgic when it comes to how he and his partner met, fell in love and developed the company. They first crossed paths at a small-city regional outlet, Metro Magazine—she as creative director and he in events marketing—but after a year, the publication shut down. ‘Metro’ was too out there, too creative. They didn’t know how to support it with advertising long term.
After it closed, we started dating, and one night I got super drunk and told Liz how I felt about her. Then she was like, ‘Oh, my God, I kind of like you, too.’”
Over time, they began working together more and more on their own projects, forming Bodega along the way. “We’d always had dreams of working with our partner,” says Harris. “After a few years, we ended up quitting our day jobs within a month of each other to pursue Bodega full time.”
Where they differ in personality and background they correspond in character and values—privileging a successful collaborative process over individual egos.
“What comes from Liz is the value of vulnerability,” says Harris. “For her, vulnerability correlates to bravery. For me, initially I was constantly fighting the inner typical male assumption that vulnerability is weakness. But it’s the biggest way to be successful as a creative person.”
Gardner reframes the concept as a process of risk and remove. “Vulnerability is a buzz word, but for me it’s about attachment and detachment at the same time. When I’m working on a creative project, I have to love it to the utmost. But I need to look at it with a critical eye at all times. A lot of times designers have this attitude of ‘This is the best idea ever because I came up with it.’ For me, staying critical is the best way to make something really exceptional.”
Gardner may be—according to Harris—the natural workhorse, but he’s the early riser, taking Aggie to the park before brewing a pot of coffee. At the root of their synchronicity lies an honest sense of their differences. In his own words, Harris “grew up in a privileged Jewish family,” whereas Gardner “worked for every single thing she’s earned … becoming an art director for a major brand right out of college, paying and working her whole way through.” Where he may be idealistic, she tends to be more practical. Where he affably interjects, she reasons and faithfully plans. “It’s been a huge learning process learning what ‘work’ means to her,” confides Harris. “And discipline, too—because I had none!”
A few days later, Gardner will suggest to me that his description of her may be “too sweet,” and she wants to make sure to “communicate reality—I didn’t part the sea this morning.” But during the course of our phone conversation, nothing he said seemed off. Reserved in tone but candid in content, she confirmed her partner’s account of a trailblazing woman with uncompromising drive.
“Where I grew up—about seventy miles north—the environment was such a key part of what I’m doing today,” she shares. “It was 300-acre farm in the middle of nowhere, with no TV. My parents said, ‘Go outside and find something to do,’ or ‘Here’s a room of books. Here are some arts and crafts.’”
Marooned in Mora ultimately proved an unlikely advantage. “Growing up, I felt like an outcast,” Gardner recounts. “Society tells us that country kids can’t be aesthetic. I moved away the day that I could—a city-mouse, country-mouse kind of story. It wasn’t until I was working in the magazine world that I realized how much my upbringing had developed my point of view. In that type of isolation, you’re forced to forge your own creative lens.”
That distinct editorial lens now sets Bodega apart as an emerging leader in its realm. “As a brand,” says Harris, “our responsibility is to make something so cool and so awesome, and so perfect, that people want to write about it. We try to take influences from New York, L.A., Europe, Tokyo and apply them to things locally, to stand out from the crowd of reclaimed barn wood. There’s a place for that, of course, but life is long, and there are so many out things out there.”
Gardner likewise stresses their unconventional approach to the field. “In terms of what we do in Minneapolis, it’s disruptive. We’re throwing everyone off in this market.”
With whatever project they’re on, a narrative impulse presides, shaping a sensory experience beyond whatever immediate product is at stake—from the watercolor bar coasters at the James Beard-nominated Esker Grove at the Walker Art Center to the velvet-paneled walls at St. Paul’s Gem Salon and Spa, to a molecular gastronomy photo spread for the travel section of The New York Times. “The ultimate goal is that every single little detail has to be part of the story,” says Harris. “We’re building a world—so what does that world look like?”
Maison Bodega boasts a story of its own, a manor of many hats and historic occasions. Smack dab between the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Walker Art Center, it neighbors both multi-million-dollar mansions and a halfway house for the learning disabled across the street. Vacant for two years before Bodega claimed it in 2017, the building served as an outpatient-treatment center for those recovering from addiction. As soon as it hit the market, the couple knew the moment was right, despite all the time it would take to renovate.
“A house like this is a living, breathing thing,” says Harris. “You have a relationship with it. We have to put every ounce of everything into it. With restoration, it’s like you’re essentially building a new body.
This body happens to be haunted (or graced) by echoes of the past. Built as a winter home in 1920 for a wealthy business family, it was the helm for Mrs. Earl Raymond Woodward, a magazine editor and leader of the Womens Christian Association. Hosting Greek-themed galas, opulent weddings, and musicians and actors visiting from New York, the three-story served as a neighborhood cultural hub for decades.
“The energy of the space is exactly what we need to accomplish what we want for the community and beyond,” says Harris. “We want to respect it, but modernize it at the same time.” To do so, the pair has enlisted architect Toby Rapson, who is helping to return the “slightly Spanish, slightly Scandinavian” space to its original structural integrity.
On a midday virtual tour, Gardner offers a clearer sense of life at Maison Bodega, having moved in but two weeks earlier. “We found the original signature of the builder right here, underneath some layers of wallpaper,” Gardner points out on a wall on the top floor, which is in the process of being converted into their apartment space.
Harris pokes fun at their “glamorous life,” and one can appreciate why: since moving in Feb. 1, they’ve been living and working amidst exposed plumbing, wood beams and Durock floors; their laptops abutting color swatches and tile samples. But it’s also easy to see the house the way they do, with its tall windows, high ceilings and arched doorways. As Aggie howls from the top of a staircase, the space takes on a Gothic vibe at odds with its glorious natural light.
Heading down to the second floor, five archways intersect at the entrance to the ballroom, where the two are currently “officing”—a verb apropos for a pair who take work with them wherever they go. A mood board features layers of thumbtacked letter-sized paper, arranged in vertical and horizontal patterns like a round of Tetris. “With my magazine background, I love all the tactile elements,” relates Gardner, “being able to touch and feel all the samples.”
The first floor will house a future pop-up retail space, photography space, and prop room. “Here is where they used to put the ice directly through the wall into the former ice box,” Gardner points out in the kitchen, her voice lifting ever so slightly. “Crazy, really fun.”
Bodega’s pleasure in idiosyncrasy seems to seep into all ambitions, aberration a strength rather than a flaw. Pulling back ten layers of wallpaper, they uncovered the original plaster on the third floor, graced with the occasional hairline crack and crowned-in sea-foam green molding. “It’s original, and I love it,” Gardner affirms. “Keeping that forever.”
This labor of love for the unexpected becomes a kind of art in itself—one of patience and resolve that, as Harris puts it, “takes your whole life to practice.”