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December 10, 2015

South Street boutique Workshop Underground blurs the lines between art and commerce

Former Met product designer opens conceptual retail space

Lifestyle Shopping
01-120915_Workshop_Carroll.jpg Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Ruben M. Luna is the owner and founder of Workshop Underground, which is located at 1544 South St.

It was a late night at the office in 1996 when Ben Luna, in the midst of compiling his billable hours for the week as a first-year financial consultant at KPMG, had an epiphany.

"I was there missing my friend’s birthday party, and I was looking at a financial report thinking, ‘This shade of green is too yellow,'" Luna told PhillyVoice. "And I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?'"

Soon after, he spotted an ad on a New York City train that advertised Photoshop and Illustrator lessons for $49. The rest, as they say, was history: He started his own design business first, then moved on to corporate merchandising for menswear, worked as a product developer at the Home Shopping Network and headed the products department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for five years -- all culminating in the October opening of his 800-square-foot Workshop Underground boutique at 1544 South St. in Graduate Hospital.

Fairly evident, walking through the space, is Luna's background with the Met, which he said taught him to tell stories through objects. Displays in his boutique are smartly arranged with theme, price range and item quality in mind. One table, for example, is blanketed with industrial objects, one end hosting a multi-thousand-dollar "Bent Wrench" ceramic wall sculpture while surrounding objects complement the aesthetic, but retail for a comparatively meager $15.

A bin of assorted bottle openers that sell for $15 and a ceramic wall sculpture by artist Steven Montgomery (foreground in toolbox), which sells for $14,000. The boutique focuses on items that sell for a wide range of price points. (Thom Carroll / PhillyVoice)

The idea: seamlessly blend together quality jewelry, apparel, furniture and knick-knacks of all price ranges from all types of artistic backgrounds.

"[The store] is a 'high and low' mixing of local artisans, unknown artists and known artists," Luna said. "It’s definitely about a mix, and my objective is to show that price is relative."

Prices at Workshop Underground range from $10 for a small candle to $28,000 for a vintage Rolex mariner watch from the 1960s. 

Most of Luna's products -- everything from Eagles tumblers to a vintage bag made of walrus (yes, walrus) -- are plucked from auctions and estate sales, he said. Other products, like his jewelry and candles, are a result of relationships he has with dealers, including Philadelphia-based candle and soap maker Hand in Hand

A vintage walrus leather handbag Luna purchased at an auction. He plans to restore the bag before selling it. (Thom Carroll / PhillyVoice)

Beyond teaching him about curating, he added that the museum also taught him to work with stratospherically high standards that set the foundation for the so-called "high-low" concept of his new store.

"The highlight [of working at the Met] was the costume institute, and particularly presenting to Anna Wintour -- that was nerve-wracking," he said. "Thankfully, she’s always approved our collection. So the trick is, the Met is a tourist destination, and I think that’s where I got this concept of 'high and low.'

"I had to create 'low product' that Anna Wintour would approve of, and how do you create a magnet that she’d say, ‘Oh, OK. That’s fine,'" Luna laughed.

To boot, the boutique doubles as an art gallery, with works like the "Bent Wrench" sculpture and a Julian Schnabel hand-painted color screen print with poured resin, titled "La Blusa Rosa." He also designs and sells his own pieces in the space -- everything from paintings to jewelry.

Displayed on the right, a necklace Luna designed -- a 1-carat, rough diamond necklace with whittled wood caged in 14-carat gold, retailing for $895. It's positioned next to inexpensive bracelets that range in price from $20-$35. (Thom Carroll / PhillyVoice)

Luna said he selected the neighborhood, meanwhile, because of its diversity and emerging bar and restaurant scene, which consists of Magpie, Bob & Barbara's, Pumpkin, The Cambridge and Honey's, to name a few.

"I felt this incredible energy," he explained. "And, we’re getting a nice influx of retail [here]. I’m pretty involved with the business association, and we're talking about creating events to draw people to the area."

Last week, he partnered with local party promoter Josh Schonewolf to have a drag queen entertain in his store, timed with the Bob & Barbara's Thursday-night drag show. Other neighborhood collaborations are in the works, he promised, all with the goal of luring more retailers to accommodate the crowds already showing up in the neighborhood for its burgeoning restaurant scene.

Workshop Underground currently operates 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays, with the permanent schedule still being adjusted. Luna will open a second floor of the boutique, focused on men's wares, in the spring.