Architecture is defined by people. It’s the human condition that shapes the spaces we live within and the moments we share. Few designers and entrepreneurs understand this better than Natasha Case, co-founder of Coolhaus Ice Cream. Trained as an architect, Natasha began exploring a passion for what she called “Farchitecture” – or, Food + Architecture – in her graduate architecture program. The concept originated with the broader notion that design could enhance everyday life, and, by the same token, that food could bring awareness to design.
In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Natasha talks about her inspiration for creating architecturally inspired ice cream, how Los Angeles influences her life and work, and what it means to bring joy into the process of making.
EB: It’s hard to believe that Coolhaus is now over a decade in the making! For those that don’t already know, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how the business was started?
NC: Sure. So I’m a third generation Angeleno, and I grew up in Sherman Oaks. My father was an architect and my mother was an animator at Disney. I attended UC Berkeley and majored in Architecture, and then I went on to study at UCLA and received my Masters in Architecture. After graduating I worked at Walt Disney Imagineering. It was there that my interest in food and architecture really took off; I was hosting dinner parties, making ice cream and baking cookies. That was also the time that I met Freya, who helped me refine what I was doing and really create a business model.
EB: After that the first big test was Coachella, correct?
NC: Yes, Coachella was the ultimate test. In short, we bought a beat-up postal van on Craigslist with no engine. We had it towed out to the concert grounds and called our new ice cream sandwich line Coolhaus because we were inspired by Rem Koolhaas, the Bauhaus, and because our sandwiches looked like tiny cold houses! That weekend we built up a following, almost overnight, and when we got back to Los Angeles the brand had gone viral. To this day I still can’t believe how incredible the viral impact was: you can never plan or depend on the viral moment, and we felt so lucky that we had the opportunity to build a customer base as quickly as we did.
EB: When you returned, how did you start building the business?
NC: First off, we had to make the truck drivable! Once we had that under control, we started catering, including at Myspace, which was our first catering event ever. RIP Myspace. Really putting the basics together, then we started focusing on it more full time. Our brand centered on three pillars: women led, the creamiest ice cream, and innovation.
EB: And now you’ve built a global brand: you have a fleet of trucks in LA, New York and Dallas, as well as two brick and mortars locations. Not to mention your sandwiches and pints are sold wholesale in every state across the nation! I’m wondering, why did you decide to make Los Angeles your headquarters? How does the city influence your ice cream and how you’ve grown?
NC: There is so much about LA that has shaped what we do. People forget that Hollywood is an industry built by bohemians. Directors, actors, it’s all theater, all design. LA is a place of creatives, and that resonates with our brand, which is very creative. You also have some elements of the New York grit alongside a great work-life balance. LA is a city with a driving culture, so it made sense that we started with a food truck and it could become a billboard for our brand. Los Angeles is also a very unfinished city, and it was exciting to have the truck be a part of activating vacant lots and creating food truck courts to bring attention to different parts of the city. We created impromptu community spaces. That is very LA.
EB: Touching on the city, do you have a favorite spot you enjoy?
NC: I love going to LACMA. There’s so much there, from the jazz nights in the summer to picnics with our son, and obviously, the incredible shows that happen there. I also love our neighborhood in Mid-City. I love going on long walks around there and to Lafayette Square. It’s so beautiful. There are so many places with a special, rich history. I think we’re in a new chapter of LA’s development, and the city is really having a moment.
EB: I was wondering if we could go back for a second and touch on your work at Walt Disney Imagineering. How do you think your experience there influenced Coolhaus?
NC: I believe design is very much about storytelling, and Disney is definitely full of master storytellers. People cherish these characters their whole lives. I learned a lot about brand and storytelling from Disney, and building something that’s truly epic.
I’d also say that I think architecture is a lot like entrepreneurship. As you build a business, there are walls you have to know how to work around. The business has to function. It has to be sound economically, and someone has to really want it. That’s true of being an entrepreneur and being an architect. As an architect, you’re building something that has to stand up, and hopefully people want to use the space. I think there’s a lot of overlap.
EB: Speaking of overlap, can we talk about the ice cream and architecture mash-up? Where do the names come from, and do you have any new architect-flavors in the works?
NC: The names were really about celebrating the architects and educating people about architecture in a fun way. I really believe that people want to learn more when it’s fun. No one wants to learn when it feels forced. Coming out of the recession when architecture was hit so hard, we hoped to continue making design more accessible, even in seemingly small ways.
Recently, we created a Campfire and S’mores flavor, 'Julia S'more-gan', after our hero, architect Julia Morgan. We also have Cara Mia Lehrer, made with two snickerdoodle cookies with salted caramel ice cream. It’s named after Mia Lehrer, who is an amazing Salvadorian-American landscape architect.
EB: Are there any architects that you look up to now, any favorites that you’re inspired by?
NC: It’s always a hard question. I really enjoyed the Provocations show at the Hammer about Heatherwick Studio. It was such a good show. There was such artistry, and the storytelling and process really resonated with me. They make beautiful creations with a lot of depth. In New York, we actually share an office with PRO Architects, and it’s awesome to follow their work. They created the Glossier flagship store in Soho, and it's a really beautiful space.
EB: Looking at architecture, increasingly graduates go on to explore different fields, which resonates with my own background. I’m wondering if you could talk about that and what architecture brings to other pursuits?
NC: I went into architecture knowing I was going to do something else. And I think it’s perfectly okay to have that way of thinking; architecture is such a broad training that can apply to many other things. You learn a set of tools, ways of communicating and thinking, and then you can use your skill set and apply it to a very different world.
EB: Are there fields outside architecture that inspire you?
NC: I think industries are increasingly looking at other disciplines. I enjoy looking at the communications side to see how people share their brand, sometimes as much as the product or idea itself. Right now we’re doing this awesome collaboration with K-Swiss to create a Coolhaus-inspired shoe. They’re featuring entrepreneurs in the same way other shoe companies feature athletes, and I think that’s pretty incredible.
EB: I’m wondering why you choose Culver City to create your headquarters for Coolhaus?
NC: It didn’t sound too far from anywhere! It’s very central, but also there’s a huge concentration of designers and architects. We also didn’t want to be part of a neighborhood that was already finished; we wanted to be part of bringing energy and creativity to another part of Los Angeles. We were one of the first businesses to make a move here, and it’s been great to see the city flourish as we’ve continue to grow.
EB: Is there anything about you that few people know, anything that lends itself to your work?
NC: I’m an avid golfer! We’re also on a basketball team; we’re very into sports. That energy and teamwork is part of our work.
EB: There’s definitely an energy around Coolhaus that naturally draws people to what you’re doing. You’re truly designing delight. Could you talk about that and what it means to you?
NC: I believe our work is to inspire joy. I think you do your best work when you’re having the most fun, when you truly love what you’re creating. That is very much a part of Coolhaus. I think part of it is transparency, that people feel connected and that they are part of something. It’s inspiring to share things that you feel good about, and I think that resonates with people. Our work is fun, and I hope it continues making people feel happy and fulfilled.