Corinna & Theresa Williams Founders, Celsious

INTERVIEW Althea Simons

PHOTOGRAPHS Sasha Turrentine

“I started playing around with this idea in my head: what if I were to open a nice, clean, friendly, welcoming laundromat where people could hang out, have a cup of coffee, bring a laptop and work?” – Corinna Williams, Celsious

Corinna and Theresa Williams are the warm, welcoming, workaholic sisters behind Celsious, the modern, (eco)friendly laundromat in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Celsious is the kind of place where one wants to spend an entire afternoon (Althea should know; she does it all the time), which is not the kind of thing one normally says about a laundromat. Althea talked with the Williams sisters about their personal history and how they came to create Celsious. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Althea:Corinna, Celsious was originally your idea. How did you come up with it?

Corinna:The idea was born when I moved to New York 6 years ago. It was October 2012, a few days before hurricane Sandy. I moved for a job; I was working for a German publishing house at the time that had a joint venture with Hearst. I started out at as an editor for German Elle Magazine, and the publishing house decided to launch Harper's Bazaar, so I came to New York as the U.S editor-at-large.

I moved in with, now a good friend, but at the time a friend-of-a-friend who also was in publishing. We were on the Upper East Side, and I remember one of the first things my new roommate told me was not to get any white towels or sheets or t-shirts, ever, because I would never be able to keep them white. I was like wait, what are you talking about? She was like, you'll see, you'll be here for one to two weeks and then try doing your laundry at the laundromat on the corner and see what happens.

When I went to the laundromat for the first time, I started to understand what she meant. Things would come back with stains that weren't there before, and I was struggling to keep my whites white. And going to the laundromat was just a bad experience; there was no seating, no air conditioning, the machines were old, there was a TV blaring, it was dirty, all the worst things.

I started thinking, there has to be something better- this is a massive city. Everywhere I went, I would peek into laundromats. I started realizing that they're pretty much all the same, so that's when I started playing around with this idea in my head: what if I were to open a nice, clean, friendly, welcoming laundromat where people could hang out, have a cup of coffee, bring a laptop and work?

That was almost 6 years ago, and obviously I had no clue how to do it or where to start. I was researching concept laundromats around the U.S. and all over the world. I started writing to some of the laundromat owners, and some of them wrote me back. I discovered one in Portland, Oregon that was a laundromat-cafe, and the owner - who also happens to be a young woman, kind of my age- she wrote me back and referred me to her consultant [Lisa White of Absolute Laundry Systems], whom I then cold-emailed. Fast-forward, we ended up working with [Lisa] to bring Celsious to life.

A:At what point did Theresa come on board?

C:She was living in London and was ready for a change, so it was more a decision for her to join me in New York. I had already developed this idea, and I wasn't a hundred percent sure but I felt that I wanted to pursue it. We always knew that if we were to do something it would be the two of us together.

A:Theresa, you are the design mastermind behind this beautiful space. Tell me about your design and aesthetic influences.

Theresa:We wanted to take everything that you would expect a laundromat to look like and turn it on its head. Even before we got the location we knew that we were looking for something really bright and airy, lots of natural light and definitely higher ceilings than your average laundromat. When it came to the build-out, we wanted it to be really clean and fresh, but without being too sterile. I feel like that's a really easy mistake to make, going for that sort of over overly-polished, kind of Apple Store aesthetic with glossy white surfaces and, especially for a laundromat, just go for blues and water and that kind of look.

We wanted it to feel almost home-y, and friendly and inviting and comfortable, and that's why we opted for warmer tones. We do have a lot of white but it's more of an off-white, a warm white versus a bright white. We deliberately threw in a ton of yellows and other warm colors, natural materials as well: some wood, a ton of natural stone that was all repurposed, and a lot of plants so people would feel calm and at peace in the space.

Corinna carries a bag of laundry

In addition to DIY laundry, Celsious offers their signature garment care featuring expert stain removal and thoughtful folding.

A:You trained as a product designer at Central St Martin's. How did that come in handy with this project?

T:The course I did was very hands-on. We were in the woodworking shops, the metal workshops, the entire time, having to make our own models, etc., so just knowing how to use power tools and heavier equipment was very, very valuable when it came to the build out. We did end up having to do a lot of it ourselves after our General Contractor sort of skipped out towards the end. And creating the repurposed pieces is just easier to do yourself than trying to explain to somebody else how you want it done. Also in terms of branding and understanding our customer, user-centered design, design thinking, all of that naturally helped us create something that people truly needed.

A:Let’s talk about the repurposed materials a little bit, because it's funny to hear you guys talk about how you got all of that stuff. Tell me the cork story.

C:I was really skeptical.

T: Initially everyone hated the cork. When we first got this space, there was a mezzanine. We still have our cafe on the mezzanine, but it's a brand new mezzanine because the one that was here wasn't structurally sound. There was this kind of wacky, unique marble-patterned cork flooring. When we tore the original mezzanine down, I was like let's just rip this out one piece at a time and see if we can salvage it.

So we literally had this stack of cork flooring in the basement and ended up having to move it from room to room while there was construction going on in the basement. I was like I don't know yet where it's going to go, but I think we should save it for something, and everyone was like it's super ugly, it's super weirdly retro. We were almost finished [with the build out], we were painting, and we were trying to find a color for that spot above our dryers where the plants are. We even had color swatches up, we tried yellows, we tried coral and everything looked kind of too much...

C:It looked so bad.

T:...but also too flat. And we were like do we do a mural, we have no time, we have no money, this is crazy, and I was like you know what? Actually, I think I had had the cork in mind for that spot, possibly for a while, but I think I was too scared to mention it because I knew everyone hated it so much. But I was like let's do the cork wall, so we ended up doing it and especially from further away you can't really tell what it is - is it some kind of natural stone? I feel it looks like a carmel-color travertine, I love it.

C:It was the right decision

T:It was worth saving. And we used all of it, we almost didn't have enough, so everything that was salvageable is on that wall.

A:It was meant to be. It does look from afar like it's got a grain of some sort, and it's funny, it's hard try and imagine the space without it now that it's in there. Trying to imagine that paint color I'm like no, the cork just feels so right.

T:It's kind of crazy, it's one of my favorite things in the space, if not my favorite.

A:And I understand that you are a bit of a Craigslist aficionado.

T:I found a ton of amazing stuff on Craigslist, all our chairs and benches on the mezzanine are from Kenneth Cole when the boutiques closed down. I found a ton of natural stone on Craigslist; Craigslist is perfect for that, you can get off-cuts and scraps for cheap or even free. The crazy thing is always that you need to transport everything yourself. Transporting big pieces of marble is not that easy, and every single time we found it it happened to be one the hottest days of the year. I love natural stone, so we started collecting it over a year before we actually opened, even before we had started the build-out. So, again, we were moving a lot of heavy things around in the space. Everyone hated me.

Corinna folds spa towels

Celsious serves local community businesses, including hotels and spas.

A:Tell me about the laundry expert you worked with, Lisa White of Absolute Laundry Systems. What advice did she give you?

C:So many, many things. We were in constant touch with Lisa. She was consulting on all things laundry because we had no clue how to run an actual laundromat, so that was the first piece of advice. It wasn't really advice, it was hard know-how: how many machines, what kind of machines, what needs to happen behind the machines, the mechanical and engineering details...

A:Basically what kind of space you need, right? Because that's the first piece?

C:Exactly. The first spot we were seriously considering was in Greenpoint and that was February, it was Super Bowl Sunday. I remember we saw it and we were like okay, this space is incredible, we need to put in a letter of intent.

It was literally during the Super Bowl and Lisa's family is really into football, her sons are football players, so they were basically heading to a bar [to watch the game] and she said okay, I'll do this for you. We sent her all the information and she spent the entire duration of the Super Bowl helping us get this letter of intent ready. In the end we didn't get the space, but that was kind of the first practice round.

The space [where we ended up] was one we saw early on and we probably saw a hundred spaces, definitely fifty plus. We just stumbled upon this one- we weren't really looking in Williamsburg at all because the rents were so high at the time- but Theresa found it online and we just loved the look of it.

We went in for viewing and we loved it. Even though it was a weird commercial space- it was a hair salon before called The Beehive Salon, and there were bees on the walls and all sorts of crazy candy-colored things- but you could feel there were good vibes. It felt good. Sometimes you walk into a space and it just feels wrong...

A:I totally know what you mean, vibes are important.

C:...and this felt really right. But the asking rent was too high, so we ended up negotiating with the landlord. He didn't want to give it to us, but he really liked our concept and he couldn't find other tenants that weren't hospitality - he didn't want a bar or a restaurant. He came back to us after, I think, three months. We had kind of written it off at the time, and he came back to us and was ready to make a deal. This was something that Lisa really coached us on; she was instrumental in helping us negotiate the lease and the terms of our contract.

The laundromat

Celsious offers the highest quality, most energy-efficient self-service wash and dry. They also host community events and art exhibits, like this one by local painter Kristin Texeira.

A:I want to talk about your mom, because our moms are similar in that they were both early adopters of the organic lifestyle, which is where our inclinations toward sustainability come from. So tell me a little bit about your upbringing in Germany.

T:We grew up in a really small...we'll call it a village. There's two thousand people, two churches, two butchers, a primary school, a lot of farms, and that's really it.

C:One, well there used to be two pubs. Our grandparents had one- our grandparents were farmers. They had cows and a pub.

A:Because those two things always go together.

C:They also had pigs and chickens and stuff, it was fun.

A:I still can't believe you guys grew up on a farm; you're so cosmopolitan.

C:Literally riding around on tractors with our grandpa. One of our aunts took over the farm in the early 90s and turned it into an organic farm. It was one of the first organic farms in the region, and that's how we grew up. Even before they turned the farm organic, our mom and our aunts were shopping at the first organic food stores.

T:In fact, they started getting interested in these things because of the chemical usage that they saw with conventional farming. Especially back when there were fewer regulations, farmers would get cancer. They had all this crazy stuff that they were spraying.

C:For the sort of wholesome lifestyle that you imagine, it was actually very toxic. So that was definitely one of the reasons why they became interested in these things. Our parents built our house from scratch, and they built a completely toxin-free house.

T:Which, when we were teenagers, we were like why is everything here so granola?

C:Like we had a cork floor; it was so ugly.

A:No wonder you hated the cork!

C:That was probably my PTSD.

T:But they built the house, it was brick construction, the roof insulation was coconut straw, nothing was toxic, the paint was all no-VOC, just crazy stuff that our mom managed to find without the internet, with two little kids, in a village. She did it for us; she was like I can't have my kids in a toxic house, so I think that was her main driver. She just got really obsessed.

A:And you guys obviously picked up on that, and now your mom is like why are you so obsessed?

C:It came from somewhere!

A:I loved it, she was here the other night, and she always complains about how you two never leave [the laundromat], and she's the same way.

C:Maybe even worse.

A:She was like Oh, I'm going to leave, and she goes back downstairs and she comes back up with a bag of laundry! Like mother, like daughters.

T:Maybe it's a little naive how we approached [sustainability] for the business because for us it was never a question that we would make it as sustainable as possible.

C:We wrote a business plan and we said we were going to be eco-friendly, but it wasn't this whole section of the plan, like "this is our second pillar!"

A:It's how you approach everything.

C:That's how we were raised; it's the way we live our lives.

T:It's a little naive because obviously it's highly marketable right now.

C:We happened to hit the market at a good time, when people are interested in many of the things we're doing.

T:It's also the conversations we love to have with customers, be it in the cafe or downstairs, with the products they use, from what they put on their clothes to what they put in their mouths, and people are interested.

A:And you always knew you wanted to be entrepreneurs?

T:At the end of the day we're both workaholics. We spend ridiculous amounts of time, even in school where everyone else was like you don't need to get an A on this test, whatever, let's just go out.

C:We had fun, but it was never "whatever." That's who we are.

T:Even when we were working for somebody else, there was no way that I could not give a hundred percent or more. I can't stop myself. So we knew that at some point we had to do our own thing because we would never be able to draw a line. I'm never going to be like, Oh, I'm just going to go home now because this is not my business. We could never do that. So I knew that at some point if I didn't want to destroy myself for somebody else, I would have to destroy myself for myself.

Theresa adds detergent

Celsious offers free detergent with every wash. The detergent is completely natural and made with just three ingredients.

Theresa in the Café

The Clean Café is an organic extension of the Celsious laundry floor – offering lovingly sourced, local and delicious drinks and snacks.

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