Inside Upstairs, a High-Concept Listening Lounge from Public Records

The Brooklyn nightlife destination beloved for its exceptional sound systems and plant-based cuisine will soon open an “acoustic vessel” for cocktails and community gatherings inside a former guitar shop.

Upstairs, a new lounge from the co-founders of Public Records in Brooklyn.

In 2017, Francis Harris and Shane Davis, and then-partner Erik VanderWal, came to see a vast 19th-century brick warehouse in Gowanus. At one point, it had been an American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) building; later, a church organ restoration shop set up downstairs, while an upstairs office became home to the cult guitar repair and supplier Retrofit. Harris, a DJ and musician, ran a couple of well-regarded record labels, Scissor & Thread and Kingdoms, alongside the beverage program at SoHo’s underground sensation Pravda. Davis, meanwhile, headed the cultural collective Whitebox. They had been talking about building a new concept from scratch: an all-day/all-night creative hub that looked as good as it sounded. When they found the building, Davis later said, “It felt like it was meant to be.”

The mix of their various skills and experiences formed Public Records, which opened in 2019 to immediate acclaim for the selection of records in the front shop, the elegant minimalism of its custom furnishings and ample indoor vegetation, a bar program bubbling under a glass atrium (named one of America’s best bars in 2020), and an inventive plant-based menu served in the central restaurant. But the most impressive feature is the incredibly clear sound system in the hospitality zones and the space in the back, fittingly called the Sound Room, where guests are treated to live performances and DJ sets.

Francis Harris (left) and Shane Davis (right); the interior of Upstairs.

There, within perforated wood walls and a bar serving cocktails in reusable copper cups, beats the heart of Public Records: a Douglas fir box framing a contraption of vintage speakers and horns, and a custom-made rotary mixer, by fidelity genius Devon Turnbull of Ojas, who has built systems for Virgil Abloh and the Nine Orchard hotel. On the right night—say, with Octo Octa or Ron Trent on the decks, or Laaraji live onstage—Public Records has the best sonance in the city.

In 2023, the ante is upping again. When Retrofit moved locations, Davis and Harris leaped to take over the second-floor space and are now ready to unveil Upstairs, a gathering space for and by the Public Records community. With some acoustic help from Arup and interior design by DSLV Studio, the pair has reconceived the retail space into a lounge that functions as a speaker. Walls fur out to direct the soundwaves with intention, while also forming crisp angles for banquettes; those waves are also elegantly shaped by expanses of acoustic fabric panels that soften the ceiling. Davis designed the low plywood-and-steel lounge chairs, and the columnar chrome tables, with Red Hook’s Joe Cauvel. The sharp metal lighting marking the entrance is by Cristian Andersen, as are the monumental black ceramic stools topped with foam.

Cocktails from Upstairs.

“We’re interested in utilizing design to create new typologies or ‘other spaces’ through iterative and collaborative processes,” says Davis. “This framework provides us with opportunities to explore our ideas, and showcase those of our collaborators on various scales, whether it be a sound system, a chair, an event series, or a cocktail.”

The main attraction, of course, is the sound, and for Upstairs, Turnbull has outdone himself yet again, embedding subwoofer speaker cabinets directly into the walls to transform the entire envelope into what they call an “acoustic vessel.” A nearby coffee table sets up a pair of decks for DJs, which feeds into a slick stack of custom tube amplifiers—as does the reel-to-reel tape deck, which can record live sets or broadcast archival recordings. On a cold December night, over a pair of exceptional cocktails (014, a warming blend of Japanese whisky and black sugar with bitters, and another slightly saline and dangerous take on gin martini), Upstairs felt like the place to be and gives Brooklyn denizens and beyond even more reason to make the trip to the industrial waterfront neighborhood.

It’s easy to find a record bar in Brooklyn these days, but nobody blends form and function like the Public Records experts.

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