Inside the New SoWa Art + Design Center in the South End

The 500 Harrison Avenue complex has emerged as a hub of Boston’s design district.

With exposed rafters and pipes, there’s an industrial appeal to LDa Architecture & Interiors’ new space at 500 Harrison, a building that was originally constructed in 1899. / Photo by Jessica Delaney

Boston’s SoWa district is known for the scores of artist studios and galleries that fill its former factories, not to mention weekly markets that draw throngs of shoppers and a fleet of food trucks. But it has recently welcomed a bevy of new showrooms, design studios, and architecture firms, too. Many have moved into 500 Harrison Avenue, a building that’s undergone significant renovations since suffering damage from a 2020 water-main break. Now, developer GTI Properties has rebranded the complex as the SoWa Art + Design Center, and—thanks in part to side effects of the biotech boom in the Seaport and Cambridge—this stretch of the South End is starting to feel like the hub of the city’s design community.

The newcomers include interior designer Charles Spada, who’d spent 25 years at the Boston Design Center in the Seaport. When new owners began consolidating showroom space to draw lab tenants to the upper floors, he decided against signing a new lease, instead moving his trove of antiques, wallcoverings, and other furnishings to 500 Harrison. “It’s become an area packed with interior design offices, so you’ve got a ready-made audience,” says Spada, who unveiled his showroom in February 2022. “The potential for creating a new design center here is very real, and I’m glad to be an early part of it.”

LDa’s new studio has ample areas for staff to converge for collaboration, as well as private meeting spaces and offices. / Photo by Jessica Delaney

Another recent arrival, LDa Architecture & Interiors, opened its office at 500 Harrison in June 2022 after outgrowing its longtime location in Kendall Square. “There has always been a deep tradition of architecture firms in Cambridge surrounding MIT and Harvard, but as Kendall grew into a biotech center, we felt like it was time for a change,” says LDa principal John Day. “Miami, L.A., and New York all have great design neighborhoods. We felt SoWa is well on its way.” LDa’s principals hoped the vibrant setting would prove a draw for both clients and staff as the pandemic eased—a plan that’s panned out so far. “We get to bump into or find time to see colleagues, trade partners, and collaborators more regularly and organically,” Day says. “Many clients use a trip to the office as a good reason to stay in the city, have dinner or drinks, and enjoy the South End. Being able to walk to showrooms and galleries is fantastic, and the market days and special events have been a nice opportunity for our team to get together.”

Zhanna Drogobetsky’s Casa Design Group, a SoWa mainstay, features contemporary indoor and outdoor furniture, lighting, and accents by European brands. / Photo by Jessica Delaney

The influx has delighted Zhanna Drogobetsky, owner of Casa Design Group, who opened her first SoWa furniture showroom in 2008 and recently expanded into her eighth space. “I came into the neighborhood really early on when Mario [Nicosia], our landlord at GTI Properties, was just developing it for artists and gallery owners,” Drogobetsky says. “Now, with the Design Center being smaller, we’ve been able to get a lot of people to move here and create a design district.” Drogobetsky notes that the density of showrooms, boutiques, and design pros not only makes it easy for clients to renovate or furnish an entire home; it also provides businesses opportunities for collaboration. She’s enjoyed a long partnership with Susan Lanoue of Lanoue Gallery, who curates the art on display in Casa Design Group’s showrooms. And she’s teaming up with two new neighbors, the audio brand Bang & Olufsen and cabinetry maker Christopher Peacock, to launch an event series called Casa Experiences, featuring showroom tours with chef-prepared bites and pours from Brix Wine Shop across the street. Such connections speak to the unique energy and character of the neighborhood, Drogobetsky says. “This artist- and design-based community—Boston doesn’t have it anywhere else.”

First published in the print edition of Boston Home’s Spring 2023 issue, with the headline, “Brick & Mortar: By Design.”