On a sultry Saturday afternoon, Yale Zhang, a healthcare entrepreneur, and Eileen Dise, a data scientist, stepped up to a first-floor window on a residential street in Ridgewood, Queens, New York, and ordered ice cream.
Zhang chose the waffle cone with two scoops: Pistachio and Cookies & Cream, and Dise had Lychee Sorbet in a wafer cone. They were served by Krysten Ortega, whose fierce red hair contrasted nicely with her white apron and cap. This was the second time the pair had traveled by subway to get ice cream on Woodward Avenue, nearly an hour from their Manhattan apartment.
“It’s really good!” Dise explained, reveling in the novelty of both the ice cream and the first summer weekend when New Yorkers could socialize unmasked, free from social distancing rules.
“I really like this neighborhood. It has so much diversity,” Zhang added. Then they hung around, chatting about the meditation app they’re working on with the entrepreneur who created the Ice Cream Window, Jan Wilker of KarlssonWilker Inc.
A few minutes later, Jack Jacinto, who manages musicians, stopped by on his way home from the gym. It was his first time at the Ice Cream Window, and he wasn’t disappointed. “It’s great!” he said of his Tahitian Vanilla with sprinkles, served by Wilker himself, in white apron, cap and gloves, and by Wilker’s wife Elizabeth Smolarz, an artist and curator, similarly uniformed.
Behind the window is the storefront shop where KarlssonWilker books, posters, apparel, and products get sold, and the studio where, on weekdays, half a dozen designers create groundbreaking work for clients including Bloomberg, Sotheby’s, Swatch, Vitra, and progressive-thinking museums around the world.
The title of KarlssonWilker’s 2003 monograph, which chronicles their first two years in business, is tellmewhy. Seeing the book there on a shelf brought up a logical question: What does ice cream have to do with graphic design?
“It’s all the same,” was Wilker’s answer. Pressed for further explanation, he said, “We care. We think.” He characterized the venture as another way to communicate with people and make them happy. In an earlier conversation, Hjalti Karlsson said, “It’s a different type of challenge, a different type of client service. One that’s immediately rewarding.” Vera Yuan, Karlsson’s wife and the studio’s executive director, added, “People like to get their ice cream right away.”
When you study their design work—as pictured and described in 15 Projects in 15 Minutes, the latest KarlssonWilker monograph—precise attention to every detail is as evident as their (oft-imitated) approach featuring angular geometric shapes and explosions, pointy protuberances, solid and swirling colors, black ruled boxes, and chunky sans-serif type.
The ice cream itself is from Lady MooMoo, the Bedford-Stuyvesant shop voted “Best Ice Cream” by Brooklynites in 2020. Even the colored sprinkles come under intense scrutiny and careful consideration—they’re sourced from Dingman’s Dairy, a Paterson, NJ, purveyor of confectionary supplies, and described by Smolarz as far superior to the usual varieties, “which are like plastic.”
And the branding? Why would a handwritten signboard and ICE CREAM WINDOW set in stacked yellow-ochre caps be good enough for the designers who developed the digital signage and wayfinding system at the New York Stock Exchange?
“The ice cream sells itself,” Wilker said. But standard flavors are not good enough for these designers, whose studio, in addition to the usual supplies and equipment, now stocks warehouse-size cartons of cups and cones. That Saturday’s selection of flavors included Guatemalan Expresso Coffee (spelled with an ‘x’ to signify its x-tra goodness), which I thoroughly enjoyed in a waffle cone. I also had the pleasure of tasting Lychee Sorbet (super refreshing), Speculoos (like a rich European cookie), Pistachio (more subtle than the typical artificially colored and flavored kind), Tahitian Vanilla (a whiff of exotic perfume in the familiar), and Cookies & Cream (nice textural contrast of smooth and crunchy). Coming soon, Yuan explained, are exclusive Ice Cream Window flavors currently being tested at Lady MooMoo: Skyr Icelandic Yogurt, Waldmeister Woodruff, and Vanilla Pumpkinseed Oil. “We’ll give away tastes and see if the neighborhood folks are that adventurous,” Karlsson noted. The designers must be x-tra confident, though, because rolls of ‘Ice Cream Window’ stickers for labeling take-home pints were waiting on a desk.
I wasn’t the only one who got to taste various flavors that day. Samples go to everyone who asks, and essential workers get free two-scoop cones. When two boys from the neighborhood, Mario and Ivan, pulled up on the sidewalk on their scooter and bike and asked for tastes, Wilker happily obliged. “How much is a cone?” the boys asked. “Four dollars for one scoop, two for each additional scoop.” “We don’t have any money. We’ll be back,” they said, taking off down the block. Ten minutes later, they were back, crumpled bills in hand.
Just in case a customer does have more money, the shop sells Karlssonwilker-designed knitted vests ($475), which honor the building’s history as one of the hundred knitting factories that once characterized the neighborhood, and sweatshirts, tees, jackets, posters, books and figurines, sold under the kwotus.com label and at wilkerkarlsson.com.
“We’re always in the studio,” Karlsson summed up. “It would be awfully cold not to engage with the community. It’s nice to chat with neighbors, and we want them to come back over and over again.” It looks
like they will. Last year was the designers’ first at this. On hot days there were long lines. This year they got better prepared, bought commercial freezers, and hired servers like Ortega. Although they admit that there’s still much to learn about the ice cream business, its success is imminent, especially now that everyone wants to be out and about. And it’s inspirational. I got a warm, fuzzy feeling when I saw Wilker and Smolarz beam with contentment at the two boys polishing off their cones.