Culture Conduits

When AAA executives wanted to reach out to twenty-somethings, they came to Monsoon Microstudios, in a desolate stretch of North Philadelphia, where they perched on green vinyl stools around a plywood conference table held up by oil drums. Were their hosts embarrassed? Far from it. The recycled furnishings and downscale location are part of what they stand for.

Monsoon is the for-profit arm of a non-profit arts collective known as The Hut, which sprang up from a church and warehouse complex bought in 1995 by architect Charles Szoradi, GAr’93, and two Philadelphia artists. They bought the 34,000-square-foot space for $100,000, hoping to spark a cultural and economic rebirth in the economically-distressed neighborhood. Since then, Szoradi and two other Penn alumni, Taheem “Tyme” Gadson, C’93, vice president and studio chief, and Ronnie Norpel,W’84, marketing director, have meshed their talents to put Monsoon, a multimedia microstudio, into high gear. “It’s a pretty great team,” says Szoradi, president and art director. They are aided by a support group of designers.

To Gadson, a veteran of MTV in Manhattan, Monsoon’s location at Eighth Street and Girard Avenue — part of an urban empowerment zone — is symbolic. “I think Charlie, as well as I, use Philadelphia as our escape from the society of New York to actually get the work done.” He likens their venture to that of the pioneers of film, who “escaped New Jersey to go off to the desert of California” that became Hollywood.

From this North Philadelphia “desert,” they see themselves as a culture conduit for the sixteen-to-thirty-six set. The “Millennium Generation,” as Norpel dubs their target group, is one “weaned on MTV, quick cuts, and insipid sitcoms. They’re starved for visually stimulating, yet relevant, content.” In addition to providing video-production, graphic-design, and multimedia services to businesses and organizations, Monsoon produces its own cable television show, Ooze. The magazine-style program serves up cutting-edge music, art, fashion, and short films. Because of The Hut’s location in an empowerment zone, the group also hopes to turn it into a job-training ground for local residents and is applying for some of the federal funds set aside for the area.

The Hut’s reputation quickly spread through its hosting of parties with attention-getting themes, such as Trash and Fashion. Szoradi says those events encouraged “some of the most talented people in the city” to do some creative “cross-pollination.” Philadelphia authorities blocked more parties until the century-old building is brought up to modern codes, though they are expected to resume this spring.

For Gadson, who once had his sights on becoming a banker, it was a Cannes Film Festival seminar his junior year at Penn that “took me out of the financial world and opened my eyes to the possibilities of storytelling.” After graduation, he traveled across the country to make a film, and his partner in the project was a friend of Szoradi’s. He later wrote for MTV, and then worked on film projects that included an interview with death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal and Behind the Scenes with Beavis and Butt-Head. In October 1995, Gadson returned to the Philadelphia area, where he met Szoradi again; the two soon became business partners. Gadson believes the ideas concocted at Monsoon are more innovative than those produced in the “antiseptic,” corporate atmosphere of MTV. “They’re simply not there to represent this generation; they’re more there to rip this generation off. We’re on the edge.”

Raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, Norpel said she wasn’t exposed to art or culture until she began working in New York. There she met Gerard Malanga, Andy Warhol’s Factory manager from the mid- to late-sixties, and co-curated the first comprehensive show of Warhol’s art after his death. Norpel took her earnings to Hollywood, where she acted, worked as a rock-and-roll dancer at the China Club, and held a full-time job. She met Szoradi about a year ago when she returned to Philadelphia. They exchanged cards, and in January Norpel joined Monsoon.

In the Monsoon office, amid such “found object art” as faux marble columns transformed from metal filing cabinets, sits about $40,000 in computer equipment. “There’s a little bit of David and Goliath,” says Szoradi, “but David has got this laptop…” Monsoon edged out New York design firms, for instance, when it was chosen to help shape corporate identity for Chef Georges Perrier’s new restaurant, Brasserie Perrier. PNC Bank requested an overnight design job for its computer software when a major telecommunications company couldn’t figure out what to do. And AAA chose Monsoon for initial art direction to market financial services to twenty- and thirty-somethings. The meeting took place around the plywood conference table. “What’s fun about the table is that balance of the more sensuous tactility of the art world with the nuts and bolts of the corporate requirements,” says Szoradi. “We’ve found that somehow.”

By Susan Lonkevich

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