My Stay At The Lisa Frank Flat Was All Rainbows, Unicorns And... Controversy
Back in the 1980s and '90s, before every multi-colored foodstuff was a "unicorn," the queen of rainbows and hearts and magical animals was Lisa Frank.
Her aggressively colorful designs adorned the clothes, stickers, pencils and Trapper Keepers of pre-teen girls everywhere. In this whimsical universe, a panda could be a painter, a bunny might be a ballerina, cats sometimes wore jewelry and leopards had rainbow spots. Then there were the unicorns, their rainbow manes flying as they galloped into children's hearts.
Combine an aesthetic that was readymade for Instagram with our current adoration for all things '90s, it was only a matter of time before Lisa Frank got a pop-up.
In early October, Hotels.com announced they had partnered with the designer to create the Lisa Frank Flat. For two weeks (October 11 to 27), guests would be able to book a night in a downtown L.A. loft tricked out to look like a Technicolor wonderland. As soon as the news hit, fans went gaga sharing images of the space. Like most of them, I was curious and psyched.
I'm not into most pop-up "museums," with their overpriced entry fees and manufactured whimsy and germ-riddled pools of sprinkles. But this one was different -- immersive and genuinely nostalgic. Besides, if anyone needs to get in touch with their inner child, it's grown-ups. This summer, instead of going to camp or taking a vacation with my family, I joined the board of my homeowners association and got my first colonoscopy. Fun, right? Frank's eye-popping rainbow maximalism seemed like the perfect antidote to my so called adult life.
Lest you think the coveted bookings for the Lisa Frank Flat went only to press and influencers, I secured a reservation on my own -- and the process was far from magical.
The reservations were set to open on Friday, Oct. 11 but, despite pleas from fans, none of the promoters gave an exact time. I scoured social media and saw that Barsala, the short-term rental company also involved with the flat, had posted in an Instagram story that bookings would be available sometime after 3 a.m. Pacific Time. Like a kid waiting for Santa, I pulled an all-nighter. But when the magic hour arrived, I found myself staring at my screen and endlessly hitting refresh.
Barsala posted that the site was glitching and taking only two-night reservations but I still couldn't book one of those. The company finally messaged me to say the error had been fixed and a few single nights were still left. Like a rainbow-spotted leopard, I pounced and at 5:20 a.m. I finally made a reservation. I was one of the lucky few. The two-week pop-up sold out in about an hour.
I paid for the room -- $199 plus $133.65 taxes and fees (ouch!) -- and since LAist couldn't reimburse me, I reached out to Hotels.com to see if they'd cover the cost. After all, this was for the glory of journalism. They obliged.
I was all set to write an essay waxing nostalgic about my night among the unicorns and multi-colored wildlife. Then I checked Instagram to see how the first few guests were enjoying themselves. It wasn't all sunshine and lollipops.
Studio Mucci Controversy
The online kerfuffle started Oct. 12, four days after the flat debuted on social media, when popular L.A.-based designer Amina Mucciolo of Studio Mucci put up an Instagram post claiming the concept for the Lisa Frank Flat was stolen from her colorful downtown L.A. loft -- she calls it Cloudland -- and that she was being evicted as a result. Her claims went viral and scores of people attacked Hotels.com and Lisa Frank on their respective social media accounts.
There's a lot to unpack, so let's take a trip down the rainbow rabbit hole.
Inspired by spring, nature, Care Bears, My Little Pony and, yes, Lisa Frank, Mucciolo decorated her pad in 2017. Since then, Cloudland, which she shares with her husband and business partner, Salvatore, and their two dogs, has been featured on TV shows, magazines and websites. It was dubbed "the most colorful apartment in the world" by Apartment Therapy. Online, Studio Mucci has amassed more than 259,000 Instagram followers and gotten love from Lisa Frank's Instagram account.
In early October, Studio Mucci followers began tagging Mucciolo in posts about the Lisa Frank Flat, saying it looked like her place and asking if she designed it.
Mucciolo says she noticed similarities between the two spaces: color block kitchen cabinets, toys in empty spaces, quirky gallery walls, a hot pink armchair and a white cafe table with a neon pink chair.
"I went from being confused to shocked to extremely upset," Mucciolo told LAist. "It's the worst nightmare of any creative person, especially in this era, where you're sharing your work in good faith."
While both kitchens boast the same concept, they're hardly the only ones. A quick search of "rainbow kitchen" on Google or #rainbowkitchen on Instagram reveals several similar kitchens with rainbow color schemes. Gallery walls, with groups of framed art or photos, are even more common, as anyone familiar with interior design trends can confirm. Mucciolo says the Lisa Frank Flat has a similar shape and concept as hers, even down to wall-mounted photos of a bearded man. Cloudland's wall features Mucciolo's husband, while the Lisa Frank Flat has Captain Obvious, Hotel.com's fictional spokesperson.
"I noticed how similar the appointments in the actual space were, the floor and the layout," Mucciolo told LAist on the phone. "It looked so similar to my home and so familiar."
When she was invited to an influencer preview, she found out why: The Lisa Frank Flat was located in the Maxfield Lofts, across the street from her apartment in the Garment Lofts. Both buildings are owned by the same company, Capital Foresight Development. Mucciolo didn't attend the press event.
"All of this was just too many coincidences for us to handle," Mucciolo said. "That's how we ended up talking about it."
Mucciolo doubled down on the claims of creative plagiarization: "I don't know whose idea it was to rip me off but they're all culpable in my opinion."
Hotels.com denies the allegations. "The design of the space includes popular décor and styles that are trending today," a company spokesperson told LAist.
The company also sent LAist this statement:
"This room was inspired solely by Lisa Frank and designed in partnership with Lisa Frank using iconic elements of her work from the '80s and '90s. The flat is being hosted in an existing short-term rental property and is not located in the same building. Suggestions that our design was based on anything other than Lisa Frank and her artwork are simply not true."
"I think just having me in this space is a problem for them, especially given that it's the thing I'm most known for," Mucciolo said. "I'm a very vulnerable person. I'm black. I have been very open about my mental heath and that I'm autistic and I'm queer. I think they see me as someone they can easily steal from and roll over because I don't have the same resources that they have."
So What Does All Of This Have To Do With Mucciolo's Eviction?
On October 12, Mucciolo posted a YouTube video titled "I'm being evicted because of the Lisa Frank hotel." In it, she claimed her landlord was trying to evict her "so that they can capitalize on my idea and recreate it with Lisa Frank and Hotels.com. Maybe they're trying to protect themselves in some way by making sure they have the only space like this."
But Mucciolo didn't reveal in that video, or in her initial Instagram post, or on the GoFundMe campaign that she and her husband launched the same day to pay for legal fees and moving expenses, that they had been late with rent in August and in previous months. Mucciolo mentioned it in later posts, the comments section of the first video and in a second video. She also told LAist directly.
Mucciolo explained that when she and her husband had previously been late with rent, the building's management offered them a grace period and said as long as the rent wasn't too late, they would accept it. But she has no proof of this arrangement. "All of these things were done verbally. Every time we tried to say, 'Let's email about this,' they'd show up at our door to answer an email," she told LAist.
Mucciolo claims that when she and her husband tried to pay their late rent for August, the management company refused to accept the money and told her the building's owner wanted her out.
"We begged and pleaded and they said, 'If you make this hard, if you try to fight it we're going to make it hard or impossible for you to rent another place in L.A., but if you surrender the keys we will go easy on you,'" Mucciolo said.
California law requires landlords to give tenants at least three days to pay the late rent or to move. When a tenant does neither, the landlord can file for eviction. If the Mucciolos did have an agreement with the building's management regarding late rent payments, the case may be more complicated. But LAist wasn't able to get full details from either party. Two years prior, in 2017, the Mucciolos were involved in an eviction action at the same address, according to L.A. County Superior Court documents, but none of the involved parties would tell LAist more about the situation.
Regarding the 2019 eviction claim, Hotels.com says it didn't lobby the Mucciolos' landlord to evict them or anyone. A statement they gave to LAist reads: "No tenant was asked to move or leave their home for this project."
Either way, it appears the Mucciolos have reached a settlement with their landlord, Capital Foresight, which owns both the Garment and Maxfield Lofts. Capital Foresight never made their media relations person available to speak to LAist. A spokesperson from Cannon Management, the company that manages both the Garment and the Maxfield Lofts, told LAist that all matters regarding the situation are confidential.
On October 29, the day after legal proceedings regarding the eviction were scheduled, the Mucciolos emailed LAist a statement that read, in part:
"Our issue with the landlord has been settled and at our landlord's request is now confidential, and we will be moving. We are currently exploring our legal options regarding the intellectual property matter. And most importantly, we will continue to make art and add as much color, love and positivity to the world that we can."
Frank Flat Fallout
While the Mucciolos' eviction drama appears to be resolved, social media controversy lives forever.
Some fans who posted photos from the press preview of the Lisa Frank Flat were bombarded with angry comments from Studio Mucci supporters and took down their images as a result.
"It got so bad that people were accusing me of having something to do with her eviction," an entertainment writer who goes by Roxy Tart on Instagram told LAist. "After reading her posts and watching her video, I canceled [my stay] because I didn't want to financially support companies who would treat someone like that. And I also didn't want to deal with the toxic backlash that would come my way if I did choose to stay there."
Mucciolo, for her part, says, "I'm about bringing love into the world so I have no interest in anyone else being hurt from this awful situation. I never asked that of anyone."
Somewhere Over The Rainbow
As my reservation for the Lisa Frank Flat drew near, I felt conflicted. I was perturbed by Studio Mucci's allegations and frustrated I couldn't get answers. But I was also excited about visiting the fantastical '90s rainbow fantasyland.
So what do you pack for a night of sparkling, rainbow-tinged nostalgia? Butterfly clips, slap bracelets, a mini troll doll, a '90s version of Uno, DVDs of Clueless and Daria, fluffy marabou pens, a Lisa Frank pencil case and notebook, unicorn horns and dollar store glow sticks. Pretty much the same thing I'd pack for a rave or a writer's retreat.
Decked out in my Lisa Frank finery -- a tank top emblazoned with the rainbow Pegasus character Skye, a unicorn necklace I bought at Wet Seal before they shuttered their mall stores and a choker I found decades ago on Melrose Avenue -- I showed up at the penthouse apartment on a Thursday afternoon.
Although I'd seen tons of photos online, nothing prepared me for the experience of being there. As I stepped across the rainbow welcome mat into the Lisa Frank Flat, I felt like Dorothy entering Oz. A rainbow shimmered on the wall behind a twinkling canopy bed covered in dreamy unicorn bedding. Rainbow curtains flanked a rainbow window that lit up the room. Throw pillows with Lisa Frank characters and designs accented every square inch of space. One wall featured animal masks and framed images of Lisa Frank creatures.
My friend Melissa and I ooh'd and aah'd as the Barsala representative explained what we could and couldn't keep. We could have all the Gushers and sticks of Fruit Stripes gum we wanted. We could also take the hot pink bathrobe, slippers, eye mask, toiletries and notepads. But we had to leave the stationary, stickers, pencils, coloring books and folder sitting on the small desk. They were "limited edition or something," according to the Barsala rep. I've bought similar, maybe even the same, stuff at Dollar Tree but maybe some of it was rare. Whatevs.
When Melissa turned on the shower in the "dancing dolphins" bathroom, complete with a dolphin toilet paper-holder, the showerhead twinkled with multi-colored lights.
Rainbow stuffed animals rested on the shelves of the rainbow kitchen. One cabinet hid a neon rainbow. Fake rainbow roses sat in a vase of layered rainbow sand, a popular craft from my youth. Even the silverware and cups were iridescent.
Remember the Time
Since our stay was short, we wanted to spend as much time in the room as possible. (You check in at 5 p.m. and check out by 11 a.m. although I pushed it to noon.) We left the flat only once, to check out the rooftop view, which was stellar. We'd hoped to relax in the rooftop hot tub but we had a pretty full flashback itinerary.
I had '90s playlists ready to go from my 33rd birthday party (and everyday life) so I started us off with Spacehog's "In the Meantime."
I put on furry neon rainbow ears and we ate our dairy-free, gluten-free mac and cheese and veggie nuggets in front of the TV. There was no DVD player so we streamed old episodes of Family Matters and Step by Step, and I tried to recreate the "Urkel dance."
Then we did what any self-respecting Lisa Frank fan would do in this space. We took tons of pictures. And we did it while listening to Britney, Spice Girls, Ace of Base, Coolio, Hanson, TLC, Destiny's Child, Ricky Martin, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (hooray for the '90s ska revival) and Limp Bizkit. We did it all for the... nevermind.
Between snapping photos, flipping through Teen and Seventeen magazines, trying to see hidden Magic Eye images and talking about our crushes (aka our significant others), we realized it was 2 a.m. After winding down with Enya (sorry not sorry) and Smashing Pumpkins' "Cupid de Locke," which I used to listen to every night as I dozed off under my glow-in-the-dark star-covered ceiling, we finally went to bed around 3 a.m.
We awoke to a quick breakfast of pumpkin muffins, put on our hot pink robes and took a few last snapshots before packing up and checking out.
Returning to the cement jungle below was sobering but as I walked to the car in my furry rainbow leg warmers, I felt at home among the Fashion District storefronts displaying their sparkly, multi-colored fabrics.
Always Be Branding
Paging Captain Obvious: Hotels.com's branding was heavy-handed and one of the drawbacks of the experience. Of course the company wanted photos of the space to bombard social media and serve as free advertising but the lighthearted mood dies a bit when you look at a wall of ballerina bunnies interrupted by a huge corporate logo, even a rainbow one.
There were also a couple areas -- the white couch, a couple of white or grey walls -- that could've used a boost. Maybe the designers wanted to give people's eyes a break.
Also, parking wasn't provided but thankfully, we scored a space across the street.
Considering the short stay and the cost, especially with all the taxes and fees, it's a splurge. But controversy and corporate branding aside, I loved my visit to the Lisa Frank Flat and I wish it could have lasted longer.
Part of me longs for the 1990s, an era when people spent more time experiencing the moment than they did photographing it. Then again, the Lisa Frank Flat was a rare opportunity that demanded to be documented. If it had existed when I was a teenager, my friends and I would've taken loads of awkwardly posed photos as we pretended to be dELiA*s catalog models. My time in the Lisa Frank multiverse was so brief and the apartment so otherworldly that without photographic proof it had happened, it would seem like a dream. Whether that's Mariah Carey's "Fantasy" or the Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" depends on who you ask.