Mercury Rising


The style gurus behind Mercury Design Studio open up about their creativity, their insight on beauty and their remarkable life as a couple

Steve Shuck

Steve Shuck is not afraid to admit that he loves surrounding himself with beautiful things. It’s something he has done his whole life. As a child, Shuck’s mother and grandmother were always working on some sort of creative project- constructing elaborate stained-glass pieces, dreaming up endless needlepoint projects – and it didn’t hurt that the elder ladies in Shuck’s life had a real flair for design.

Steve Shuck Bobby Johns“My mother and grandmother both had exquisite taste. They were probably my biggest design influence,” says Shuck, owner of the wildly popular and eclectically charming Mercury Design Studio, located in Austin’s enterprising 2nd Street District.

But, Shuck admits, his design aesthetic is influenced by so much more: the vibrant color of organic, earthy elements; the slickness of old Hollywood style; the crisp characteristics of modern furniture pieces; and the vintage quality of beautifully worn objects. He jokes that the layout of his shop was driven by his need to manage his schizophrenic design style, his desire, his desire to display the many mementos he loves.

That’s why Mercury is arranged in six separate, ever-changing vignettes: distinctive, homey scenes that display the store in isolated components, allowing shoppers to take in many clear design perspectives.

Shuck updates and adds new artifacts and furniture regularly, creating the atmosphere of a design wonderland where, around every corner, another gem awaits.

“Nothing comes into the store if it’s something we don’t love,”

Shuck says of his and partner Bobby John’s affection for Mercury’s offering. “We’re passionate about everything in here.”

That passion for design stems from a long history in the retail industry, for both men. Johns, who now manages the sublime Hotel San Jose in South Austin, worked for Whole Foods Market for 14 years. And Shuck has an impressive 16-year history with retail clothier The Gap Inc., a career path that surprised the political communications major from the Midwest.

“I was 21 or 22 when I started working part time for The Gap,” Shuck says. “My last several years there I was in operations, managing about 2,400 stores around the world. … I guess I just woke up one day and had this great career.”

That great career provided Shuck the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of some innovative retail projects. He was one of the first 20 people at The Gap to help develop the strategy for subsidiary Old Navy, and he traveled the world extensively to ensure the quality of The Gap’s myriad store locations.

“When I started working for The Gap, it was just a job. But it evolved in to something I really loved and was good at,” Shuck says.

It was while Shuck and Johns were living in San Francisco, working for their respective retailers that the concept for Steve Shuck Bobby JohnsMercury Design Studio began to materialize. The couple would often host elaborate parties in which they would rent a large space, then decorate it from top to bottom, creating a fresh and intriguing environment where before there was nothing. The parties were a raging success, and before long, they were so popular among San Francisco’s social aristocracy that the guest lists became unmanageable.

“We quickly realized that we needed to put this idea to work for us,” Johns says, “especially since we came to recognize that our love for shopping outweighed our love for throwing parties.”

With all their retail and design experience, two developed an idea for a new concept, one that would incorporate their combined sense of style with their incredible creativity. And their greatest barometer became their own lives.

“It’s really important that we would never want to be considered dictators of style,” Johns says. “Really, all we’re doing is presenting the way we live, which is why the design of the shop comes off very genuine; it’s really born from an interest in doing what we love and presenting it in a way that we hope other people love too.”

In 2005, when Johns was offered a job at Whole Foods’ corporate headquarters in Austin, the couple relocated from San Francisco with a plan to realize their dream in Texas’ creativity capital. The perfect storm of what the couple was in search of –great quality of life, social consciousness and a gay-friendly culture – Austin soon became home to Shuck and Johns’ new business.

Mercury Design Studio is not simply your run-of-the-mill retail establishment; it’s a design mecca. Customers can do everything from pick up a luxurious little gift for a friend’s birthday, to consult with the staff about decorating a particular space with a particular style, to shop for an entire baroque-inspired living room set. Mercury is the ideal addition to the stylish and chic 2ND Street District, a fact that wasn’t lost on Shuck and Johns.

“In three or four years, I think the 2ND Street District will be one of the key retail areas in Austin,” says Shuck, who already keeps pretty busy with a steady flow of customers.“ For us, it was really important to be in a place where we knew we were going to have foot traffic, especially since we were among the first 10 stores to open in the district. And I’m really pleased with where the district is going. It’s starting to feel a lot more metropolitan.”

Shuck and Johns both make the decisions about Mercury’s design offerings, but Shuck handles the day-to-day management of the shop while Johns holds down his day job at the Hotel San Jose. While Shuck cherishes working with design elements, he confesses that it’s his clientele that makes his job truly rewarding.

“As much as I love the design process, I still intensely love spending time with customers,” he says. “I love interacting with them and shar- ing my enthusiasm for a product with them. It’s really wonderful to be part of their experience of discovering something new.”

And as of late, Shuck and Johns are sharing that experience with residents of another hub of haute couture: Dallas. Mercury’s second location – in the LFT boutique in the Victory Park development – opened in late October, to the delight of many Dallas design lovers.

But as for further expansion of the store, both Shuck and Johns say the future is uncertain. One thing is clear: Neither wants to develop the company so much that it consumes their lives.

“Ultimately, our goals have to do with having a company that’s healthy enough so that we can spend more time together,” Johns says.

And despite living together as a couple for more than six years (and working together for a large portion of that time), neither desires any sort of solitary time allotment. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; Shuck and Johns can’t get enough of each other.

“The qualities that I admire most in Steve are without a doubt his intelligence and his gift for telling the truth,” Johns says. “When Steve talks, people listen. I admire that so much about him. My greatest source of pride is seeing that respect come from others.”

Communication is paramount for this couple. They confide that in six years together they have never once had an argument. It may seem unbelievable until you hear the way they talk about each other.

“We truly are equal partners, and we generally reach the same conclusion on things,” Shuck says. “We really agree on so much, and we make each other so happy.”

While such compatibility is a lofty goal for many couples, Shuck and Johns also share another rare and envious distinction. In early 2004, while they were living in San Francisco, Shuck and Johns were legally married in a ceremony at City Hall.

“As gay people, we generally hadn’t been dreaming about what that experience would be like,” Johns says, “but it was so emotional. … We were one of the last five gay couples allowed to be married. The next morning they were forced to stop performing the ceremonies, and eventually all of the marriage licenses were deemed illegal. But for three months, I was legally married to Steve, and our marriage was registered with the State of California. It was just an amazing feeling. We felt very lucky.”

Though the couple no longer can claim they are legally married, they are clearly content to live a married couple’s life and both say they are clearly content to  live a married couple’s life and both say they look forward to the many life adventures they will experience together.

“Even when things get tough, Steve and I laugh at each other like nobody else I know,” Johns says. “We just crack each other up. I hope that in 20, 30 or 40 years, we’ll still be laughing just as much. I see our retirement, with gray hair and our bodies betraying us, but going through all that together. And I can’t wait!”