Greenpoint-based City Aquarium is a twelve-year-old company that imagines, builds, designs, and maintains unique custom-made aquariums. Many of their clients are billionaires, hotels, showrooms, and municipal aquariums. To name a few examples, a 1,200 gallon, two-sided viewing tank sitting in one of Honda’s showrooms in New York City was developed and is serviced by City Aquarium each week.
The 30-foot-tall cylindrical aquarium of Dream Hotel, also in the city, was built by the company. “Several of my clients have asked me not to reveal their identities,” founder Justin Muir confides. As for the ones he is allowed to mention, some include the royal family of Kuwait, artist Tony Ourseler, entrepreneur Alan Wilzig, and Yankees baseball player C. C. Sabathia.
City Aquarium manufactures the custom acrylic or glass tanks in Los Angeles, then a team of art designers and marine biologists create the artificial habitats in Greenpoint using synthetic or natural coral. The company also supplies the exotic fish, jellyfish, or sharks and performs the maintenance for its New York clients. City Aquarium’s creativity has no limit when it comes to fashioning “living pieces of art” as Ron Rundo, City Aquarium’s art director and sculptor, likes to call his creations.
Another unforgettable project which the company facilitated was the sphere that illusionist David Blaine used for his shark tank stunt in Lincoln Center a few years ago. Not only did City Aquarium construct the enormous tank, its staff worked with Blaine until all the considerable obstacles were overcome and the stunt could be accomplished.
The team that Muir has assembled is one of a kind. Marine biologists, artists, and technicians make up City Aquarium’s crew, and Muir himself has a marine biology background, but he considers himself an artist. “We do art. I am an artist, an artist who works with water,“ says Muir. He has always had both passions. As a teenager he built his own fish tanks, trying to make the aquariums as creative and beautiful as possible. He later studied aquaculture before becoming a marine biologist. His studies took him to many places, including Hawaii, where he did aqua-farming, and South Carolina, where he farm-raised eels. He then decided to join his boyfriend in New York, and worked as a bartender in Chelsea, and found volunteer work at the New York City Aquarium. In NYC he was able to combine the two things that he loved the most. On his 30th birthday, his boyfriend gave him a tank, and Muir considers this gift what made him realize his wish to be an art designer for underwater habitats. Soon after, he would land first job, one that would launch his career.
One night, Michael Lucas, the gay porn star, walked into Nisos, the Greek restaurant were Muir was working in Manhattan at the time, in the late 90s. By the time he had left, Lucas had ordered a $40,000 aquarium from him. That 1998 night provided the foundation for Muir’s business
Despite the flagging economy, City Aquarium has been able to thrive. Its clients have the luxury to spend money if it is just to look for “the next new thing“ to make an impression on their friends. And right now, everyone seems to want to own a living piece of art. “Then too, wealthy people care about the environment. Some of them are trading their Ferraris or Bentleys for huge aquariums. They’re not necessarily suffering from the bad economy, but they feel like they need to contribute to a greener planet, and they’ll do so by buying a living piece of art rather than a car,“ says Muir. City Aquarium only uses 100 percent green equipment: recycled, American-made products, green energy, and fish from an aquaculture farm in Florida or from supervised areas of the great barrier reef in Australia. Muir makes sure that the wild fish are captured the right way so that, for instance, their coral habitats are not destroyed with dynamite.
The company’s diversification ranges from acrylic furniture to growing coral at the Greenpoint home base. The company is also a recent partner of Fabien Cousteau’s conservation organization Plantafish. Plantafish’s mission is to get communities involved in their marine environment by helping them re-plant endangered or extinct local marine species. “Being part of this project is very important to me because it is another way for me to go back to my marine biologist roots,“ explains Muir, who is putting a lot of heart into the partnership. “And Fabien Cousteau is an exceptional person who wants to make a difference.“ Currently, the organization is planning to plant a billion oysters in the New York estuary, where there were formerly more oysters than anywhere else in the world. The aim of the project is to help reconstruct the natural filter and shelter of the estuary where there are almost no oysters left today.
What’s on the immediate agenda for City Aquarium? A fantasy combining City’s scientific expertise with art, naturally. Imagine butterflies flying around in a rainforest habitat, designer snakes evolving in a beautiful wooden surrounding, and birds singing in trees, surrounded by exotic fish swimming in a coral reef habitat. There you have City Aquarium’s vision.
City Aquarium LLC
44 Dobbin Street