Sleek Surroundings

<?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = CS /><CS:BOLD>DESIGN GURUS ARE BEING ENLISTED TO CREATE RETAIL ENVIRONMENTS THAT ARE JUST AS COOL AS THE CLOTHES.<BR><BR>As stores continue to fill sales floors with merchandise similar to that of their competitors -- and...


As stores continue to fill sales floors with merchandise similar to that of their competitors — and while a sluggish economy forces many consumers to tighten their purse strings — designers who have retail units, as well as specialty retailers, are seeking out ways to differentiate themselves from each other in order to increase foot traffic. One sure way to entice shoppers, while reinforcing brand identity and providing a unique sensory experience, is through sleek and savvy store design.

“Decor is at least one-third of the shopping experience [in addition to goods and service],” said Paco Underhill, managing director of New York-based Envirosell, a retail and consumer research and consulting firm. “To seal the purchase, retailers must go beyond by making the experience fun and accountable from parking lot to parking lot.”

Underhill said the ideal store is one that appeals to a cross section of the public and that “pulls the customer all the way through,” not only to make a purchase, but to understand what the store sells. Most importantly, he added, store design should make a sales transaction as painless as possible and plant the seed for the next visit.

According to Underhill, a store’s design should serve multiple purposes — from a residence to a cafe to a gathering place. Whether a multifunctional store is too overwhelming varies for each customer, but Underhill said the majority will prefer the convenience of one-stop shopping.

Although a distinct store design is important, Underhill said function — not just form — is important.

“I am not impressed with someone who spends $40 million on a ‘wow’ store because that’s expected,” he said, listing the new 30,000-square-foot Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada store in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, which opened last December, and the Disney and Nike chains, as examples.

The Prada store features a “wave” that runs the length of the store in pale, inlaid zebra wood, descending from the entrance down to the basement and rising back to street level. It has dual functions — the side that descends can be a really big shoe display, or morph into an amphitheater with seating for hundreds to view a stage that mechanically unfolds from the smooth, ascending side. The store also features plasma-screen monitors, glass dressing-room doors that frost over at the touch of a button and America’s first round glass elevator.

The major drawbacks Underhill sees in expensive “wow” stores are that their novelty wears off with time, sometimes even in a few trips, and that too many of these aesthetic wonders evolve into personal art projects for big-name architects, rather than stick with their primary purpose of selling a designer’s line.

Underhill questions whether the $30 million Prada store’s design further accomplishes major retail priorities like bringing in new customers and creating a corporate decor and image that can be duplicated at a lower cost worldwide.

“The question is, ‘How well does the Prada store work for its customer?’ And the answer is, ‘Not very well, especially with tourists gawking at them while they try to shop,”‘ he said.

Prada, however, believes otherwise. A spokeswoman said the company is pleased with the sales and number of visitors drummed up by the futuristic, fun design. Of its unique qualities, she listed the dressing room’s transforming doors and magic mirrors, which act as a video screen to freeze an image of a customer’s back view, and the wave-cum-stage as the biggest delights to shoppers.

But Glenn Pushelberg, a partner at Yabu Pushelberg, a design firm with offices in Toronto and New York, said instead of gimmicks, shoppers prefer simplicity, familiarity and an enjoyable experience. In designing Carolina Herrera’s store on the Upper East Side in New York, which opened September 2000, his goal was to create a dichotomy of familiarity and uniqueness. “It’s important to combine modernity and the quality and detail associated with heritage,” he said.

For example, the details of the store’s sweeping staircase’s handrail hails from a chateau outside Paris, yet has been made modern through its clean form. The furniture is classically European, yet modern. To give a familiar, residential feel, the first floor has hardwood floors with rugs, and the upstairs is carpeted.

In 1999, he also gave a homey-yet-elegant feel to Bergdorf Goodman’s renovated cosmetics department by breaking up the floor into rooms — quite a change from the traditional concept of a wide-open space. Each room highlights a different category, such as fragrances, new brands and traditional names. Female-friendly amenities include a cafe, nail spa and optical shop.

“We like the design because it utilizes old-world, fine craftsmanship in tandem with newer, fresher materials, while still expressing our heritage,” said Linda Fargo, vice president of visual merchandising at Bergdorf Goodman.

To explain the notion of simple, enjoyable design, Pushelberg cited the installation of private and semi-private selling rooms on the second floor of Tiffany & Co.’s Fifth Avenue flagship in New York, so couples don’t have to battle crowds on its bustling main floor when making important investments.

Philip Bottega, vice president of real estate services worldwide for Tiffany’s, attributes the success of the renovation, completed in November 2001, to its residential feel. “The design’s classic elegance speaks Tiffany. It provides the perfect backdrop for customers to see the merchandise, accomplishing the goal to sell jewelry,”

he said.

In Tiffany’s market, simplicity won out over flash. “It doesn’t have to be something tricky, trite or gimmicky to create a better experience,” added Pushelberg. “People are usually happier with the simple things.”

Phil Otto, principal of Otto Design Group, a Philadelphia-based company with offices in New York and Los Angeles, agreed that gimmicks, including theme and entertainment-driven decor, are no longer in style. He maintained that younger generations want freshness and honesty.

At Nort 235, a footwear store in lower Manhattan that opened in November 2001, Otto took the less-is-more approach when he installed an illuminated glass wall etched with images from the 1982 science-fiction film “Tron” behind the store’s cash register. “Nort is ‘Tron’ spelled backward, but we only used one image from the movie in the store,” Otto said. “The rest is simple brick walls and black aluminum displays that look like bike frames.”

P.J. Casey, president and owner of New York’s Cite Design, also rejects decor that is too contrived, comparing it to an outfit that looks too put together. “It also overwhelms or intimidates the consumer so he thinks, ‘I’ll never get to this level,”‘ she said.

To avoid such a judgment, Casey believes in using organic elements and in creating warm environments. Her design for Swiss Army’s SoHo store, which opened last October, transformed the former garage into an inviting space through the addition of slate floors, a raw brick wall, dark wood fixtures and carpeting. Dressing rooms with ottomans and photos, and a lounge area with a vintage sofa, lamps and books make customers feel at home.

Designers also reported that minimal, loft-type settings with cold accents like polyurethaned cement floors, exposed ductwork and white walls are coming to an end. “Minimalism wasn’t visual enough for the average consumer. It’s not inviting, either,” said Casey.

Ron Pompei, principal and creative director at New York design firm Pompei A.D., whose roster includes the The Discover Channel stores and Tokion magazine’s New York store, added that even art spaces have gotten away from the white box. “Look at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. It’s so much more expressive,” he said.

But the versatility of the art gallery remains desirable. Urban Outfitters, for example, features a design that can easily be changed by switching panels and other adjustable or removable elements.

“Minimalism cleared everything out,” Pompei said. “Now we are beginning to add things back in, but selectively, so we’re not bogged down with heavy-handed materials again.”

The concept of a versatile, expressive space is best demonstrated by Issey Miyake’s store in the lower Manhattan neighborhood of TriBeCa. As the worldwide flagship, the space, which made its debut last fall, houses the designer’s showroom, stockroom, corporate offices and retail store carrying all six clothing divisions, as well as accessories and perfume lines.

The space also mirrors a gallery in that everything can move except for the checkout counter and titanium tornado sculpture by Frank Gehry, the store’s designer.

“Because the decor can change, people always see something new and different and thought-provoking each visit,” said a Issey Miyake spokeswoman.

Like the new Prada store, Miyake’s flagship hosts cultural events, including a concert by renowned Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes or a lecture series on furniture design. “The store is meant to be a place where talents of different fields can come together and be showcased,” said the spokeswoman.

Design elements follow the trends: warm, organic materials like wood floors and a ceiling of wooden beams and a dichotomy of the familiar and the modern through combining stainless steel displays and the former textile building’s original cast iron doors.

Other trendy materials in general, according to Pushelberg, are resin; glass; acrylic; skrim, a material used for theatrical screens; high tech veneers, and luminescent surfaces lit with interesting colors.

The color trend affects lighting as well.

“We’re seeing a lot of color filters in pretty mauve, pink and yellows casts,” he said, adding that chandeliers, architecturally integrated lighting fixtures and fiber-optic lighting are other trends.

When selecting a lighting system, Otto suggested recessed or hidden tracks. But he is especially enthusiastic about a new film covering by 3M that diffuses light evenly and unobtrusively from high-intensity tubes.

“The goal is less clutter,” he said.