CallisonRTKL transformed ABC-Mart Grand Stage.

Kelly M. Farrell, president and chief executive officer of CallisonRTKL, the global architectural, planning and design firm, muses over “the 10-minute chair.”

“At CallisonRTKL, we have this philosophy — never have a 10-minute chair for a three-hour discussion. If you start to twitch after 10 minutes it’s because the chair isn’t comfortable.

“In an office environment or conference space, the seating you pick, the finishings, the fixtures, matter a lot because you are telling people subconsciously how long you want them in your space. If you have a lounge space with hard chairs, you want people to leave as soon as possible.”

So what matters in designing retail settings? Farrell thinks it’s about creating space that’s interactional versus transactional, sustainable and flexible that enables shoppers to relax rather than feeling frustrated searching for something or waiting on checkout lines.

Farrell believes department stores must rethink the experience. No surprise there. She suggested creating specialized shopping areas, lounges, additional food and beverage offerings, Instagram moments, “bandwidth” in the offering, programming that gets consumers to visit more often, one-on-one shopper assistance to guide shoppers through the morass of merchandise, and greater curation of product. “Less is more, but selection matters,” she said.

“A smart retailer,” she added, “provides you with a place to linger and wander, and that equals a sale, generally speaking. Or you may have consumers in a hurry who want to get what they need and get out. A really smart company provides both opportunities.”

“Across all of our retail clients we are going away from transactional moments to real interaction,” said Farrell. “You will see it in projects where we are incorporating space for community activities,” such as Bohme, a clothing retailer in Utah with programs such as “social Fridays.”

For Bohme in Salt Lake City, CallisonRTKL created a 5,300-square-foot prototype inspired by a loft with natural materials for warmth, texture and a feminine look. There are areas segmenting the merchandising by work, travel, live and play themes, and fixtures and furnishings that can be moved for community events. It’s about flexibility in design, and having stores that aren’t simply selling things.

Bohme retail store. Salt Lake City, Utah. Image license: Callison RTKL and Bohme. ©Copyright 2019 Benjamin Benschneider All Rights Reserved. Third party use may be arranged by contacting Benjamin Benschneider Photography. Email:

The Bohme store in Salt Lake City. (Benjamin Benschneider Photography.)  Benjamin Benschneider

“If you go to a store for a reason other than to shop, there’s a good chance you buy something anyway,” said Farrell. “It’s natural. You start to think the whole experience is really good.”

With ABC-Mart Grand Stage, a sneaker and athletic apparel chain in Japan, Taiwan and Korea, CallisonRTKL transformed the setting by creating a “center stage” for showcasing brands, lifestyle inspiration and innovative products; feature walls lining the perimeter for brands, and a “backstage” with a click-and-collect area, digital lockers to pick up items purchased online and a “Kick Pics” booth featuring a mirrored ceiling and localized graphics for trying on footwear and sharing photos of styles on social media.

For Ponce Bank in New York, CallisonRTKL created a mockup or “lab” space next to the Harlem branch for testing and iterating the interior design, service features and digital systems, and for allowing changes to be made quickly based on customer feedback. After the mockup went live, it became apparent that customers could be helped by any employee virtually anywhere in the bank, given the right tools, space and training. “We were able to redesign the interactions based on real-time reactions,” explained Farrell. “A cash transaction needs a certain amount of security but most other transactions need to be more one-on-one and personal.” Customers said they preferred if certain bank employees weren’t behind six inches of glass and wanted alternatives to lining up before meeting a bank associate. The Ponce lab eventually opened up as a fully functional bank and the format is being rolled out across the bank’s network.

Banks, said Farrell, are typically “sterile, fragmented, somewhat guarded and seen as detached institutions. You really don’t want a detached institution holding your money. You want something relatable with person-to-person interaction, so it’s not just about completing a transaction. It’s where I’m getting advice.”

CallisonRTKL, formed in 2015 through the merger of Arcadis subsidiaries RTKL Associates and Callison, also lists Neiman Marcus, Nike, Nordstrom, Burberry, Cartier, Louis Vuitton and Cotopaxi among its clients. The company has 20 offices around the world involved in large-scale, mixed-use developments; health-care projects; multifamily residences; hospitality, commercial and government offices; shopping and entertainment districts; department and specialty stores, and civic and cultural projects.

Before “putting pen to paper,” there are months of research, data analysis, focus groups and interviews with customers and clients, to determine the “value graphics” instead of just the demographics, Farrell said.

“For us, it’s about taking on challenging opportunities that really affect people. We want to create spaces that when you come out of them, you’re happier. You feel better. You want to go back…We focus on our clients’ clients. If I can make your day better when you go to work because we have designed an office space that lets in more light, helps you connect with nature more, allows you to relax, then we are doing our job.”

A 16-year veteran of the Baltimore-based CallisonRTKL, Farrell became ceo in May 2019 after serving as executive vice president for projects and partnerships and establishing a body of work on multifamily developments, mixed-use districts and workplace commissions.

Kelly M. Farrell  GEORGE CHINSEE

She considers herself a modernist with a clean, minimal personal aesthetic though she’s careful to indicate her own design leanings don’t necessarily apply to company projects. “Our firm has an extensive design vocabulary and it’s best to let that rise based on what our clients see and on what we consider the appropriate solution to be.”

Seated in a noisy New York City office building lounge, Farrell suggests with this particular setting, not enough consideration went into what those utilizing the space might want.

“The sound here bounces off the hard floor and goes up to the ceiling. If you put some cushions under the benches and tables it would absorb a significant amount of the noise. You could keep the look and grab the sound. My friend’s family owns a restaurant in northern California. It was so loud when they opened. But they put some ‘bat’ material (that’s hot-pressed, high-tech material made from cocooned cotton for sound absorption) into the furnishings. Now it’s a great place to talk.”

Like the products being sold, store design should be sustainable, Farrell suggested. “When we put beautiful case goods in, amazing floors, finishes, walls, can we design in a way they can all be taken down and given to someone else or reused in a different capacity? With materials, we’re getting smarter. We’re seeing them more engineered in composites. The durability is fantastic. But we want to make sure it’s not wasted. That it can be resold or (incorporated) into another product. We are not seeing a limit on materials. What we are seeing is the smarter use and application of materials.”

Also, “The ability to take how things work in one market sector and bring it to another has never been more important,” said Farrell. “Our health-care clients want to act more like our retail clients. Our office clients want to know more from our residential clients. Look what’s going on in coworking spaces. We have some great coworking clients. They don’t look like office spaces. They look like brilliant lounges though the people there are doing gobs and gobs of business. People don’t want to hang out at a desk all day. They want to hang out in a comfortable environment where they can surround themselves by the right people and have the right conversations. They get an incredible amount of work done and they do it in an environment that feels more natural.”

CallisonRTKL worked with Nordstrom’s design team on Nordstrom’s Manhattan flagship.

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