Colin Brice and Caleb Mulvena

Food halls, spas, health clinics, office complexes, pop-ups, celebrity tie-ups and technology. Desperate to reinvent unproductive selling space, retailers are pondering it all.

Are they overthinking it?

Colin Brice and Caleb Mulvena, cofounders of Mapos, a small design and architectural firm with a diversified roster of clients, say they understand what retailers and brands are after. But they believe the path to creating a compelling store experience falls under the rubric of “humanity.”

“People are latching onto something that’s theatrical or programmed to create exciting experiences, and that is definitely what we have included in part of our work. But it’s really the human experience that we are pursuing now,” said Brice. “What do people respond to? Is it natural materials? Simple, powerful forms? Simple interactions with each other? That’s become more and more integral to our work.”

“The analogy is like the Greek agora — a place where humans came to interact,” added Mulvena. “It’s about creating opportunities for human interaction. That’s what bricks-and-mortar retail had always been. But it kind of lost it. The big box took over, and then the Internet showed up. Because of all this, brands are discovering that people just want a place to go.”

At the Mapos office, an unvarnished, open setting with exposed ceilings befitting its location in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Mulvena and Brice discussed their firm’s philosophy, past and present projects, and their prescription for reviving the retail experience. Simple pleasures and formats to encourage socialization seem to be a big part of the agenda at the 10-year-old Mapos, which employs 10 architects and designers and creates retail, residential, hotel and office environments. The name Mapos is a combination of the word “map” and the letters “o” and “s.”  The “map” part suggests mapping out or strategizing to help brands find their way. And the letters “os” stand for “open source,” meaning a sharing process where everyone’s input is valued.

“Before we even put pencil to paper we think about the customer, a particular person,” said Brice. “Where does she hang out? What’s her world view? Her value set. Once we understand who they are, then we can design specifically for them a place where they want to hang out and come back. Something that’s memorable. Beyond that purchase, what is it that makes them feel comfortable, excited, surprised. We have to aim our sights high.”

“Not only do we design concepts, architecture and experiences, but we design the process with the client to get to the design,” said Mulvena. “We look at ourselves as sort of creative managers of the design process. For every client there is a unique design process. We bring brand managers, brand ambassadors, marketing executives and customers together and then later we bring in the general contractor, engineers, the cost estimators, people who have interesting insights and suggestions for the design concept. Whether it’s a retail brand or whether we’re designing office space or a family room, we create these interactives to be very focused on the end users of any space.”

Caleb Mulvena and Colin Brice  George Chinsee

Two years ago for Clinique, Mapos staged one of its “discovery days” to get at what Clinique is all about and what its retail environment should be like. The takeaway was that the image of Clinique was “clinical, clean and scientific” and that it lacked a sense of its genesis having been started by magazine editor Carol Phillips, dermatologist Norman Orentreich, and the late Evelyn Lauder. In the spirit of a magazine rich with content, imagery and color, Mapos created three Clinique stores in Hong Kong which included a 4-foot by 10-foot interactive digital wall with content, inspiration boards, editing room-style fixtures and midcentury modern furniture reflecting the era when the brand emerged. A shops-in-shop at Selfridges in London was also created.

With the North America licensee of Asics a client, the “discovery” entailed interviewing runners, triathletes, marathoners and hikers and serving wine and pizza to discuss workouts and athletic brands. So for the Asics store that opened in Times Square, Mapos created convenience lockers, a post-run area where athletes could grab a beer and exchange running stories, and a large community table with interactive screens, the Asics web site, and information for signing up for runs.

Something with tourist appeal that evoked New York City was needed. “Out of the conversation came the idea of a subway car,” Brice recalled. “We found one in the Mojave Desert where there are holding pens for all sorts of vehicles that the movie studios use. They store it out there because it’s dry and the subway cars won’t rust. We shipped this subway car to Burbank Studios and a crew transformed it into an A train from the Seventies.” The subway car was cut in half and shipped cross-country on two tractor trailers. The Lincoln Tunnel and part of 42nd Street were closed in the middle of the night for the trailers, and the entire glass store front was removed to slide the subway car in. It was merchandised with Asics’ more fashionable urban line including high tops, limited-edition and vintage items, and the subway car benches were used as shelves and the grab bars doubled as hangers. Mapos created eight Asics stores around the country, but the Times Square store eventually closed due to a dispute between the brand and the licensee.

Mapos used a subway car to help merchandise a former Asics store in Times Square. 

For Innisfree, a South Korean beauty brand with sustainable products from the volcanic island of Jeju off the coast of South Korea, Mapos is working on an upcoming store opposite Bloomingdale’s on Lexington Avenue. Hydroponics, volcanic rock tables, a tea house, an interactive plant wall that explains Innisfree’s extensive product offering and ties to Jeju, and a section for selling plants are being considered. “Our intent is to make it sensorial,” Mulvena said.

Brice and Mulvena are partial to fireplaces in their designs, particularly for hotel projects. “There is something really amazing and powerful about the simple act of sitting around a fireplace, and we think the same way about getting a bunch of people around a table for a delicious meal,” said Brice. “You can’t get any more basic than that — and that’s not about branding or experience or big video screens. It’s really about these human interactions which the Internet and Amazon can not provide. They can provide service. They can provide price, but they can’t really provide what’s simple and profound and what makes us want to live and breathe and smile and hang out with one another.”

Mapos designed this Caudalie store in Manhattan’s Meatpacking neighborhood.