Posts tagged with "Retail":
“The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every morning the people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still-unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio. On the sidewalks…the remains of yesterday’s Leonia await the garbage truck.” - Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
I just learned that my underwear, my mattress, and most of my wardrobe all came from the same place. I didn’t purchase them from a one-stop, big-box retailer, but from a no-stop, small-box room—my bedroom, to be specific (from my bed to be more precise). All I had to do was open up a web page, pick, click, and then wait as my underwear, my mattress, and most of my wardrobe were shipped from a warehouse located in a Massachusetts exurb to arrive at my doorstep in two days or fewer. The maker of this mundane miracle is a company called Quiet Logistics, a third part logistics (3PL) provider that helps online retailers like Mac Weldon, Bonobos, and Tuft & Needle reach customers as quickly as possible. They and companies like them, along with online retailer behemoth Amazon, are using new technologies to redefine retail and transform the architecture of fulfillment. And if they don’t bring about the birth of Skynet and the robot apocalypse first, they might also transform cities and towns across America.
Open up any newspaper (or newspaper app) and you’re likely to read an obituary for the shopping mall. While the reports of its death may be somewhat exaggerated, malls are indeed changing as more and more people buy, well, everything online. Some are being transformed into mixed-use “town center”-style developments; others are filling vacancies with new tenants who lean into recent consumer habits like “showrooming,” an industry term for trying on clothes in one store and then buying them online from another at a lower price. While showrooming may be the bane of many a salesperson, retailers like the aforementioned Bonobos design and build stores as showrooms: comfortable environments where customers find the right-size pants and then leave empty handed; two days later they’re delivered to their home. Any longer than that and customers might not be so quick to leave without those slim-fit chinos. Thanks to the proliferation of fulfillment centers, no one has to wait for anything anymore.
Fulfillment centers are massive warehouses where the ephemera of our lives is stored until we call upon it with a wave of our hand. The typical fulfillment center is a rectangular box built from precast concrete slabs or tilt-up concrete panels that are poured on-site and lifted into place. They range in size from 300,000 square feet to more than a million, feature hundreds of loading docks, 30-to-40-foot-tall-space-frame ceilings (cubic volume is key), and towers of nearly endless shelves containing rainbow Slinkys, Swiffer Wet Jets, Hello Kitty pencil cases, and literally everything else. “The picking towers are like mini-buildings, only without mechanical systems,” said architect Greg Lynn, who has visited two Amazon facilities and has long been interested in the formal and spatial possibilities presented by new technologies. “Then there are the massive sorting areas and areas where they compress boxes. It’s like a little world. Or a theme park.”
While large distribution centers aren’t new, the growth of online direct-to-consumer shopping has prompted a building boom of the fulfillment center. For better and worse, no company is better known for these buildings than Amazon, which has built more than one hundred fulfillment centers in America alone, totaling over 77 million square feet in size. Amazon uses a few different types of these centers, each designed to accommodate a specific type of item: small sortable items, large sortable times, large non-sortable, expensive specialty items, and apparel, as well as newer facilities designed for perishable and nonperishable food. Some are conventional centers, where products are picked and packaged by human pickers who can walk up to ten miles a day; some use mechanized conveyance and sorting systems; others are automated with robots handling most of the heavy lifting.
While Amazon is the standard-bearer for this new model of retail, it’s not alone. Logistics real estate is booming. Online retailers, 3PLs, and traditional big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target have all invested heavily in new fulfillment centers to more quickly reach online customers. Target’s online sales tripled from 2013 to 2016, and in that time it nearly doubled the amount of space dedicated to e-commerce with two new fulfillment centers totaling 1.7 million square feet. According to Colliers International, in 2016 e-commerce prompted the construction of 74 million square feet of new warehouse space in the United States, with 93 percent of that space occupied. Already this year is on track to deliver another 55 million square feet, according to research firm Reis Inc., with Dallas, Chicago, Kansas City, Central New Jersey, and San Bernardino, California, as the top markets, although warehouse construction is also booming in Atlanta and Indianapolis.
As with all things real estate, it’s about location. Many of these fulfillment centers are built on former farmlands in centralized locations with easy accessibility to highways and airports. For example, Quiet’s new facility in Hazelwood, Missouri—its first outside Massachusetts—is part of a larger development of fulfillment centers built near St. Louis, where ground shipments can reach anywhere in the United States in two or three days. Amazon initially followed a different tact, building its warehouses in locations selected to take advantage of state tax policies. But those policies have changed as the industry has grown and states have grown savvier. Since 2013, Amazon has focused on building smaller fulfillment centers closer to major urban areas—sometimes even in cities—rather than building larger fulfillment centers in farther-out, less populated areas. The ultimate goal is same-day, and even same-hour, delivery.
But fulfillment isn’t just about fast delivery; it’s also about fast packaging. And that’s increasingly done by robots. In 2012 Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, now Amazon Robotics, whose rechargeable orange robots might look like a 1970s ottoman but can find anything in any warehouse instantly, and lift up to 3,000 pounds. They’re designed to move proprietary shelving “pods” along a predefined grid to workstations where real-live humans pick, pack, and prepare the items for shipment—often working on multiple orders simultaneously. Among other benefits, the Amazon Robotics system is flexible, scalable, and it’s five to six times more productive than manual picking. Plus, without the need for human-scale aisles, a fully automated warehouse requires half as much space as a traditional warehouse, and can use purchasing data to constantly rearrange itself so that the most frequently bought products are closer to the picking stations. The downside of this robot revolution? The robots can only be used to transport relatively small items that fit in the pods, and the systems requires a large and expensive investment in infrastructure—as well as a very, very flat floor.
After purchasing Kiva, Amazon took it off the market, forcing competitors who previously used them to find a new solution. This has resulted in a robot arms race as new companies rush to fill the void. One of those companies, Locus Robotics, was founded by Quiet Logistics, which was the first 3PL to use Kiva’s technology. Locus’s robots, which look like the love child of the Jetsons’ Rosie and a hat rack, can be integrated into any standard warehouse, cutting startup costs and accommodating the unpredictable nature of e-commerce. In a Locus-equipped warehouse, human pickers work in specific areas and the robots zip around each other from zone to zone, following the most efficient path to fill an order before taking it to the shipping station. Sensors, cameras, and LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) help the robots map the warehouse and keep them from running into anything or anyone. Locus markets its robot as a more collaborative, worker-friendly solution that plays to the unique skill sets of both: The robot, with its infinite spatial knowledge, limitless stamina, and complete lack of self-doubt, quickly locates and delivers items, while the nearby human, with his or her prehensile hands, picks it up and puts it in the basket. For now, anyway. The robot arms race is becoming a robot hands race as companies work to develop reliable grasping mechanisms to replace human pickers who have annoying habits like going to the bathroom and going home at the end of their shift.
These two automation systems have very different implications for warehouse design, but denser solutions like Amazon’s automated ottoman seem ideally suited to the smaller fulfillment centers encroaching into our cities with carefully calculated products selected to get more people more things in less time. Lynn believes they could do a lot more than cut down shipping time on your Crest Complete Multi-Benefit Toothpaste with Whitening + Scope. “The level of spatial intelligence in these buildings is remarkable,” he said. “It’s clear that every item is being tracked at all times. In terms of localization and knowing where things are, it’s a hyperintelligent space.… [But] how do you take that kind of spatial thinking and apply it to other building types—a library or market or university?”
Lynn has been exploring that question with architecture students at Yale and UCLA, but we may not have to wait long to find out. Amazon is already experimenting with brick-and-mortar bookstores and grocery stores. Could Amazon U really be that far out? Could logistics save the shopping mall? Should more architects and planners consider these interconnected systems and design for robots as well as people? It may only be a matter of time before automation becomes integrated into our daily lives outside the warehouse and the architecture of fulfillment becomes the architecture of the city. Beyond packing and shipping, could fleets of autonomous vehicles transform cities by making parking garages and parking lots obsolete—creating new space for fulfillment centers, perhaps, or putting a new premium on curb space for drop-offs and pick-ups? I haven’t even mentioned drones yet. As technology evolves to meet the demands of our on-demand lifestyle, what else will change? Perhaps all cities will come to resemble Calvino’s fictional Leonia, whose opulence was measured “not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, [and] bought…but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new.” Ultimately, Leonia was threatened by a looming mountain of its own leftovers. But I bet they could get new underwear delivered in less than an hour.
We are living in the Golden Age of restaurants. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans spend nearly half of their food budget eating at restaurants, rather than shopping at grocery stores. This fact stands in stark contrast to the greater trend in retail, which shows brick-and-mortar storefronts struggling against online competition and skyrocketing rent. Yet, success in the restaurant business is far from guaranteed. With more options for high quality food than ever before, restaurants new and old are rethinking their place in urban settings.
Though Chicago may be best known for deep-dish pizza and hotdogs, the food scene in the past decade has been defined more by several highly experimental restaurants such as the Michelin three-star micro-gastronomy restaurant Alinea. While such award-winning establishments have changed the culinary scene, it is the extreme flux of fast-casual eateries, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Freshii, that has saturated neighborhoods to the point of bursting.
Just as Chicago has been a testing ground for some of the world’s most unusual cooking techniques, it would seem the city is now becoming the site of an uncanny fast food resurgence. As McDonald’s moves its headquarters from its Dirk Lohan–designed modernist campus in Chicago’s Oak Brook suburb to downtown, other chains are also rethinking their spaces to appeal to the urban set. McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell all have redesigned or launched new restaurants specifically for urban settings. In particular, Taco Bell has launched a new line of storefronts that are hardly recognizable as the affordable “Mexican” chain.
With the first of its kind opening in Wicker Park, Chicago, the Taco Bell Cantina takes a step toward the fast-casual market and away from its drive-through and suburban-mall food court roots. Most noticeably, the Cantina doesn’t have a drive-through, or even a parking lot. Situated in a small storefront—which once housed a short-lived high-end sex toy shop—the fast food giant takes advantage of the heavily pedestrian-trafficked Milwaukee Avenue retail district. Once pocked with numerous vacant storefronts, the street is now filling with local and national chains looking to cash in on the popularity of the walkable neighborhood.
As such, this Taco Bell is specifically designed for pedestrians. This carries into the interior with nonslip tile floors that guard against the slush and snow of Chicago winters. The dining area is somewhere between a fast-casual restaurant, an internet cafe, and a sports bar. Yes, a sports bar. When the Cantina opened, most stories revolved around the fact that this is the first Taco Bell to serve alcohol. Hard liquor can be mixed with Taco Bell’s proprietary Mountain Dew flavors, and beer is served in bottles. Large flat-screen TVs along one wall play sports, news, and, late at night (it is open 24 hours), the Syfy channel. During the day, it is not uncommon to see people sitting at the highly finished plywood furniture working on laptops. Airport terminals should take note of the number of outlets at this Taco Bell. With at least one for every seat, it is ironically more convenient to work there than at the trendy coffee shop down the street. All of this is part of a carefully planned shift by Yum! Brands, Inc., Taco Bell’s parent company. Since the opening of the Wicker Park Cantina in late 2015, 11 other “urban inline stores” have opened around the country. Along with the Cantina, Taco Bell has opened four other models in California, ostensibly referencing their specific locations. Those models have names like Heritage, Modern Explorer, California Sol, and Urban Edge. Of the 2,500 more Taco Bell locations Yum! plans to open around the world in the next five years, at least 300 of them are planned to be the urban iterations.
Another major brand that believes Chicago may be a perfect pilot site is the coffee giant Starbucks. After a major remodel of the tiny Wicker Park Starbucks, the space was rebranded as a higher-end offering that the Seattle-based company is calling Starbucks Reserve. Reserve locations serve small batch specialty coffees, and the design of the space has been rethought. Following a larger trend in retail, companies are looking to provide more differentiated environments, rather than the repetitious brand enforcing model companies like Starbucks are known for. Finer finishes, graphic and object references to the coffee harvesting process, and LEED compliant construction methods all add to this new “experience.” Doubling down in the windy city, Starbucks will also open its largest retail space to date downtown along Michigan Avenue. The third of its kind, the Starbucks Reserve Roastery will be a four-story, 43,000-square-foot coffee palace. Along with roasting the brand’s special Reserve coffees, the new space will include cafes and rooftop terraces.
While fast-casual chains continue to grow, that growth has begun to show signs of slowing in the past few years. The casual dining market on the other hand, typified by restaurants such as Applebee’s and TGI Fridays, has not only slowed to a stop—it has begun to lose ground. Analysts are now saying millennials, in particular, are just not interested in the chains that were so popular in the 1990s and early 2000s. With large numbers of twenty- and thirty-somethings moving to urban centers and preferring fast, generally healthier food, the restaurant industry is rushing to figure out how to keep up.
While Michelin-starred restaurants concoct fantastic dishes in spaces often difficult to find, let alone get reservations to, and fast casual brands continue to pump out quinoa wraps, a handful of large brands are trying to figure out what it means to have an urban presence. Rather than importing suburban drive-throughs, they’re mimicking urban coffee joints and neighborhood bars. Chicago, with its seemingly insatiable appetite for new and interesting restaurants, also seems to have room for some familiar faces that are willing to cater to its particular taste.
Broadway, Manhattan’s longest street and a main commercial drag, spans the length of the island from hilly Inwood to Lower Manhattan’s breezy Bowling Green. There are shops from nose to tail, but a recent survey found that Broadway is also home to almost 200 vacant storefronts, dead zones on one of Gotham’s liveliest thoroughfares.
Glaring vacancies aren’t limited to Broadway though. From Madison and Fifth Avenue to Broadway in Soho and Bleeker Street in the West Village, high-end commercial strips in Manhattan are having trouble attracting commercial tenants. A healthy vacancy rate is 5 percent, but some fancy areas are in the midst of high-rent blight, with one in five (20 percent) storefronts vacant.
Further north, in Washington Heights, a whole block of immigrant-owned businesses were essentially evicted after new landlords proposed a 100 percent rent increase and declined to renew their leases.
Why is this happening?
The causes are predictable, but the solutions are not.
High rent, high taxes, regulations that favor owners over tenants, and plain old capitalism—the incentive for owners to seek their property’s maximum value, and the consumer’s desire to acquire goods at the lowest price—all contribute to the twin plagues of vacancy and the mall-ification (national chains displacing small, local businesses) of Manhattan. Stakeholders, though, disagree on what should be done to solve a growing crisis at street level.
This spring, the Manhattan Borough President’s Office (MBPO) recruited volunteers to count all the vacant storefronts along Broadway, citing a dearth of information on how many vacancies exist, and where. The survey follows an effort from two years ago where the office reached out to small businesses and offered potential policy solutions to businesses’ problems.
But first the report had to determine what a small business is, a question that is not as obvious as it seems.
The federal government’s Small Business Administration (SBA) measures business size by number of employees or the company’s value, depending on the sector. The Small Business Act, though, uses a measure that doesn’t exactly conjure visions of mom-and-pops: It says small businesses have fewer than 500 employees. Under the same rules, a microbusiness has fewer than five employees and requires $35,000 in capital or less to get going.
In New York State, small businesses are companies that employ fewer than one hundred people, while New York City’s Department of Small Business Services doesn’t set a number. Instead, it encourages any self-identifying businesses to seek out its resources.
Consequently, the MBPO’s March 2015 report called for a standardized measure of “small,” and the recommendations in its report are geared toward firms with 15 or fewer employees.
No matter how you define them, it’s clear that the not-so-invisible hand of the market is driving these firms out of business on Manhattan’s main streets. One problem? Stratospheric commercial rent increases. In 2014, the average asking rent in Manhattan was $65.14 per square foot. With ever-more high-income individuals flooding Manhattan, landlords are reluctant to offer 10- or 15-year commercial leases lest they get stuck with a lower-paying tenant as commercial land values in the neighborhood skyrocket.
Other problems, the report found, include businesses not having enough insurance, delaying tax payment, and under-budgeting for utilities. On the city side, some business owners in the report cited punitive agency inspectors who, instead of working with the owner to correct an issue, slapped the business with a fine.
Additional solutions don’t seem politically viable or aren’t effected at a scale that works.
A special tax for businesses in most of Manhattan eats into viability, too. In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio rejected the city council's proposal to alter commercial rent tax, an almost four percent surcharge on annual rent of $250,000 or more on businesses below 96th Street. As rents have risen, the tax threshold has stayed the same, and more businesses have become impacted. A bill (sponsored by Councilmember Dan Garodnick) that would raise the ceiling to $500,000 in annual rent didn’t make it into the final 2018 budget, though the item could be considered at a later date. If that limit were approved, the city would lose $52 million in revenue annually.
Zoning regulations encourage new development with huge storefronts that work for Chase and CVS but not for their independent counterparts. On the Upper West Side, though, neighbors are seeing mixed success from initiatives like a 2012 zoning change that limited storefronts to 25 feet, but don’t limit store size, as businesses are free to expand up or down as space permits.
But some advocates say these reforms don’t go far enough to stop business closures and the encroachment of chain stores.
“There is a crisis,” said Kirsten Theodos, cofounder of TakeBackNYC, an advocacy group for New York City small businesses. New York is losing 1,000 small businesses and 8,000 jobs per month. Theodos, who lives near the East Village, said all of this “fuels the hyper-gentrification and whitewashing of the city, a process that’s really accelerated over the past six years.”
Her group supports the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA), a piece of local legislation that would set new rules around renewing commercial leases. Among other provisions, SBJSA would give commercial tenants, at minimum, a ten-year lease plus right to renewal and the option of arbitration to come to a new rent. The legislation is designed to slow, not stop, the rate of change in neighborhoods, and level the playing field for florists and bakeries competing for storefronts with Starbucks and Pottery Barn.
When the bill was first introduced in 2014, it had the support of 17 councilmembers—now it has the support of 26, or half the council. But in a city dominated by real estate interests, the bill is a nonstarter, Theodos explained. REBNY, the city’s largest real estate trade association, opposes the proposed rules, rallying around the idea that land values are subject to the “free market” and (incorrectly) deeming the rules “rent control.”
Even real estate boosters, though, acknowledge the downtrends in the market. According to REBNY, average asking rents in Manhattan this past spring fell in 14 of 17 of the borough’s top shopping strips compared with 2016 and record highs in 2014 and 2015. But the group maintains that a variety of factors set Manhattan apart from the suburbs, and grant the city a degree of immunity from experts’ dire predictions about the death of retail. In New York, REBNY says there are “strong market fundamentals,” including diverse food tenants, online retailers opening storefronts, and the eternal cache of a New York, NY address.
But to REBNY, doing well means collecting more rent. Fifth Avenue between 14th and 23rd streets (the Flatiron Fifth Avenue corridor) and Broadway between Battery Park and Chambers Street (the Lower Manhattan corridor) did the best, with ground floor rents rising by 18 percent to $456 per square foot in the Flatiron and 11 percent to $362 per square foot along the Lower Manhattan corridor. The report only looks at rents along main strips. Rents on side streets, according to the report, could diverge from the main drag; conversely, a gorgeous space on a prime corner may command greater asking rent and affect averages all along the strip.
It’s not only high rents and taxes that are driving businesses to close. Online shopping is slaying retailers big and small, in Manhattan and the suburbs and beyond. Right now, unchecked real estate speculation and limited protections for small-business owners mean that there is little protection against ultimately having a national bank and pharmacy on every corner.
Detroit is now home to the newest Under Armour Brand House. The multistory sports-apparel showroom and store is housed in the historic 1917 Kresge Building in downtown Detroit. Local Kraemer Design Group (KDG) worked as historic consultant and architect of record on the project, and Sachse Construction was general contractor. Working with Bedrock, the building owner, KDG worked to maintain protected historic features throughout the project including the original marble walls and the brass handrails in a monumental staircase. At the same time, the space was altered to fit Under Armour’s brand. Since much of the space is on a mezzanine level, a new elevator was added, but otherwise the existing conditions in the one-hundred-year-old building were left undisturbed. The 17,000-square-foot store is just the latest of in a series of recently opening and planned flagship retail stores in Downtown Detroit, including a large Nike store and a future Warby Parker.Under Armour Brand House 1201 Woodward Avenue, Detroit Tel: 313-335-3162 Architect: Kraemer Design Group
SITU Studio crafts a uniquely flexible display system for a New York City vinyl record and audiophile store
Despite the recent resurgence in vinyl record sales, brick-and-mortar music retail remains a challenging business. New York City’s Turntable Lab—which sells vinyl, high-end audiophile equipment, and merchandise, catering to professional DJs and casual listeners alike—had successfully graduated from its small starting location near the Cooper Union to a larger, 1,200-square-foot space nearby. But Turntable’s owners knew their store needed to be nimble to survive. “Products always change…how you display things, where you might need to move things around. Maximum flexibility was what we were shooting for,” said Turntable Lab partner David Azzoni. The new store required that adaptability, but the owners didn’t want to lose the gritty basement feel of the old location.
They turned to Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary firm SITU Studio; the two teams had already collaborated to design a no-frills, flat-pack turntable stand that was successfully Kickstarted. Aleksey Lukyanov-Cherny, partner at SITU Studio, said the firm looked to DIY sources for inspiration for the store. “The brilliant detail: It’s a cleat. It’s actually something very straightforward, something your DIY handyman at home will build in his garage for tools,” he explained. The cleats run throughout the space, supporting around 10 different sets of brackets, hooks, and rails, all of which hold stands, shelves, and display inserts.
This system allows for extreme flexibility, but SITU Studio had to work hard to refine the cleat, ensuring that the racks would be secure without requiring tools or extensive force to change them around. Turntable Lab also visited SITU Studio’s workshop throughout the design process, bringing samples of products, to measure what dimensions and displays worked best. “We spent a lot of time just drawing and cutting these things out, playing with just the round-overs, the radiuses…there was a lot of massaging radiuses,” Lukyanov-Cherny recalled. One major decision was to cut out the center of the display brackets, thereby keeping the cases visually open. “It just flows,” said Azzoni.
SITU Studio selected clear finished and untreated Baltic birch plywood for the entire system, with high-pressure laminate for its heavily used surfaces. The plywood—CNC-milled into shape—retains the old shop’s raw, utilitarian feel but balances it with clean lines. And Turntable Lab’s owners couldn’t be happier with the result. Armed with a basic set of display units, they can easily swap out products and how they’re displayed. In the back of the store, each vinyl storage/display unit rolls on wheels and can be moved to make space for events.
Parked among the vinyl records and T-shirts is the old store’s timeworn turntable stand, still used by DJs for in-store concerts. Its plywood has weathered darkly with use, and it sharply contrasts with the fresh plywood around it. But it won’t be the only aged one for long.
“These things can take a beating; you don’t want to refine things that people will be touching. You want to think about materiality and how it ages over time,” Lukyanov-Cherny said. “Eventually,” he added, gesturing from the new plywood displays to the old turntable stand, “they’re all gonna look like this!”
Los Angeles– and Portland, Oregon–based architecture firm West of West recently completed work on a 400-square-foot pop-up shop for optical and sunglass retailer Garrett Leight California Optical (GLCO).
The store is located behind Alfred Coffee & Kitchen in the Melrose Place shopping center in West Hollywood, California. The pop-up shop includes birch-wood-clad interior partitions as well as typographic murals by design studio Cool August Moon. Designs also include a specialized display wall made up of white wooden pegs that support shelves and handheld mirrors.
One of the typographic walls is framed by a built-in bench made out of black-painted birch with a pair of tropical indoor potted plants. The bench sits adjacent to a secondary storefront entrance—the primary access point is through the coffee shop. That entrance is highlighted by a sheet of safety glass and is decorated with GLCO’s orange logo. That logo appears again inside the store, cut out of the birch accent wall behind the sales desk. An experimental magazine shelf made up of wooden dowels is located opposite the glasses wall; a lens-tinting machine and a marble-clad point-of-sale kiosk fill out the remainder of the space with raw concrete floors throughout. West of West explained in a statement: “The project was fascinating to us because of its hidden location—the experience of discovering an unexpected space is in contrast to the majority of the work we do.”
The store is open through the end of June.
GLCO at Alfred Melrose Place 8428 Melrose Place, Los Angeles Tel: 917-262-0955 Architect: West of West
Created by up-and-coming architects and designers, the distinct aesthetics of Aesop’s stores have become integral to the Australian skincare brand’s identity. Working with local craftspeople, Aesop integrates each location to its surroundings—no easy feat. The Architect's Newspaper (AN) editor Matthew Messner spoke with Marsha Meredith, creative director of Melbourne-based Aesop, who explained the ideas and process behind picking new store locations and designers, and discussed the company’s commitment to working with the community.
The Architect’s Newspaper: Could you discuss the process of finding and choosing designers for each store? What do you look for?
Marsha Meredith: We select architects not only for the excellence of their work but also their personality; their capacity to communicate and connect with us is integral to the realization of new spaces. We enjoy working with established architects and rising talents. We first worked with Frida Escobedo in 2013 for a temporary space we opened in Brooklyn, nestled in the Invisible Dog, a local art center. We had come across Frida’s work and reached out precisely because her experience lay in a more conceptual space, away from traditional retail architecture. The design she presented for Invisible Dog connected with the artistic soul of the space while preserving its humble character.
The locations of new Aesop stores also seem to be an important decision. What are some of the factors in choosing a location?
There’s no formula. Intuition plays a big role in choosing the right location, and so do serendipitous recommendations from partners—be it from architects, retailers, or restaurants. In Miami, for example, the Design District might have been a natural choice for a premium retail company, but we felt more at ease in Wynwood. It might have been the murals, the coffee at Panther, or O, Miami, the poetry festival organized by the University of Wynwood collective. We drew inspiration from the local streetscape—its buildings, its history, its people.
How do new Aesop stores tap into local crafts, trades, materials, and history?
As a company, our first consideration is always to work with what is already in place and tread lightly with respect to the past. We then allow the architects to create their original concept. Frida’s inspiration is particularly rich and fertile. In Tampa, her design engaged with the neoclassical style of the restaurant and lifestyle store Oxford Exchange, but adding a terra-cotta sink crafted by Florida-based ceramic artist John Byrd was a subtle yet distinct nod to the area’s Cuban and Spanish influences. In Coconut Grove, Frida understood the store was located in a bustling shopping space. Her concept was an interesting response to this particular setting: Drawing on the hammock as a tropical motif for repose, the relaxed design diffused an alluring calmness, letting our store become a refuge where one can rest and decompress.
What do you believe is the value added by enlisting critical designers for each store, as opposed to reproducing similar stores in each location?
Enlisting designers who are able to capture a neighborhood is the least we can do. As a retailer with a global presence, we have a responsibility to add value to the neighborhoods in which we open. We seek to weave ourselves into the fabric of the street rather than creating a discordant presence. Collaborations also nurture our own creative soul: We enjoy the original interpretations of Aesop that come through in each unique design.
Like an architect, fashion designer Thakoon Panichgul carefully balances contemporary and historical influences. His eponymous brand has won him fans from Michelle Obama to Target, but when it came time to build a brick-and-mortar store, Panichgul and New York–based SHoP faced a more complex balancing act. They wanted to carefully devise an interior that would reflect its Soho surroundings and the Thakoon aesthetic, all while grabbing the attention of passersby and setting itself apart from competitors.
“Thakoon was really interested in making [the store] of its place, of New York, bringing in the grit of the city,” said Coren Sharples, principal at SHoP. Concrete with dark aggregate covers the floors, and the architects tapped Brooklyn-based Fernando Mastrangelo Studio to cast multiple concrete walls throughout the store. Mastrangelo reproduced the subtle gradients of his furniture on an architectural scale, pouring multiple layers of gray-hued concrete in a single casting. “This was crazy, it was done on site,” said Sharples. “This was formed up and poured. Really a little scary, but [Mastrangelo] was amazing.”
Wood was also an important part of Panichgul’s vision—the designer had prepared a mood board with several wood treatments that figured prominently in other fashion brands’ aesthetics. These ranged from light treatments with vernacular ornamentation (what he called “American Traditional”) to richly grained and darkly stained (“American Glam”). SHoP and Panichgul ultimately chose an unfinished white oak (“American Cool”), a look that left the wood in its raw, natural state. White oak surfaces sinuously undulate along the showroom’s walls even as they retain a dry, coarse texture. The architects and client also worked closely with Brooklyn-based furniture maker Vonnegut/Kraft on the store’s wood furniture: Connection details, leather seating, and each edge and taper went through multiple iterations before landing on a design that features simple woven-leather straps. Vonnegut/Kraft’s pieces stand in the main showroom and hug the curves of each dressing room.
Extra seating is provided by travertine blocks that were CNC-milled in Italy to 3-D models provided by SHoP. Panichgul tapped London-based designer Michael Anastassiades for the principal lighting features: simple orbs with brass detailing. Brass is also used for the store’s clothing rods and the towering sculptural display rack that stands prominently in the main showroom.
Taken all together, the materials find ways to somehow be both angular and curved, smooth and gritty, even as their neutral tones give the clothing center stage. “We wanted it to be infused with material sensibility and warmth, but at the same time, it’s always this line you walk because you don’t want to overpower or dictate,” said Sharples.
This article appears in The Architect’s Newspaper’s April 2017 issue, which takes a deep dive into Florida to coincide with the upcoming AIA Conference on Architecture in Orlando (April 27 to 29). We’re publishing the issue online as the Conference approaches—click here to see the latest articles to be uploaded.
When Victor Gruen designed the first contemporary American malls in the mid-1950s, he changed the changed the way Americans shopped. Much to his chagrin, however, what malls would become over the next 50 years would be far from the civic social suburban spaces that he had envisioned. He would eventually distance himself from the typology.
Today, malls, as a typology, are going through major change. Whether due to a changing economy or a changing customer base, malls—as 1990s mall rats knew them—are disappearing. Instead, new configurations and old ideas are shaping the way people are shopping, and if there is one place to look at this change, it’s Florida.
Florida has weathered the last decade relatively well. Buoyed by its massive tourist industry and the ever-replenished retiring baby boomer population, malls across the state still draw crowds. Even so, these palaces of consumerism are not impervious to the changing tastes of the country. As national retailers such as Macy’s and J.C. Penney fall on hard times, the anchor stores have become literal anchors—dragging.
Although new “traditional” malls are rarely being built, shopping centers are still popping up, or being reformatted. Perhaps ironically, one of the most popular mall replacements are retail streets. Many of these have been commercial centers for decades, but so many of them declined as malls gained in popularity. Across Southern Florida, the towns and suburbs surrounding Miami have rushed to remodel and reinvigorate their “urban” shopping streets.
The next of these to be realized will be Coral Gables’ Miracle Mile. The half-mile main east-west drag through town, Coral Way, has been home to numerous mom-and-pop stores, many of which have struggled to survive. The urban design, by New York firms Cooper Robertson and Local Office Landscape Architecture, aims to replace the narrow sidewalks and copious angled street parking with a more pedestrian-friendly experience. Flexible plazas, outdoor dining spaces, enlarged planted areas, redesigned wayfinding graphics, and an improved lighting scheme will be used on and beyond the Miracle Mile. Stretching off on neighboring side streets and focusing on intersections, the plan will reframe the area as a full retail district. While the model for the project is a European shopping experience, overhead LED lighting and bright street pavers will be decidedly Florida, evoking the shapes and movement of raindrops and water ripples.
The Miracle Mile will be just one of the many revitalized shopping streets in the Miami area. It will join Palm Beach’s Sunset Drive and Worth Avenue, and Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach as alternatives to traditional malls. Yet while these more established venues are seeing new life, traditional malls are being completely rethought. New retailers and new customer expectations are being formalized as street-mall hybrids on a scale that has not been seen before.
The Miami Worldcenter will be a 27-acre mixed-use development in downtown Miami. At the heart of the $2 billion project is a “High Street retail promenade and plaza” which will include retail, dining, and entertainment along a pedestrian street. The project is so large—it will also contain 2,000 residential units and 1,700 hotel rooms—that it will connect the Central Business District and the Arts & Entertainment District, changing the way tourists and Miamians move through the downtown.
Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects is leading the master planning as well as designing three of the buildings for the project. The firm’s experience designing the extremely popular Grove and Downtown Disney projects in Southern California make it particularly suited for the project. Even so, the Worldcenter is on a much larger scale and addresses particularities of downtown Miami.
“Miami is evolving from a car-centric city to a pedestrian-oriented city,” Howard Elkus, founding principal of Elkus Manfredi said. “By focusing the energy of our project at the street level, we are able to create more vibrant streets and public spaces. Our dynamic open-space network now includes a system of parks, plazas, and car-free promenades anchored by a major urban plaza that will become the heart of Miami.”
In its original form, the Worldcenter resembled a more traditional mall, a three-level indoor shopping experience with large big-box anchors. Over the course of the design, the nature of retail had changed enough that the anchor-store model was rethought. The project quickly shifted to a more urban plan with separate blocks and pedestrian streets. Luckily for the development, a recent change in Miami’s zoning code made the project possible as an outdoor retail district. In particular, the Miami 21 zoning code, a new form based code that regulates building form standards, public space, and street standards. The code is guided by base tenets of the New Urbanism and Smart Growth movements. Both focus on pedestrian- and community-based design.
As customers demand more engaging shopping experiences with more complex programs, retail developers are not far behind with epic new shopping districts. From rehabilitated retail streets to newly built mixed-use districts, shoppers may soon be more likely to run into dapper flaneurs than escalator-riding mall rats.