Archive for the 'Retail' Category

Sushi Staplers to Matryoshka Measuring Cups; An Adventure through Urban Outfitter’s Design Sensibilities

The rate of inventory turnover at Urban Outfitters is about as quick as any fast food chain. Therefore, it can sometimes difficult to comment on the product’s design sensibilities. But the store’s ever-changing nature is indicative of its entire approach to design. Urban Outfitters store sells mid-range priced apparel, home wares, books and music to trendy, middle class, young adults. Urban Outfitters is the epitome of post-modernism. Though it offers an almost unlimited choice of styles and products, certain characteristics are constant in everything the store sells.

On its website, Urban Outfitters is explicit about its desire to “understand our customers and connect with them on an emotional level” so that that “the customer feels an empathetic connection to the brand and is persuaded to buy.” The store’s objects are designed to engender a sense of empathy on behalf of its consumer base by creating nostalgia for decades as recent as the 1990s with t-shirts adorned with images from 90s cartoons, lego accessories and photo books of 90’s album covers. Humor, unqualified referencing, re-appropriation and pastiche are all running threads through the store’s product line, all of which appeal to their target market.

The merchandise changes because the customer base also changes as Urban Outfitters are always targeting the same 18-25 demographic. The store is an embodiment of the ‘early adopter’ consumer. It is fickle; it embraces trends quickly, and then drops them as soon as sales begin to dwindle. In this regard, objects are trendy, go in and out of fashion and are seen as disposable. The store will fully adopt whatever motif popular at the time. For some strange reason, this month’s motif seems to be owls. (More about the owls later.)

As expected, the Urban Outfitters apparel department is subject to this ever-spinning circle of fashion more than any other area. Along with the most cutting edge trends; currently chunky knits, native American motifs and metallic ‘jeggings’, customers can find almost anything; from floral dresses, to Led Zeppelin t-shirts, to cowboy boots and everything else in between. The store re-appropriates older fashions trends and regurgitates them with a winking inauthenticity in the name irony, retro appeal or faux bohemian sensibility. Vintage styling is popular, but a lot of new clothes are simply given the look of vintage, with faded t-shirts and jeans particularly popular. Clothing is often paired in strange or unusual ways, with a mannequin in a sequined 1920s flapper dress and a motorcycle jacket – equal parts Joan Crawford and James Dean.

There are entire sections within the store that can only be classified as miscellaneous, the kinds of objects you might find in a gadget store designed for middleclass young adults. Objects here range from anything from mp3 players to stationery or photo albums. Every part of the globe is showcased in strange ways from sushi staplers to represent Japan and matryoshka measuring cups representing Russia. (I have no idea if the constant alliteration is intentional but I suspect it’s only a coincidence.) The gadgets are often witty and lighthearted, and often play with scale like the stag’s head or toothbrush. There are also owl stashboxes, owl ornaments, wooden owl frames, knit owl wine bottle cosy, owl lanterns, owl umbrella stand and owl cookie cutters for the owl lover that (clearly!) must reside in all of us.

In the gadget section, analogue is king. The store is decorated with Lamography products such as the Holga and Diana cameras and Polaroid pictures. Even if the object itself is technologically advanced, it is still disgusted as analogue, such as the mp3 player designed to look like a tape player. This nostalgia for such a recent past is unusual but is part of Urban Outfitters desire to form an emotional connection between their products their 18-30 target market.

Urban Outfitters have re-skinned and consumed a number of underground movements and long-expired subcultures – cowboys, pirates, punk and white trash to create a number of consumer items. Every reference is for the taking, to be altered and sold. Among a pile of objects, I found both an Anna Sui faux-Victorian hairbrush and plasters designed with 60s pop art patterns with Internet slang like ‘LOL’ and ‘WTF ; )’.

Urban Outfitters often receives complaints from different community groups, using by keffiyehs as fashion accessories and selling ‘Dress Up Jesus’ fridge magnets, offending the Jewish and Catholic community, respectively. But despite these few controversies, most would argue that Urban Outfitters has lost its edge and become more suburban than urban. There are expletives, like slut, pimp and bitch, on everything from plasters to plates but this feels more desperate than edgy, though this is perhaps because I am leaving their target demographic.

Downstairs in the home wares section, John Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland illustrations from the late 19th Century on plates sit on the table next to the same plates covered in wacky bright contemporary illustrations. (The illustrations are mostly of owls, of course) I’m sure design purists would be disgusted at the unusual pairing, but there is no disjuncture here because nothing makes sense alongside anything else. That’s the whole point.

In Urban Outfitters, The Simpsons, Family Guy and beyond, from the self-referential to references within references, our relationship to original sources is being obscured and slowly diluted. Many designers, design critics and visual historians are concerned but I suspect the vast majority have either not noticed or don’t care. I am not of the mindset that Urban are bastardizing these objects or find these amalgamations offensive. If anything, they are what make Urban Outfitters so quintessentially post-modern. It is the strength of a young adult growing up in a media and image saturated world that the majority can look at an object and instantly grasp, or at least filter through, all the simultaneous references within it.

Urban Outfitters understands the youth market; it knows that no twenty year old is looking for a teapot or t-shirt to last them a lifetime. Despite some increased environmental awareness, younger generations will always want trendy, disposable items. Even though I have almost left their target age group, I can’t help but love browsing through Urban Outfitter’s haven of sillyness because above all, it’s extremely fun.

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Finding the Light; Limelight’s Church to Capitalism

A building’s structure creates certain expectations. A 50-story glass curtain wall building conjures up ideas of the office work that must go on inside. Conversely, a small country home invokes ideas of domestic life. A church, particularly one in the recognizable Neo-Gothic style, has a structure so iconic that nobody, religious or not, can mistake it for anything but a place of worship. When I first came across the Limelight Marketplace at 656 6th Avenue at the corner of 20th Street, and saw inside not an altar and pews but an array of shops, I was quite taken aback.

Originally called Church of the Holy Communion, the architect of the church was Richard Upjohn, who famously designed the Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan. In the 1970s, the church was deconsecrated and re-purposed first as a drug rehabilitation centre and later as a nightclub, which ironically became notorious for drug use. In May 2010, the building was re-purposed yet again as the Limelight Marketplace. Developer Jack Menashe hired a design team lead by James Mansour to transform the building into a three-story indoor shopping space based on European modes of shopping. It is now called “A Festival of Shops” and features over 60 specialist boutiques selling apparel, accessories and gourmet food.

If John Ruskin, who attached strong moral ideas to Gothic architecture, had seen this church’s reincarnation, there is no doubt that he would have been disgusted. I originally attempted to critique the Limelight Marketplace’s re-design by how tastefully and respectfully have they considered the architecture while the transformation was conducted, without too any religious or moral associations. But, even though I am not a religious person, I found those aspects are impossible to separate. Its former purpose as a church completely informs how the interior is read. The interior’s overly glossy atmosphere not only seems overbearing, which isn’t in keeping with their goal to feel like a European market, but becomes particularly uncomfortable when your consider it as a former place of worship.

The Brownstone exterior still has all its recognizable Gothic features intact: stained glass windows, lancet windows frames. The only exterior adornments are the black and white cloth signs that hang from the building and an 8 inch plaque right of the door. Jack Menashe had sought 13 signs for the exterior but the city’s Landmarks Preservation Committee allowed only 8. This restriction might explain the two enormous free standing signs, each featuring one half of the site’s logo, placed on the sidewalk on both sides of the door. The circular logo’s pattern has a flower-like pattern has taken been taken from the window above, so before I even entered I expect that the marketplace is using the building as a unique sell-point, instead of trying to ignore it.

Customers enter through the original pointed red wooden door, where a layer of pearl white has been painted on the inside. This white paint is the first indication of the gloss that has been applied throughout the building. Through this door is an alcove with the first of many decadent chandeliers inside the building. The store’s floor plan hangs on the wall to the right. This means there is a large extension on the left-side of the church, which now houses the food emporium. The rows of stores are laid aside both sides of the church and a collection of shoe and candy stores at the back. The two upper levels, which include jewellery stores and spa area, protrude over all these stores like large balconies. These levels are accessible by narrows stairs at the rear of the church. The food emporium is not visible from the main entrance but begins behind the candy store and continues through to an extension on the left side of the building. Gothic churches are typically laid out in a cross shape but the church’s first reverend, Rev. Muhlenberg asked Richard Upjohn to include design elements that were more in keeping with Roman Catholic churches so this extension was added.

A shiny black and white marble floor begins in the alcove and continues throughout the ground floor in a checkered pattern. A long red carpet has recently been added for the holiday season, either to give it a more “Christmasy” feel or to make customers like celebrities. The first thing that strikes you upon entering is how bright the interior is, quite a feat considering churches are notoriously dark spaces. The large lights hanging from the ceiling and banisters decorated in fairy lights reflect off the Gothic features that have all been painted a bright white using the same white pearl paint on the front door. The ceilings have been kept dark to contrast with the glossy white Neo-Gothic flourishes but also include some sections of hot pink making the interior look like a Barbie’s Dream Church. There is a collection disco balls hanging at different levels from the centre of the ceiling, perhaps recalling its former status as a disco. There is an abundance of chandeliers throughout the space, which begin to feel quite excessive as you move through the interiors.

As you walk through the nave, down what would normally be the church’s aisle, there are a number of high-end boutiques selling perfumes, soaps and books to your left and right where there would normally be pews. Each store is encased in its own arched frame, either in white or light pastel. The building’s overly glossy finish is in conflict with its goal to appear like a traditional European market. The interior basically has a suburban mall aesthetic, albeit on a smaller scale, within a church casing.  The interiors generally improve as you move away from the centre. The ‘Le Pain’ cheese shop at the back of the store, past the now-candy covered transept has darker interiors, red brick walls and exposed wooden beams, and feels like the most genuine representation of a European market within the store. The Gourmet Room has a cream tile floor and less sparkling chandeliers and thus feels much less over-bearing. The ugliest part of the interior is the stairs at the back of this food court that lead to Tina’s Attic where the revolting lime green exposed brick wall and an enormous orange sign surrounded by Las Vegas style lights.

A bright array of candy in every color, shape and size, attracts you under a pink jellybean encrusted arch and inside the It’Sugar store at the apse of the church. It is difficult to tell if this was an intentional decision to place a candy store at the back of the church where the congregation would normally receive the host or ‘body of Christ’ during a church service, but I find it surprising that nobody thought to point that out. The art deco-style frame surrounding the store is topped with a large ‘S’ with a wings and devil horns pattern extending out of it which is not only a cliqued logo design, but inappropriate considering its setting.

As I begun to ascend the first set of narrow stairs to the upper levels, I was distracted by some artwork hanging in the Orbit Gallery Space in my eye line. The “Heavenly bodies” collection featured four pin-up girls with Bettie Page hairstyles, huge breasts in animal print bra and knowing, seductive stares surrounded in a flames motif. Hang on, the flames of hell and half naked women in a former church? Heavenly bodies? Surely, this is not a coincidence. I don’t condone artistic censorship in a gallery setting, but there is something in this juxtaposition that I feel goes beyond the realms of taste. And the piece itself is cheap and tacky enough that I cannot defend it on artistic merit.

Design is not just about decoration, it is also a curatorial process. Because the Limelight Marketplace’s planners had very little control over the building’s exterior and layout, the decisions made about the interior become increasingly important. The white painted arches clash with the historical stained glass windows. The Hunter shoe store wall has kept the original stone carving detail and uses it as decorative element to emphasis the shoe rack. For most of the stores, their position in the church is like a decorative gimmick they enjoy referencing through their logos, products and layout, which if it isn’t inappropriate, it is at least tacky.

You can landmark a building’s structure but you can never “landmark” its function. Is it acceptable to have a market in a Catholic Church because churches have traditionally held markets on church grounds? Would a shopping mall be appropriate in a Synagogue? Would a sex shop be appropriate? Since now repurposed churches are becoming increasingly common, it is worth reflecting if there is ever a line that can be crossed in regards to appropriateness.    This is an ethical or a taste issue more than an architectural issue so I can’t give a definitive answer for every person. But for me, Limelight’s glossy white painted Gothic arches, tacky stores and inappropriate choices are irksome and often cross that line.

Falling for FAO Schwarz

The elevated plaza at 5th Avenue and the South East corner of Central Park is home to two very high-end stores; the eerily church-like Apple Store and the very prestigious toy store FAO Schwarz. Both stores are so revered that it often makes the plaza feel as metaphorically elevated as it is physically. However, it is only the former that receives attention in the design press. But through some observation and investigation, one will quickly realize how false the assumption is that because toy store’s target market is generally children that the stores are not designed. In fact, not only is FAO Schwarz highly designed, but it is also designed primarily with adults in mind.

When you enter the store, you are surrounded by stuffed animals of every type and scale. Among them is a brown bear larger than most armchairs, a snow leopard as long as dining table and a giraffe as tall than most grown men, which all stand proudly on their high shelves. These “jumbo-sized” products are on sale for between $600 and an incredible $2,500 but are primarily used for visual impact and to create a jungle-like environment. Most are available in much smaller sizes at much more reasonable prices. All of these stuffed animals are FAO Schwarz’s own brand and have the ‘FAO’ logo on their paws. That FAO Schwartz has their own brand of products adds to the prestige of the company, reminding customers that the store is an important brand in itself and not just a place to sell Mattel or Lego.  As the logo proudly states, the store was established in 1862 emphasizing its longevity and tradition. But children generally don’t care about tradition; this emphasis is purely for adults.

The adjacent shelves contain smaller items such as tin robots, wind-up trains and solider nutcracker ornaments. These toys are beautifully crafted but I suspect appeal a lot more to parents than children. They hearken back to a past time when toys were constructed from wood and tin, not bytes and pixels. In many ways, they’re trying to reassure parents that their children are growing up in the same world that they did, which of course is not true. This nostalgia seems to have informed a lot of the store’s toy choices, including the Make-Your-Own-Muppet. I couldn’t help but wonder if children even watch The Muppets anymore? Surely they would prefer a make-your-own Dora the Explorer friend instead.

Design is not just about decoration, it is often about selection. FAO Schwarz’s toy selection is so careful, that it feels almost curatorial. And like their desire to be seen as long-standing and traditional is seen through their logo, their selection process illustrates their desire to be associated with an older time. The large stuffed toys that are beyond most people’s financial reach keep the luxurious allure that makes it a high-end store. There are so electronic hand-held devices or computer games. Instead the store is filled with the outrageously expensive collectable Steiff bears, limited edition Barbies such as Mad Men or Flashdance dolls that clearly don’t appeal to children and Frank Lloyd Wright Lego structures. These products are counterbalanced with child-friendly board games, an array of dress-up dolls and toy cars, but the ratio is very much 50/50.

I really enjoy going to FAO Schwarz but I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t just appeal to the child in me, it appeals to almost all of me. Sadly, FAO Schwartz is no longer fully independent as it is now owned by the toy Toys R Us conglomerate. But Toys R Us clearly see the benefit to keeping the store as it always was, realizing the importance of making a store as appealing to parents and as it to children.

This is not to say that children will not love FAO Schwartz. Every single detail is wonderfully designed from the stanchion posts filled with bright candy, to the giant light-up piano, to the giant solider made of jellybeans with FAO logo painstakingly detailed on the back of his jacket. These details make it feel magical and unique.  I just suspect it may be the children that get tired and want to head home before the adults, especially those that only want an Xbox game.