Design thinking: retail architecture as extension of the product experiencePosted: October 16, 2011
Much has been written about the design sensibility of Apple under the leadership of Steve Jobs.
In a way few other business leaders are capable of, Jobs approached store design no differently than he did all other aspects of his design of the Apple organization. Entering an Apple retail space, one can imagine Jobs thinking, could transform a person’s concept of what is possible. Creating a magical environment (stairs that seem to float) would suspend disbelief and make magic manifest in the physical structure itself.
The lesson for other businesses is no less relevant. A maker of clothing, for example, can also seek to connect store and packaging design to convey the aesthetic of the brand and to heighten emotion through the tactile experience of touching the cloth itself. A food maker can seek to package and present their foods in retail settings that are filled with delicious aromas of food beautifully, simply and honestly presented.
Below are some of the Apple stores that I think are particularly striking:
The article below by James Stewart describes the partnership between Jobs and architect Peter Bohlin that produced some of the most memorable retail store designs of recent memory.
When the architect Peter Bohlin arrived for his first meeting with Steve Jobs, he wore a tie. “Steve laughed, and I never wore a tie again,” Mr. Bohlin recalled.
Thus began a collaboration that has extended from Pixar’s headquarters, completed in 2001, to more than 30 Apple Stores (and counting) around the globe, all with design work by Mr. Bohlin and his firm, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson — and Mr. Jobs himself.
“The best clients, to my mind, don’t say that whatever you do is fine,” Mr. Bohlin said last week, a few days after Mr. Jobs’s death. “They’re intertwined in the process. When I look back, it’s hard to remember who had what thought when. That’s the best, most satisfying work, whether a large building or a house.”
Just as Mr. Jobs transformed the notion of the personal computer and the cellphone, he left an indelible stamp on architecture, especially the retail kind, traditionally a backwater of the profession.
“No one in commercial architecture has ever channeled a product into architecture for a client the way Peter did for Apple,” said James Timberlake, a founding partner of KieranTimberlake, who is now designing the new American embassy in London. “Most commercial architecture is under-detailed, under-edited and under-budgeted. It’s gross and ugly, and most of it is an eyesore on the American landscape.”
The work of Mr. Bohlin and his colleagues for Apple, by contrast, is sleek, transparent, inviting, technologically advanced — and expensive. In many ways, the retail architecture is simply the largest box in which an Apple product is wrapped, and Mr. Jobs was famously attentive to every detail in an Apple product’s presentation and customer experience.
The extensive use of glass in structures like Apple’s cube on Fifth Avenue, between 58th and 59th Streets in Manhattan, its cylinder in the Pudong district of Shanghai or its soaring market hall on the Upper West Side of Manhattan have become so distinctive that Apple is seeking to patent the glass elements. Mr. Bohlin’s firm has won 42 awards for its work for Apple, and Mr. Bohlin himself was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ gold medal in 2010.
In their years working together, Mr. Jobs and Mr. Bohlin, who is 74, appeared to have achieved a rare chemistry.
Mr. Jobs was “a very public person,” Mr. Timberlake observed. “That’s in contrast to Peter. He’s not a Frank Lloyd Wright or a Philip Johnson. He doesn’t sweep into a room and take over. You go to a design meeting, and it’s more like a fireside chat.”
A team led by Karl Backus at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson learned early on to approach Mr. Jobs with alternatives. “He liked to be presented with options and would often make very insightful suggestions,” recalled Mr. Backus, who lives in California and focuses full-time on Apple work. “We all enjoyed the collaboration.”
The notion of glass as Apple’s signature architectural statement first appeared in the staircase in its store in SoHo, housed in a historic building.
“We had a two-story space, which is a great challenge to get people to go up or down,” Mr. Bohlin said. “So we thought of glass. Steve loved the glass stairway idea. He got it. You make magic. We made these stairs that were quite ethereal.”
Just as Mr. Jobs obsessed over Apple products, he pushed Mr. Bohlin to make the glass structures ever more refined and pure.
“We got James O’Callaghan involved. He’s brilliant, a British structural engineer with offices in New York and London,” Mr. Bohlin said. “Now we’re cantilevering the stairs from top to bottom.”
In the newest Apple store, in Hamburg, Germany, the stairs float in space, attached only at the top and bottom. The fittings are embedded in the glass, “so you get this magical sleek profile when you look up the wall.” Mr. Bohlin said.
“This is the kind of detail Steve wanted,” he added. “We’ve been driving for this, doing more and more with less and less. This has been a vision of architecture since earlier in the last century. Modernism, some people would argue, is doing more with less. Steve wanted us to push the edge of technology, but it had to be comfortable for people. Sometimes that idea got lost in modernism. It’s an interesting challenge, how to marry the two.”
Apple’s use of glass in retail architecture emerged as a design and branding element at its Fifth Avenue store, which opened in 2006. The site had the initial challenge of luring customers into an underground plaza that had been notoriously inhospitable as a retail destination. The solution was a pristine glass cube and staircase flooded with natural light.
“We came to the conclusion it had to feel inevitable,” Mr. Bohlin said. “The adjacent G.M. Building has a tall, narrow facade, and its best aspect is directly across from the Plaza Hotel. Everything in the area is rectangular. So we thought of a square of light. It looks easy, but it wasn’t.”
Customers started lining up 42 hours before the store opened, and lines have formed ever since, with crowd control often required to prevent overcrowding. The building is now being renovated and expanded. In keeping with Mr. Bohlin’s and Mr. Jobs’s never-ending quest to achieve more with less, a new cube will feature larger glass panes and fewer visible connecting elements.
Despite its popular and critical success, Mr. Bohlin and Apple have not simply repeated the glass cube in other cities. The new Apple store in Shanghai is a glass cylinder using huge seamless panels of curved glass. Like the cube on Fifth Avenue, it leads to a large underground space, but in contrast, the area around it isn’t rectilinear, and the most prominent local landmark, a towering television tower, is located at an oblique angle to the shopping plaza.
“We had the idea of a circle,” Mr. Bohlin said. “Steve said, ‘Why isn’t the entire plaza around the entrance a circle?’ I said that was a great idea, but that’s beyond our control. The plaza was already under construction. Somehow he got the developer to agree to redesign and redo it. I don’t know how he did it.”
More recently, Mr. Bohlin has used glass to create what he calls “great market halls,” such as the Upper West Side store at 66th Street and Broadway.
“We’re doing a number of those,” he said. “The glazed lid. Can it be detailed any more delicately? I’m not sure. We continue to press that. Steve was a great client in this regard. He would not discourage innovation that was within his vision of what Apple is or he is.”
For someone as fascinated — some would say obsessed — by design and architecture as Mr. Jobs, it’s surprising that he lived in a relatively modest Tudor-style house in Palo Alto, Calif., built by a developer, and never lived in a house he helped to design. That might have changed had he lived a while longer. He and Mr. Bohlin had been at work for years on plans for a new house when Mr. Jobs died.
“He was so busy and, of course, ill, so it was unlikely he’d ever live there,” Mr. Bohlin said. “But he loved the site. It wasn’t a very large house, and we don’t know if he thought we were finished. I remember when Steve first hired us, he said: ‘I hired you because you’ve done very good large buildings, and you’ve done great houses.’ If you’re doing houses, then you’re thinking about the subtleties of a building.’ ”
Mr. Bohlin continued: “I remember that so clearly, and I was impressed that he appreciated that.”