Tell Me a Story

by Robert Nieminen

I’ve heard it said that good design is invisible. If this adage is true, then it is particularly relevant in the creation of retail spaces. When both a brand and its merchandise play leading roles, designers must be careful to ensure that interior design elements don’t detract from or outshine them. If the design isn’t quite imperceptible, it should play no more than a supporting role.

“A brand is often built elsewhere, in print and online, but has to manifest itself in three-dimensional ways, in a space, in a photo shoot,” says stylist Patrick J. Hamilton of Patrick James Hamilton Designs. “The other key is telling the story without overriding or upstaging it. The choices (of color, of material, of prop) should be supporting players. Very often, they’re subliminal, like the art direction of a film.”

Hamilton is one of five specialists we interviewed for this issue to discuss the roles that they play alongside interior designers in creating a cohesive and strong brand presentation in a retail space, as well as what they should bring to the table as part of the design team. Much like film production, creating beautiful and effective interiors cannot hinge on a single player; an entire cast must work together to bring a brand to life with a consistent message that is translated into three dimensions.

As Brian Orter, founder of Brian Orter Lighting Design, muses, “What is the story we are all trying to tell? Who are the characters (customers)? What are our goals? Our job is to tell their story. These ideas tell us how to illuminate the space.”

In the case of the global sports and lifestyle brand, Puma, the narrative for its new Retail 2.0 concept, which aims to unify innovation, simplicity, sustainability and local influences, is illustrated in a series of newly envisioned, regionally inspired retail stores in London, Munich and Amsterdam. Designed by Berlin-based Plajer & Franz Studio in conjunction with Ales Kernjak, head of global store concepts for Puma AG, the new stores infuse local flavor into their designs because it imparts a sense of uniqueness and familiarity—both of which help the retailer’s customers identify with the brand.

For the German fashion brand, Basler, another one of our featured photo essays in this issue, femininity and sophistication are the calling cards of the day. For its new Düsseldorf showroom, designers at Blocher Blocher Shops relied on the company’s new stylistic direction under visionary creative director Brian Rennie to express the brand’s story within the interiors.

“Basler’s attitude towards fashion and style has taken a new direction since Rennie came onboard,” explains Jutta Blocher, head of interior design at Blocher Blocher Partners. “He brought even more sophisticated design and glowing colors into the collections. We transferred this new self-conception between femininity, elegance and joie de vivre into the showroom with a mix of clean, basic elements and playful details, [such as] the Basler butterflies or the prominent pink color statement.”

Communicating a brand’s message within a permanent showroom with fixed walls is hard enough, but what if the shop is temporary? How do you manage to recreate (or reinvent) the retail experience when it is going to be taken down in only a matter of weeks or months? We’re glad you asked.

This month’s Trend article, “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” explores how pop-up shops can leave a lasting impression on customers by using a less-is-more strategy, both in terms of displays and environmental impacts. While the creative possibilities with temporary spaces are endless, contributing writer Kylie Wroblaski offers a note of caution: “Don’t stray so far into eye-catching and different that you neglect the brand altogether. You may have more creative freedom with a pop-up shop than with a brick-and-mortar retail establishment, but you have to make sure that the design meshes with the rest of the client’s messaging.”

In a market that is so highly visual, it may seem counterintuitive to design a retail space that’s “invisible.” But as the late Steve Jobs said, “It’s not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.” And if I may add, design is also how it sells.