A Beautiful Blending

Janet Wiens

JGA, Inc. designs a new flagship store for The North Face in the Ansonia Building on New York's Upper West Side—a retail property that celebrates not only the company's sales savvy and cultural diversity, but also the area's rich architectural history

The North Face, a subsidiary of Vanity Fair Corp., has a well-deserved reputation as one of the world's premier makers of outdoor gear. The company's trademark, Never Stop Exploring™, could also apply to The North Face's new flagship store in the Ansonia Building on New York's Upper West Side. This wonderful retail property showcases the company's retail savvy, its technical expertise and its architectural sensitivity. The store's design urges customers to explore not only the products displayed, but the architecture and collection of cultural artifacts as well.

"We looked for more than a year to find the right location," says David Curtis, senior manager of store design and visual merchandising for The North Face. "We analyzed the demographics of our customers in addition to looking for a prime location. We also required a location that would attract both local residents and international visitors to the city."

The 100-year-old Ansonia Building, a national landmark structure that was home at one time to Babe Ruth among other notable individuals, was the perfect solution. The North Face took over two levels in the building to provide the required 8,449 square feet of retail space.

"The national retailer that was previously the first floor tenant had covered over the building's architecture with drywall, an lay-in ceiling and other features," Curtis states. "As we stripped away these elements we revealed the building's rich architectural detailing and character. It was a wonderful surprise, and we felt an obligation to restore the details and to incorporate them into our design."

The North Face partnered with JGA, Inc., Southfield, MI, to design the project. (JGA also provided design services for The North Face's new flagship store in Beverly Hills, CA.) The JGA team was charged with restoring the building's architectural character while also showcasing the company's products. A key element in the design was to incorporate cultural elements from countries where The North Face has sponsored expeditions and where The North Face athlete team has explored.

"Each year The North Face sponsors world-class athletes to lead expeditions around the world," says JGA's chairman, Ken Nisch, AIA. "The company wanted to incorporate design elements that reflected the cultural heritage of the countries where these expeditions were conducted. The combination of product technology, the building's architecture and the athletes' cultural ties provided the inspiration."

Gutting the building's existing interior exposed the brickwork and structural steel. The two-story, cast-iron window, which had been totally covered, was opened and restored. The glass in one of the windows had oxidized to a purple color over the years. This was retained and one of the cashier stations was situated in front it.

"The interior is a mix of rough and smooth, historic and technological," says Nisch. "The restored architecture is the perfect backdrop for both the modern design elements and the company's high-tech products."

Shoppers enter the building through a rotunda-like access. The space features oversized glazed archways and a broken fieldstone floor. Water cascades down a 17-foot-high water feature crafted of hand-cast glass with a stone base to create a soothing effect. The transition from the city street to the store's interior is dramatic.

The color palette of the store's walls is largely neutral. Terra cotta was used to extend the tonality of the brick into the atria. Remaining walls are off-white to allow product displays to stand out.

Nisch says that flexibility for the displays was critical since The North Face changes displays more frequently than many retailers. "The company resets major portions of the store three to four times a year. They needed systems and displays that could easily be reconfigured to accommodate various products and uses." Fixturing provides flexibility with a minimum number of hardware pieces and multi-bracket hardware can be used on walls, floors and fixtures to accommodate side- or face-out hanging. One-of-a-kind wood display tables, chests and trunks, crafted by artisans from around the world, supplement the wall displays.

Displaying bulky sleeping bags and tents without taking up too much floor space and still providing easy access to stock for salespersons was challenging. JGA's answer was to store sleeping bag stock behind large graphic panels located to either side of hanging sleeping bags. Miniature models of the tents are located atop display units that have product-descriptive graphics on two ends heralding the features of each tent style. The other two sides hold the actual product.

A two-level atrium in front of the sculptural stairway connects the two floors. The atrium's concrete floor has an inset of reclaimed antique hickory. The stairway's brushed stainless steel and glass juxtaposed near one of the original brick walls and ornate windows provides yet another blending of the old and the new. A large interchangeable graphic panel inspired by a Japanese temple bell wall is positioned on the stairway's landing, thus creating a pause point. Images showcase the company's expeditions and are frequently changed. Patchwork quilt squares on the wall above the graphic feature a metallic thread from Tibet and are hung on a rail-like structure.

Fitting rooms are adjacent to exterior windows to take advantage of the natural light. Features include doors with a metallic finish, hand-carved wood coat hooks, exposed brick on one wall and mirrors framed in stainless steel.

The two cashier stations are modern in appearance. Bent metal panels with stainless steel bases and insets complement the nearby stairway and several of the bases used to display artifacts.

The multicultural pieces found throughout the store include a monastery door from Nepal, a sofa with carved wooden horse heads from India, tribal drums from Indonesia, an Argentinean dining table, a Peruvian door table and a ceremonial gong from Thailand. Each distinctive piece brings art and interest into the space.

The North Face and JGA have successfully restored one of the city's architectural treasures while creating an exciting and vibrant urban shopping destination. The design acknowledges and celebrates the building's historic character while showcasing the company's products and technical expertise.