Outside The Box

Robert Nieminen

Dual Office's solution for the Echo handbag showroom takes retail design beyond the "white envelope". It is a careful melding of edgy industrial design and graphic sensibilities-a modern environment rich with texture and details, but definitely not fussy.


Strip away the logos and over-scaled graphic ads and what do most stores look like these days? To Bruce Lightbody and Jeremy Regenbogen, principals of the San Francisco, CA-based design firm Dual Office, they're mostly variations of the same, well-lit "white envelope."

"The 'branded environment' is the most overstated, underused retail concept today," Lightbody says. "If the branded environment is a white box, what does that say about the state of retail now? And what does that say about the brand?"

Not much, which is why Dual Office took a decidedly different approach to its design of the new Echo Design handbag showroom in New York. Blending their philosophies of edgy industrial design and graphic sensibilities, Lightbody and Regenbogen designed "a
modern environment that is rich with texture. We thought outside of the (white) box," Lightbody said.

It's precisely this sort of thinking that landed them the project in the first place.

Disappointed with the concepts they were getting from local design firms, Echo Designs turned to Dual Office for help in translating its vision for a showroom that would be true to its identity—simple, richly textured, but not fussy. This new space celebrates the clean lines, attention to detail and classic character of Echo's new product line—handbags.

Not only is the form of this 2,000-square-foot space different, its function is equally unique. This is a showroom for a select audience—buyers from other retail stores—that could have allowed the showroom to cater only to the needs of those buyers. But, according to Lightbody, the client wanted to do more with the space. It wanted the showroom to really feel like a retail store in order to show the buyers how the product could look when beautifully displayed. Because a handbag product line is a new addition to Echo's product mix, the showroom had to not only show off the product, but also reinforce that Echo was moving forward into new fashion territory, Lightbody explains.
"The client asked us to create a design that celebrated the essence of Echo, that had the look and feel of a retail store, that created a 'wow' factor for buyers and that satisfied the numerous functional needs of this type of showroom."

Given that there were almost no changes to the original design as the project moved through detailing and finally into construction, it's safe to say that Dual Office "echoed" the client's needs and values perfectly.

As you step off the elevator into the classic long and narrow New York commercial space, almost everything in the showroom is within sight—a factor that was very important to the client. In fact, creating a sense of openness within an extremely narrow space was the overriding design challenge the Dual Office design team faced. As Lightbody recalls, "How do you create a sense of entry when a person steps out of the elevator and the opposite wall is only about 12 feet away?"

The solution was to load the product display heavily on one wall, using a combination of display methods tied together with horizontal wood strips. On the opposite wall, very transparent elements add display without blocking visibility or shrinking the feeling of space, but at the same time create a semi-private corridor connecting the bathroom, elevator and kitchen areas. A wider opening flanked by transparent display pods creates an entry axis. The lighting elements and fabric ceiling "clouds," along with special freestanding display platforms, all help to create a sense of entry and focus to welcome visitors to the space.

Where the space was slightly wider, a rotunda was created, which serves not only as a focal point for a select group of products, but also counters the perception of the space as a long box. Behind the rotunda is a display wall for past season merchandise.

The flooring is consistent throughout in order to avoid breaking up the space—again to maximize the sense of openness. Edges are left ambiguous through the use of cove lighting, fabric curtains, a floating horizontal shelf, various ceiling levels and soffit shapes—all preventing the visitor from easily discerning the true narrowness of the showroom.

Despite the relatively small size of the showroom, up to 200 handbags can be displayed in any given season. The client wanted maximum flexibility, but also needed to separate the product into distinct groups and subgroups, Lightbody explains, allowing each bag room to breath yet still "echoing" off its nearby family members.

"Our challenge was to create a flexible system that could be easily reconfigured; a system that allowed for the density required without creating wall-to-wall handbags; a system that allowed for different quantities to be grouped and for products to be displayed against a variety of colors and textures, while maintaining a unified interior design."

As a result, the design team created a wall system of wood strips to provide a unifying neutral backdrop for the product while hiding a grid of attachment points beyond. A modular system of anodized aluminum rods and shelves can be quickly reconfigured to meet the needs of each season. Four elements punctuate the display wall in the main space to provide a product focus and visual relief from the dense product display and horizontal banding. White "cubbies" provide product focus and utilize the same adjustable rod and shelf system as the rest of the showroom. A continuous display ledge
rings the space.

The display system, Lightbody points out, provides endless permutations, which was a perfect solution for a company that introduces up to 100 new handbag designs four to five times per year and must reorganize the collections accordingly.

A series of metal and glass "pods" reinforce the brand, providing focal display while maintaining the transparency so critical to the narrow space. A serendipitous event occurred when the lights were first turned on and the logos from the pods projected onto the walls beyond. In rhythm with the pods are fabric wrapped "clouds" that march down the ceiling in the main space, integrating lighting, providing acoustical relief, with the
additional benefit of hiding track lighting on the ceiling.

Another interesting feature of the showroom is that it functions not only as a display space for buyers, but also as a workspace for the handbag design team. Immediately adjacent to the showroom is a workspace for the sales and design team. The showroom is used as a mockup and meeting space when it's not open to buyers.

Supporting this dual function is the horizontal display system along the northerly wall. The display system continues from the main showroom into the conference room without a break, thanks to the use of the floor-to-ceiling glass walls of the conference room. This allows the conference area to be used for additional display space during busy markets while also allowing it to be configured for design review meetings or special
meetings with buyers.

Lightbody said the design team maximized the proportion of the budget that could be put toward display elements and other high impact design features by virtually eliminating the need for any partitions in the showroom and, instead, using the display elements to define the footprint and flow of the space. This greatly simplified the general contractor's work and eliminated almost all of the potentially difficult and always critical coordination between fixtures, casework and on-site construction.

Even for the few walls that were built by the general contractor that had to coordinate with the fixtures, the fixture manufacturer, Walter P. Sauer, made templates of the walls for the general contractor to use so that everything would marry perfectly in the end—and it worked.