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For Big-Box Retailers, Architects are the Key Ingredient for Selling Quality Design

By Nalina Moses

In the 2009 movie (500) Days of Summer, a fashionable young couple—one of whom is an aspiring architect--have a fantastic date at IKEA.  They stroll through display kitchens acting out fantasies of domestic happiness, and lie down in a display bedroom to talk seriously about where their relationship is headed.  The passage is testimony to the imaginative power and stylish appeal that home furnishings stores have; they're like playgrounds for adults. And over the past decade, more and more big-box stores have been enticing Americans to play, fermenting increased design-savvy interest in home remodeling, architecture and design. The popularity of magazines like Dwell and House Beautiful, television shows like Trading Spaces and Design Star and websites like Apartment Therapy and Design Sponge reflect this heightened design awareness. And more and more, big-box retailers like Target, The Home Depot, Lowe's, IKEA and Design Within Reach are playing a fundamental role by bringing design-conscious products to a mass audience.

Rich Varda, FAIA, senior vice president of store design at Target, is one architect in charge of bringing this design sensibility to the masses. He explains that for his brand, offering design-savvy merchandise was a "competitive [and] strategic decision. Our guests have come to have higher design expectations."

While quality design has always been central to IKEA's mission, Janice Simonsen, a design spokesperson for the company, observes that recent design trends have "removed some of the fear factor for people approaching their own design projects."

Store design and selling design

Stores like Lowe's and The Home Depot, which cater to do-it-yourself homeowners, are offering increasingly sophisticated and expensive lines of cabinets, appliances and finishes. Will this new element of design culture give architects more opportunities to work with clients who value good architecture and are willing to invest greater time and money in architecture projects? There's a strong do-it-yourself ethos to the trend, and homeowners might not always understand the knowledge and services a professional designer brings to a project, but there’s a decent chance they might be more willing to listen. 

In addition to the products, the stores themselves have evolved to appeal to an increasingly design-literate customer. Chains are offering more elaborate home furnishing displays to illustrate trends.  IKEA stores have always presented their furniture in room sets--open vignettes that integrate products from the brand's lines of cabinets, fixtures, lights, linens and accessories. The Home Depot has incorporated larger-scale bathroom and kitchen displays at some locations. And Target complements these marketing roll-outs with lucidly designed shopping environments and product displays. Store design has become an important element in selling design.

While these chain stores are selling design, they're careful to sell it in a way that emphasizes value and accessibility. Most freestanding Lowe's and Home Depot locations are finished plainly, with corrugated metal ceilings, concrete floors and industrial lighting. At IKEA, all the items on display (including those within room sets) have a large price tag dangling from them, and the one-way circulation route to the checkout area leads customers through aisles of flat-packed, warehoused merchandise. There's nothing precious or snobbish about these environments. Design Within Reach, whose name itself suggests a fresh egalitarianism, presents iconic Modern furnishings in an informal, unpretentious setting.  A customer can walk in off the sidewalk and purchase a Mies van der Rohe-designed daybed the same way that she purchases a lawnmower. 

Designing clients

These stores are also tapping into the cult of high design and the status of celebrity designers.  Design Within Reach establishes the provenance of each item it sells by naming its designer in store displays and online.  In the past, IKEA has worked with Swedish architect Thomas Sandell to produce chairs and with Dutch product designer Hella Jongerius to produce ceramic vessels. Uniquely for big-box stores, IKEA features the names and likenesses of its in-house product designers in catalogs and store displays.

Target recruited celebrated product designers Philippe Starck and Marcel Wanders to create product lines, but its most notable pairing is with architect and 2001 AIA Gold Medalist Michael Graves, FAIA. Over 12 years he's created nearly 2,000 unique products for the brand, and he's still at it. To support this partnership (in addition to running an architecture practice), Graves maintains a product design studio as well, the Michael Graves Design Group. Product designers Linda Kinsey and Donald Strum, who work alongside Graves to implement new designs, explained in an e-mail interview that Graves' product design evolves naturally from his architectural work. He's accustomed to designing light fixtures, fittings and furniture as part of larger architectural commissions.

Other starchitects sell products they've designed through specialty manufacturers. (Before joining forces with Target, Graves designed tabletop items for Alessi.) But Graves’ work with Target is distinctive in that it brings high design to a mass market at modest prices.

Sometimes, the big-box retailers’ large markets create economies of scale that bridge the gap between high-end gallery design and big-box shopping.  For example, the whistling teakettles Graves designed for Alessi and Target are each crafted from the same grades of stainless steel and heat-resistant plastic. However, the Target kettle (manufactured in bulk in China rather than in smaller batches in Italy, like the Alessi product) sells for nearly one-third the price. It's a clear example of how architects can shift their focus, and reach a broader audience. As Kinsey and Strum explain, "Target is a trophy client.  It would not be surprising if more architects sought similar retail relationships. There is no downside."

While design-savvy retailers offer opportunities for architects to shape product designs and retail environments, their lasting impact might be in nurturing a powerful, popular culture of design that extends through the entire design and fabrication production chain. Just as foodie culture paved the way for innovative chefs, farmers and food suppliers, a new design culture can pave the way for new practices in architecture, construction and fabrication. Retailers are shaping a base of discriminating, design-literate consumers--customers who are deeply interested in the work that architects do. Interest and public dialogue are great, but the real payback for this cultural shift can be much more tangible. It’s quite possible that these design-savvy retail customers will be the customers (clients) of architects one day.


In recent years, Target has focused on opening stores on dense, urban sites with architecture that’s appropriate to their surroundings, such as this location in Sunnyvale, Calif. Image courtesy of Target.


Teakettle by Michael Graves for Target, 2002. Image courtesy of Michael Graves Architects.


IKEA in-store home furnishings display. Image courtesy of IKEA.


Ceramics by Hella Jongerius for IKEA. Image courtesy of IKEA.


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