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‘One’ for the Neighborhood

A new flagship store for TOMS in Los Angeles gives the community a vital new center

By Nalina Moses

AIA-Slideshow

TOMS Casa

The TOMS flagship store in Venice, Calif. All images courtesy of TOMS.

TOMS Casa

Neighbors gather on bleachers around a fireplace in the store’s backyard.

TOMS Casa

The interior of the TOMS store.

TOMS Casa

The store’s coffee bar.

TOMS Casa

The store’s architects used many dark, richly textured woods to give it a comfortable, well-worn residential feel.

TOMS Casa

A map illustrates all the countries where TOMS has contributed shoes to children in need.

TOMS Casa

A shoe display set up in a tent.

TOMS Casa

The store’s rear patio holds additional retail space.

It's no surprise that the first permanent store for TOMS, the footwear brand with a “One for One” policy to give a pair to a child in need for every pair sold, gives back big. Its flagship store, TOMS Casa, which opened in November, in Venice, Calif., shows off fresh designs from the brand's footwear and new eyewear lines, but is also a buzzing meeting spot, coffee shop, event space, and community center. Every month the store hosts over 20 public events that cater to a wide audience, like tie-dye lessons, coffee tastings, children's story hours, yoga sessions, and comedy nights. At other times, when there are no structured activities, locals tuck into its deep banquettes to snack, lounge, chat, and challenge one another to board games.

TOMS’ founder and “chief shoe giver” Blake Mycoskie, who will deliver the opening keynote address at the 2013 AIA National Convention in Denver, created the store as a center for a community that seemed to lack one. Since 2006, when he founded TOMS in Venice, Mycoskie saw the spirit of this one-of-a-kind bohemian beachfront community shift, as leisurely shops and eateries gave way to fancier, more formal ones. “There was no place left in the neighborhood where people could go inside and just hang,” he explains, “with their dog, with their baby, or with their newspaper.”

He cites The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg's book advocating a social space outside both office and home, as a major inspiration, and goes on to note that many “third spaces,” like coffee bars, are now used predominantly by freelancers and entrepreneurs. “It's like the ‘third space’ got taken over,” he laments, “and now we almost need a ‘fourth space.’” It's that “fourth space” that TOMS Casa has become. Every time Mycoskie stops by, he finds 80 or 90 people gathered inside.

Feeling at home

For several years, Mycoskie designed all TOMS shoes himself. But for the store's design he played a more collaborative role, opening the process to architect Evan Raabe of Fifty2Eighty, the Los Angeles design collective Commune, and TOMS colleagues, including Rachel Halliburton, director of brand experience and experiential marketing.

Though the project is not LEED certified, TOMS took a heartfelt, holistic approach to sustainability throughout design and construction. After selecting a site on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, where there's considerable foot traffic, TOMS decided to reuse the existing building, a wood-frame cottage from the 1920s, and embrace the homey feeling. “We wanted the entire store to feel residential,” Mycoskie says, “like you're inside someone's living room or in their backyard.” The cottage had been converted into a restaurant and then a furniture store, but its original wood floors and framing were intact. Raabe worked to rehabilitate the building's structure and remove interior partitions to clear an 850-square-foot space. A 600-square-foot wood patio was added in back, and the backyard was furnished with bleachers and a fireplace.

All the shop's materials were selected with an eye for rich weathered surfaces. The cottage's original wood floor was left unprotected, in order to become further distressed during construction. The shoe display racks, try-on benches, and coffee bar were all crafted from warm, softly worn panels of reclaimed wood. Even new elements, like the poured-in-place concrete counter at the coffee bar, were executed with a purposefully raw finish. “The intent was for nothing in the space to look glossy, fancy, or just put in,” Raabe says. “Everything looks as if it's been there for quite a while.

Materials were gathered inventively. To find wood boards to clad the front facade, Halliburton and a co-worker rode a crane lift in a lumber yard and picked them out one at a time. They chose one that had been salvaged from one of Frank Sinatra's old homes and had the star's name written across its end, and others that had been singed in a barn fire. Halliburton located another load of reclaimed wood in a friend-of-a-friend's garage, then drove over with a pickup truck to haul it back. Other TOMS employees scoured Craigslist to collect old wood-frame windows that adorn one of the backyard walls.

Let it breathe

While most architects, accustomed to managing every last detail, might have been rattled by the many ad hoc idiosyncrasies of the project, Raabe found that working with TOMS was in many ways very easy. He believes the character-driven brand streamlined decision-making. “It's not often you work with a retail client who knows exactly what they want, exactly what their brand is, and exactly what they want the space to feel like.” he says.

Unlike traditional retail flagships, TOMS Casa is less focused on a transactional experience of product display and brand enhancement than on welcoming customers inside a warm, energetic, and soulful space. Halliburton remembers that, during the design process, “product was the last thing we were thinking of,” she says. “We put sales in the back seat for a while and started thinking about the place itself, asking ourselves, ‘Does it really reflect who we are?’” Most of the space inside TOMS Casa is given over to seating and tables, and all the fixtures are movable so the store can be rearranged for events. As Halliburton sums it up, “We wanted to create a design that lives and breathes.”

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