The Art of the Brand
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Creating an Experience, a Memory, and Inspiration
Askew, originally from Annapolis, Maryland, had been fascinated with building since he was a child; his father had taught him how to draft, using an architect's scale, where Askew had been designing houses since he was eight; originally, he wanted to be an architect. Askew entered school to study interior design, where his interest peaked with retail design during the second-third term of school at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City, focusing on retail planning, where "it clicked' [flowing] out of me easily," according to Askew. He continues, ". . . the interior environment is what people are most engaged with' and creating that is what intrigued me," and soon gravitated towards the challenge and fast pace of retail design, working in areas from the greater New York metropolitan area, Ohio, Los Angeles, and Bainbridge Island.
Askew was recruited in the early 90s by Limited Brands Inc, specifically for Victoria's Secret; at that time, Limited Brand stores had dominated malls. Askew was a part of the corporate in-house design team, where the majority of their concepts originate. Askew "really enjoyed being [at Limited Brands]," helping to develop newer Victoria's Secret stores; as a design team leader, he came up with innovative ideas for Abercrombie & Fitch and Limited Too. "It was a really great place to grow and experiment."
To Askew, the challenge in retail design is interpreting what that brand is, and interpreting that vision into the given space. What was interesting to Askew was in, what does that brand mean, and how to extrapolate in accordance to what it means. Building the prototype of a store can take 8-12 months, after determining what that brand is, its identity. The design team would work with architects, as well as vendors and manufacturers, experimenting with color, architecture detailing, finishing, lighting, and fixtures, as well as specific details in the selection of door knobs, hangers, and drawer pulls, to create the store brand package. A mock-up would be constructed, where portions of the interior can be built inside a warehouse, setting up the mock-up, visualizing how things, such as fixtures, would fit, and make adjustments accordingly.
Retail design is an involved process, often working with visual merchandising and marketing teams, where it is an "all encompassing project'" Therefore, Askew prefers to have as much of the store design complete as possible before "rolling out a concept," where that design's focus is in re-emphasizing the brand, "massaging" the vision to fit the actual space of the store. Figuring out as many of the elements as possible prior to opening the store is a great tool for merchants, when they can visualize the set up, making corrections if needed. The process allows easier corrections to be done, if the chosen wall covering clashes with the merchandise, or perhaps the paint color should be a shade lighter, or darker, as well as any detail modification. This is imperative, as the parts will need to be ordered for the number of stores opening that season, rather than just the one store, as 50-100 stores can be opened in a year (determined by the brand program); many times, the goal is to open before the back to school season or Thanksgiving, kicking off the holiday shopping season. The opening of a new store can be an "intense process," where the mock-ups "can ease field issues in the construction process."
Retail stores can be classified in tiers, as every store requires an x-amount of volume, where that amount determines the type of tiered-store, commonly found in malls; stores are split among flagship, A-stores, and B-stores, in accordance to the amount of revenue and volume produced. The flagship stores are those which produce the highest income, often found in pristine locations, such as in New York City, South Beach, and San Francisco, even Seattle's University Village; it is the demographic of the area which determines the store status; flagship stores are also found in higher volume malls. The store revenue determines how many fitting rooms are needed, as well as the different fixtures, with the concept, "how much [revenue] will this fixture generate?" The flagship stores features the "bells and whistles" with custom design, even higher-end furniture; in comparison, the B-store may have carpeting, rather than the higher-status hardwood floor.
What is complex and a challenge in regards to the interior of the store, everything is designed in efforts to fit the product in a manner to maximize that product, in essence, paying for that real estate on the floor. Askew is adamant in regards to the remodel of a store; it is not complete without the remodel of the exterior, as it is "critical to have a store front." The remodel of the interior cannot be done without also remodeling the fa?ade, as it is the initial element consumers will notice, before discovering the new look of the interior.
Askew had spent time in Bainbridge Island, Washington, helping the MORA Iced Creamery develop its identity. He was contacted by Andrea Mackin, who handles MORA's public relations, when they worked together on "Winslow in White," an event "to bring merchants, property owners, and the community back together to celebrate the hope and resiliency of their downtown," sponsored by the Revitalization Partnership. Mackin felt Askew was the right person to help with the building of the MORA brand, embracing native Argentinean Co-Founders Ana Orsilla and Jerry Perez's, vision; they appreciated the clean, architecture-driven designs of Abercrombie & Fitch, Williams-Sonoma, and Pottery Barn, wanting to draw upon that model.
Askew's approach with MORA was a focus on nostalgia, where he "put[s] himself in the head of the customer as much as [he] can when [designing]." "Mora" is the Spanish term for blackberry, where the creamery was named after shared childhood memories of Orselli and Perez. Orselli spent her childhood in Argentina, eating mulberries (also mora) from the trees at her friend's house; MORA was so named as a tribute to the fruit of their childhood, as well as the abundance of blackberries in the Pacific Northwest, bringing Argentina and the Pacific Northwest together, preserving those memories.
To Askew, ice cream evokes memories for people, involving family, associating the Argentinean culture of the importance of family and food, where "everything happened around a table," especially food, according to Orsilla. Chairs and dark, mocha tables are situated to epitomize the intended experience for MORA guests, to gather, sit, and slowly savor their ice cream, with the aspiration for guests to enjoy life, food, and people, with that food.
Askew also researched MORA's competitors, discovering the general trend of "modern," where MORA's "nostalgia" would be its distinguishing factor. The familiarity "feels like an ice cream store when you went to as a kid," keeping the design clean and simple, while giving it personality, with the inspiration "to elevate the ice cream experience." Mackin concurs, succinctly reflecting, MORA creates a "sophisticated and comfortable feeling that draws people to gather and stay."
The wall covering was an integral part of the design, after brainstorming for their signature logo of a "stylized blackberry," creating an "iconic imagery," that ultimately gave MORA its identity. In addition, the design was to emphasize the color palette of vanilla and chocolate, adding the mora (purple), emphasizing the simple and classic ice cream store. The wood finish is of a sugar cone color, as well as a dark chocolate ice cream color flooring. Architectural trim detailing, casings, baseboards, and a beadboard paneling were included to reinforce the feeling of home and family. Askew also suggested a magnetic menu board, utilizing a large centerpiece to create an "iconic imagery for the flavors," featuring their signature flavor, mora. In addition, the images can be changed seasonally to highlight seasonal flavors, as well as exposing people to new products. Askew suggested MORA develop a secondary product line (such as tee-shirts, a great ice cream scoop, or an ice cream bowl featuring the MORA logo) so people can have a tangible remembrance of their MORA experience. MORA was a "fun project to do. Ana is wonderful, [and] so creative' She's an artist and understood where I was coming from, making sure some of these boundaries were pushed."
To Askew, the manner in which the displays and d?cor of a brand provides an environment that brings out something within the consumer, something we aspire to be, or something that inspires us. The successful design creates a fantasy or dream which enters our subconscious when we enter that space, invoking the feeling of "I love being here," even if we don't know exactly why. Askew claims, "people are savvy, consumers are very savvy," where we want that feeling that there is something special about that brand; discount stores are beginning to utilize that concept in creating an appealing image. Simply, we consumers want to shop in an environment deemed as "special," something each brand strives for. With the popularity of internet shopping, retail stores must create that appealing environment to entice shoppers into their physical space.
Askew observes, the design process is much more involved than people think, in trying to represent an image to the public of what the business is, but also having people to answer to in the corporate structure; there is a "handful of people giving you input," where the designer's job is to extrapolate as well as remain true to their creative integrity. One thing Askew learned in college, and is "something that stuck with [him] in [his] career," is to always use food when describing a color, as food gives people a point of reference; people can have a different interpretation of the color "off-white," but most people have a universal color image when we think of "vanilla."
Creating the experience, the memory (with the hope of creating inspiration), to strongly bond us with a specific brand, is the ultimate goal in retail design. If that has happened, something great has been achieved, as any brand that has a strong image, invoking an immediate image, has succeeded. For Mark E. Askew and other retail designers, there is a unique art behind the creation of the brand.
Mark E. Askew is an interior design consultant, based in Oakland, California.
Louisa Lew, Contributing Writer: Louisa Lew graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor’s Degree in the Liberal Arts, double majoring in Political Science and Film. She is currently a Freelance Copy Editor and Writer, living in Seattle with her two dogs. (more...)