With brick-and-mortar stores for Narciso Rodriguez, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren under his belt, Jeffrey Hutchison has established himself as a go-to architect for luxury retailers. Hutchison learned the ropes working with Peter Marino, who architected the Chanel and Louis Vuitton stores, and in 1999 he struck out on his own, establishing the firm Jeffrey Hutchison & Associates in New York.
While at Marino, Hutchison worked on the Barneys flagship store, and today he continues to cultivate the storied retail institution’s architectural image. We caught up with Hutchison just before he jetted off to Chicago, where he’s working on the new Barneys. He gave us the scoop on the importance of good lighting and why consumers are suffering from consistency fatigue.
JC Report: Describe your aesthetic.
Jeffrey Hutchison: While I have worked in many styles and genres—from classical to minimal—I feel it is more important to allow the aesthetic of the project to reflect the image of the brand than imposing a particular aesthetic. That said, my work does have a number of consistent attributes, such as the creative use of light and implementing rich and luxurious materials. And all the work I do strives to create an emotional connection between the consumer and the location.
JCR: How is designing a brand’s retail space different from doing the same for a department store?
JH: Designing a label’s retail space requires a deep understanding of the brand’s history, image, product and business. When I design a store for a single brand, I always try to reflect the aspirations the client wants to communicate to the customer with their product and advertising. I want the customer to feel comfortable and understand the connection between the product and the store. You have to create a place for the brand to live.
For example, in developing the new concept for Dooney & Bourke, we noticed that there were a number of nautical references in the details of the bags. In discussing this with Peter Dooney, it became clear this was a strong design reference for him because of his deep love of sailboats. We developed a modern interior that reflects the sculptural beauty of sleek sailboats but also has the feeling of being on a rich yacht. Of course, the design had to be executed such that these references were subtle and not too literal. In doing so, we created a strong visual language which complements the merchandise and tells a story.
In a department store, things have to be more flexible. Because the business model is different, I need to make sure that the environment has the ability to accept change in the tone of the product from time to time. Creating this kind of space is in some ways more challenging because the design needs to be dynamic and interesting, but it cannot be too specific to the style of the merchandise at any particular moment in time.
In designing the new flagship for Barneys New York in Las Vegas, I created a number of references to being in Las Vegas, like the use of card suits (hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades) as a decorative motif in the storefront and the glass façade, but I did so in a way that did not dictate what merchandise can be sold or where it needed to be located within the space. This gave the design both a local connection and another decorative layer that did not infringe on the flexibility of the store.
JCR: What are the current trends in retail architecture?
JH: While there is still a big push for retail brands to maintain the same image from location to location, I believe this is in the process of changing. The consumer is starting to get “consistency fatigue” in both what the stores look like as well as the merchandise being pretty much the same. To address that, I always try to respond to each project individually and give it a unique design without losing the overall language of the brand.
JCR: What architectural elements do consumers respond to?
JH: Probably the biggest response comes from good lighting and its creative use. In retail design a lot of people talk about the importance of lighting but so many brands just don’t follow through. Consumers not only need good lighting to see the product (try distinguishing a black pair of pants from a blue pair in a poorly lit area), but they also want to feel comfortable in the space.
Lighting has so much do with the emotional characteristics of the design, and I always make it one of the highest priorities when we design a store. I want both effective lighting but also creative designs that people can respond to. Wherever possible I also include the use of natural light through windows and skylights because the quality of natural light has a big impact on how people emotionally connect to the space.
JCR: If you were commissioned to design a cultural space such as a museum, how would your approach be different?
JH: I was just thinking about this the other day as I went through the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I would love to design a museum because the same principals I have developed for retail can be applied in this setting. For example, it astounds me that the lighting in most museums is so poor. I always try to create a dialogue between the product and the environment. I think more of that can be done in museum design than you currently see. Too many recent museums are a total blank slate when it comes to what they communicate about the art they house. Lastly, I think galleries can be designed to be more comfortable to allow for people to feel like they can spend more time in them. The process of viewing art in most museums is too rushed.
JCR: If you had a dream project, what would it be?
JH: I would love to design the entire customer experience for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which is for air travel into space—the ship interiors, the lounges and everything related to your physical experience. It would be like designing the first Pan Am airplane and lounge back in the 1930s. It would be fascinating to develop a design that involves new technologies but speaks to the bygone eras of the luxuriousness of air travel.
JCR: Who are the architects you admire?
JCR: What are your upcoming projects?
JH: Currently, I am working on a new flagship for Barneys in Chicago, which will open in 2009. I have also designed a new store concept for Dooney & Bourke, the first of which just opened in Macau. We are doing many new locations for them, implementing this new concept and working on its evolution.
This interview was conducted by Robert Cordero.