Working at a retail architecture firm has completely changed the way I look at public spaces. These days, instead of walking into a food court and figuring out what to eat, I now get completely distracted by the finishes, the furniture, and the spatial arrangement. Sometimes I am confounded by what the designer has gotten away with (remember those wood cafe tops at the Merchandise Mart?) and other times I am completely inspired. Most of the time though, I am making mental notes on what to do or not to do on future projects, and evaluating what is working and what isn't.
I started at my firm a little over a year and half ago (20 months to be exact) and thought it would be fun to record some of things I have learned in that time, and let this be continuation to my last "Things I Learned From" post. Hopefully in the next twelve months I will be able to double this list!
Designing spaces that will be used by the greater public is completely different than designing an office for 20-30 people, and the absolute polar opposite of designing showrooms like I did my senior year of college. While those spaces were designed to be used by few, or not used at all, the spaces I design now need to withstand insane amounts of traffic and abuse. In a business like this, the only way to learn is the hard way, however, I am lucky enough to work with people who have been doing this for decades and are more than generous with their advice. Here are some of the things that I have learned in the past 20 months:
1. All the ways people can fall, hurt themselves, or die in a mall.
I used to be optimistic about the level of common sense in the world. Now I spend my time thinking about all the ways someone could hurt themselves. For example, did you know that furniture on balconies must be placed 36" away from the railing so people can't jump off of it? Did you know that it's best to use high backed chairs on said balconies because they're harder to use as a stair step for the same purpose? Did you know it's a bad idea alternate between honed and polished floor tile because people are more likely to slip and break a bone? I certainly didn't before I worked in retail design. The stories I have heard from senior designers, architects, mall managers, and developers are humorous at best and troubling at worst. Either way, they stick with you. I used to design to protect users from random accidents, now I design to protect idiots from themselves.
2. All the ways people can break or steal things.
To be honest, I have never walked through a mall (or any public place for that matter) and thought "You know what would be fun? To steal those seat cushions." But apparently some people do. Therefore, everything put in a shopping center must be thief and vandal proof. For example, all seat cushions must be attached or clipped in some way. Pieces in outdoor plazas must be weighted appropriately so people can't pull up their pickup truck and steal a daybed. In restrooms, we don't even go near plastic laminate or painted steel partitions because people like to scratch their names into the wall while they go to the bathroom. That being said, sometimes, damage is completely unintentional. Like when the back of a cafe chair snaps in half after someone leans back a little too far. Or when maintenance people use the wrong kind of cleaner and cause discoloration or fading. Yet somehow, regardless of whether it was intentional or not, the designer is still held responsible. This means that we will go to great lengths to prevent damage, and ensure that accidents don't happen.
3. All the ways things break on their own.
Most malls make updates every twenty years or so. In that time, it is to be expected that things will get worn on their own, and break down without the help of the people mentioned above. From high-lows and other construction vehicles driving over floor tile and causing it to crack, to fabric puddling after two decades of people sitting on it, damage is simply an unavoidable reality of the business. As a result, it's our job to make sure that process is as slow as humanly possible. There are a lot of ways to do this, most of them have to do with making sure the right finish is specified in the right place.
For example, when it comes to upholstery (specifically vinyl, polyurethane, and leather) everything from the color, the finish, and the tensile strength must be assessed. If it's too light, the dye from people's denim will rub off on it and leave weird blue stains. If it's too stretchy, it will puddle (see left photo below). If it has the wrong finish, the studs on people's jeans might scratch it. If it's a dark color with a white backing, the white edges will poke through if the fabric gets slashed or cut. In my post about polyurethane I talked about what happens when the top layer delaminates or cracks over time. I was recently on a site visit for a renovation we are starting and saw a few examples of cracking. The photo on the right is a booth seat in a food court that has clearly seen better days.
Another detail I noticed in this food court was the condition of the wood veneer on the booths. As you can see, the veneer on the base without edge protection has been completely ripped up while the booth with edge protection is still in pretty good shape. While it might not be the most attractive solution, I would take the look of the little plastic protector over the situation on the left any day.
4. How to make tenants mad.
One of the most interesting parts of designing a mall is the coordination with the tenants. From trying to convince them to lease space at all to negotiating how much space they will get, the amount of work and planning that goes into it is astounding. My favorite part is hearing about all the different personalities each tenant has: Apple wants to make their entry 36" higher than everyone else's, and obviously we can't do that. Louis Vuitton is mad because we have to put a support column inside their store to support the new staircase Neiman Marcus wants to put in. Macy's is angry because the furniture on the newly renovated portion of the mall is nicer than their's. Victoria's Secret is mad because the new LCD advertising screen is blocking their store signage. Fendi will not allow any type of seating in front of their store because they don't want people (read: peasants) hanging out in front of their store all day. You get the idea. Honestly, I think it's all hysterical because I don't actually have to deal with it, but the architects and leasing department do and I appreciate their stories very much.
It's incredible how much more I appreciate a well designed public space after seeing how much work goes into it. It's easy to appreciate the design of a trendy restaurant or soaring atrium, but not all spaces demand or inspire as much attention. For some, the genius is in the detail that everyone experiences, but no one notices, which inherently, is what makes it genius. As a user moving throughout the space, a ripped up wood veneer edge is more likely to catch your eye than a beautifully protected one. So much of what I have learned in the past year and a half requires me to place myself in the shoes of the user and imagine the experience one might have with the space or piece of furniture I am designing. What does that interaction look like? What could go wrong? What could go right? These are the questions that influence how an experience is shaped. Working in retail design, after a few years of office design, has completely reshaped the way I understand and experience space, and I think I am a more well rounded designer because of it.