Trick of the light

Going shopping these days often feels like visiting a museum, with products lovingly displayed as if they were precious exhibits. Central to the success of this illusion is effective lighting. Here, Jeff Shaw takes us on a tour of some of the more interes

Shopping should be an experience, and retailers have grown increasingly aware of this in recent years. Lighting plays a crucial role in creating such experiences and is an essential part of the overall design process in any new retail scheme.

The main goals of any retail environment are to attract the customer, to allow the merchandise to be evaluated and to facilitate the sale. The first of these is often achieved through the creation of a memorable experience or ‘destination’ – a shop that people want to visit, and want to return to.

Closely allied to this, and of great importance in today’s market, is the brand. All retailers seek to create and communicate a strong image, and, increasingly, lighting helps to convey that image. Entire stores are now based around a single, strong brand concept, such as the Apple Store in London’s Regent Street. This store is designed to be a high-quality space and to make a statement about the company’s culture. The lighting is part of this: simulated daylight and backlit graphic panels, created by lighting designer Sylvia Bistrong of ISP Design, provide a comfortable background light, with sleek, exhibition-style lighting illuminating the products on display.

Brand and image operate across the board, and can convey more subtle messages. The simple, stylish and clean appearance – using bright, uniform light – of the flagship Primark store in London’s Oxford Street, with interiors by Dalziel & Pow, is a deliberate attempt to portray a more accessible and inexpensive image while remaining chic, making its target customers feel at ease. Warehouse-style shops like Asda represent the extreme of this approach.

In contrast, high-end fashion boutiques aim for a luxurious feeling – to make the customer feel opulent and the products feel exclusive, and to create an ‘event’ out of shopping. The crystalline form of the Prada flagship building in Aoyama, Tokyo, designed by Herzog & de Meuron in 2003, still provides an exemplar; it glitters and radiates at night, and warm ‘halos’ of light are integrated into the ceiling, providing a well-lit interior and adding drama by focusing on key products. Self-illuminated display tables – appearing like jellyfish – add a playful talking point while drawing your eye to the merchandise on display.

While helping to create the experience, lighting’s most important task is not forgotten: it must illuminate products effectively, highlighting their best features. The appearance of the merchandise has a critical effect on decisions to purchase, after all.

A significant trend in high-end retail lighting design stems from the recognition that this key task has a lot in common with lighting in another type of destination, one which has extremely well-developed approaches to displaying beautiful objects to bring out their best features – museums. Furthermore, in recent years, museums and galleries have been designed with a more sustainable approach that retail lighting also draws on.

Techniques used in gallery lighting are not necessarily new to retail, but they are now being used with more thought, treating the merchandise as precious artefacts, adding drama and creating more dynamic spaces.

As in museums, good quality ambient lighting creates a well-lit, inviting space for ready comparison of merchandise. A recent example is Jin’s Global Standard eyeglass boutique in Nagareyama, Japan, completed in March by Ryuji Nakamura Architects. The space is divided into a series of meandering passageways created by diagonal wall partitions, and is bathed with a soft, ambient light, giving it a very contemporary feel and encouraging exploration, rather than drawing the eye to any particular product.

Well-placed spotlights create drama, focus and sparkle, bringing the shape and texture of products to life. A related lesson from museum lighting is that an appropriate colour and the warmth of electric light are used to ensure a natural and enticing appearance – which is especially important to avoid a garment appearing a different colour when viewed outside in daylight. Nowadays, this can be achieved with energy-efficient sources, such as ceramic metal halide lamps. This is particularly evident in the Chloé store in London’s Sloane Street, and also in the more recently created Louis Vuitton store in Madrid – in both, good use of spotlights brings collections to life and creates a theatrical and dynamic interior.

Also following the lead of museums, daylight is increasingly used in retail. It has zero carbon emissions and there is plenty of research showing that products sell better under daylight. Apple’s stores are designed to have a daylit core (although the Regent Street store, being a refurbishment, cannot, so it has a simulated daylight ‘light ceiling’). The Prada store in Tokyo makes significant use of natural light through its glazed façade, taking the opportunity to play with perceptions using flat, convex and concave glazing.

Branding, museum-style lighting and a sustainable approach are all used to great effect in the newly opened Wonder Room in Selfridges, London, designed by architect Klein Dytham. The lighting scheme here, by Arup, underlines the brand’s image of vibrant metropolitan, cutting-edge chic and innovation. At the same time, it is economical, energy efficient and easy to maintain. The result forms a seamless part of the Selfridges experience.

Lighting is one of the key architectural elements that have transformed the luxury hall into an inspiring setting, a place for intrigue and discovery. The heritage ceiling has been subtly lit to give the contemporary Wonder Room architecture a sense of grandeur, and simple, yet elegant, halo pendants provide ambience. Concealed spotlights highlight products, and display cases glow with objects lit by bespoke integrated LED lighting, adding sparkle.

So, with good lighting, shopping can be a genuine experience. An approach which encompasses the use of light as a tool for image-creation and branding, lessons learned from museum design and a willingness to embrace a sustainable strategy can produce stunning results. l

Jeff Shaw is an Associate at Arup Lighting

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