Shop and show

Hannah Booth speaks to four designers about retail and exhibition crossover

The museum and retail sectors are growing closer and increasingly looking to each other for inspiration. Shops are working harder to differentiate themselves and entertain their customers, and in the wake of universal free admissions, museums are seeking new ways to encourage return visits.

Here, two retail designers and two museum design experts explain how they regard the other discipline, describe their influences and predict where the sectors are heading.

The exhibition specialist

Bob Baxter, Partner, At Large

‘Boundaries between retail and museums are blurring, but only one way – shops are becoming increasingly exhibition-inspired, not the reverse. You hear more and more about shopping becoming the UK’s main pastime, about it defining our culture. Is that really the case?

Our core work has always been exhibition design, but we’ve started taking our knowledge of this sector into retail. We’re currently developing a futuristic, experiential store concept for an [unnamed] retailer. Clients are looking beyond just retail designers.

Certain elements translate well from exhibition design into retail: storytelling has always been important in museum environments and brand owners are realising its potential in-store. And technology is now more sophisticated.

What retailers can learn most is that shopping is about the experience. Hybrid shopping/ exhibition environments show the two can blur successfully. For example, Prada’s Rem Koolhaas-designed New York store is housed in a former Guggenheim satellite in SoHo, so the location instantly imparts a gallery feel. People visit and wonder: is it a performance space, a gallery or a shop? The experience is closest to that of a gallery. Even Audi’s showroom in London’s Piccadilly uses the visual language of an art gallery.

Museums are pretty secure in what they offer as an experience, but they may have to work a bit harder. The future is virtual museums. How do you translate a museum’s archive digitally? The possibilities are endless.’

The retail designer

Jeff Kindleysides, Managing director, Checkland Kindleysides

‘Stores and museums are both trying to learn from each other, as they face similar challenges: how to get more customers interested in their “product”. People expect similar things from each space. They expect to be emotionally enriched, entertained and rewarded – even if you don’t make a purchase.

Retailers must delve more deeply into their relationships with consumers. It’s not enough to add a few pieces of art to a store; the whole experience must be orchestrated, from service, display and music to attitude and merchandising. Shops must find more interesting ways of inspiring people. It’s not something that comes out of a box or manual.

For our work with Levi’s London “icon” store, Cinch, [a top-end Levi’s clothing store selling both vintage and contemporary collections] we created a red thread throughout the store that covers everything from facia to hanging rails. The customised space evolves constantly, along with the clothing. In this way, it is like a gallery display. It’s flexible, and has drama, space and freedom.

Museums and galleries are looking at how to keep their collections moving and living, too. Only by continually changing the experience will they broaden their audience.

They are also learning how to use their retail spaces more effectively as well as developing their own products. The Tate’s paint brand, in collaboration with retailer B&Q, is a great example of a gallery expanding its revenue and a retailer trading on the gallery’s credibility.

We’re being challenged by museums to apply some of our retail “tricks” to create exhibitions that can react to their audience. Content is more about being thought provoking than didactic.’

The in-house museum designer

Tim Molloy, Head of design, Science Museum

‘One of the biggest challenges facing museums is how to keep people coming back, particularly now with free admission. Services – eating, drinking, shopping – need to deliver more and public areas must step up a gear.

We are thinking much more about what visitors need. They want to calm down after their journey to the Science Museum. The area between the street and the gallery is a very interesting space – it should become a sort of decompression area for visitors to relax before entering the gallery.

With free entry, our paid-for facilities become increasingly important. We intend to focus more on selling our own products through our shop.

We can learn from retail. There are certain rhythms to the year, such as busy periods around summer. Like shops, museums should extend their opening hours. In ten years’ time, there’s no reason why London’s Exhibition Road shouldn’t be a cultural quarter to rival the South Bank with shops, cafés and bustling adult life. We need to offer more variety inside, too, with guided tours and themed events.

It’s not just adults. Museums need to provide controlled, secure environments where parents can leave their children for half an hour. Shops such as Ikea, with its kids’ “ballroom”, use this concept well. It’s all about giving our different audiences different experiences.

Museums must satisfy broader audiences, for longer, which is as much to do with services as the galleries themselves. We need to be able to react to current events and become more immediate. Providing an enclosed area where people can immerse themselves in an exhibition is vital. We must question the role a museum plays in the 21st century.’

The retail designer

Chris Dewar Dixon, Managing director, Four IV

‘We keep abreast of techniques in museums. We’ve used high-spec museum display cases, designed to provide seamless, unimpaired viewing in-store. Displaying delicate items such as jewellery is no different to showcasing museum pieces – both have issues such as heat and light sensitivity. More sophisticated coloured lighting techniques in exhibitions and galleries have been picked up by retailers, too.

Shopping experiences are now much more similar to those found in galleries and exhibitions. Claudio Silvestrin’s Milan Armani store, for example, feels like a gallery. There’s no cash desk, it’s quiet, hushed, ethereal and highly sensory. It has clean lines and silhouettes, reflecting the clothing itself. London’s Top Shop flagship, by contrast, is more like a temporary exhibition – loud, bright, constantly changing and with video walls.

Retailers must renew their offerings to remain current. Shops need greater differentiation, more individuality and must become less uniform. Digital technology and interaction is one way forward – it won’t be long before there won’t be any window displays and mannequins at all, it will be screens and worldwide link ups.’

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