We Brits like to think of ourselves as the masters of retail, magicking the best –meaning the most commercial – formats around the world. But you can find innovation in unexpected corners. These locally designed places often have something very specific to their surroundings about them in the concept or the design. For new formats verging on the bizarre, look no further than the 16-strong Écoute! ´Écoute! chain in France. ‘Our concept is dedicated to mobile hearing technology,’ says president Phillipe Mondan. ‘With lower prices and better fitting processes, our nonmedical store plays a role in removing inhibitions and promotes the joy of hearing.’ French law forbids the sale of hearing aids in such stores, so Écoute! Écoute! sticks to ‘comfort items’, like iPods and customised cell phones. Christian Biecher’s interiors have a musical theme. ‘Rhythm is expressed through the organisation of volumes, harmony is expressed through colour,’ he says. Hence the bright boxes housing computer games, hearingtest stations, a sound-proof studio and offices.
For another take on technology, there’s Pause Ljud & Bild home entertainment store in Stockholm, Sweden. BAS Brand Identity’s temple to entertainment, created around the idea of ‘exclusive Punk’, mixes elements like cardboard boxes, velvet and rococo chairs. The shop contains room sets, ‘creating a journey of discovery where customers experience something new around every corner’, says BAS designer Björn Drawfarc. It’s a far cry from Dixons. Fishes, meanwhile, is a reinvention of a more traditional outlet. When Bart van Olphen realised that the number of fishmongers in Amsterdam fell by 30 per cent in five years, he saw this as an opportunity. He briefed Studio Linse to come up with a contemporary replacement. ‘The fish are very decorative, almost like flowers, and we put them in a surrounding that doesn’t affect them,’ explains studio founder Paul Linse. Cast resin walls and floors are complemented by plain glass and polished stainless steel.
The unexpected doesn’t just happen in the West. Grasshopper is on a farm outside Bangalore. Local architect Dyan Belliappa designed the building, on a former paddy fields site, for two local fashion designers. More urban warehouse than country cottage, the exposed concrete in rough textures contrasts with the finely crafted clothing. Thanks is another Indian fashion venture making a major design impact. London-based Chris Lee and Kapil Gupta in Mumbai collaborated on the curvy-looking outlet with bent ceilings, skewed pedestals and twisted columns. ‘The fluid geometry of the interior and a glowing PVC ceiling induce movement, drawing the shopper into the belly of the store,’ says Gupta. Black-andwhite paint, Corian-clad furniture, faux leather and rubber floors emphasise ‘a monochromatic, synthetic and seamless formal order, a seductive backdrop for luxury shopping’, Lee adds.
There’s yet more architectural innovation in Fentons Gourmet delicatessen, Hong Kong, by Derrick Tsang. This time, it’s a folding door for the tall west-facing shop front. ‘Filter shadows become ephemeral patterns and mark the passing of time like a sundial,’ he says. ‘During business hours, a section of the screen folds up to reveal the glass sliding entrance door and transforms into a projected beak-shaped entrance canopy. And at night when the shop closes, it folds back down and retracts like a shutter.’
Another interesting application of wood is at San Francisco homewares store Friend, by Fuseproject. There are no ‘cold, museumlike white walls’, says consultancy founder Yves Béhar, but ‘a mixture of natural materials and fluid forms’. The reclaimed oak plank flooring – a reference to the city’s weathered fishing docks – is continued up the back wall, giving the place friendly curves.
More reclaimed wood is used in the Rio vintage furniture store Mercado Moderno. It’s located in Lapa, the Montmartre of the Tropics with its colonial buildings, antique emporia and buzzy nightlife. Marcelo Vasconcellos and Alberto Vicente acted as architects, engineers and decorators on a dilapidated 1912 building. They conserved its historical look, rebuilding the upper floor with wood from a colonial farm in Brazil.
And Franco Oculista in Braga, Portugal, proves that even a small opticians can push the design boat out. But despite the opulent styling, José Manuel Carvalho Araújo’s interiors stuck to a strict budget, so the sliding storage wall is made of boxes in MDF on pull-out frames. These places won’t become the next major chain store – although Écoute! Écoute! may be in the running – but their innovations make them worth seeking out.
Clare Dowdy is author of One Off: Independent Retail Design, published by Laurence King, priced £20