Gallery: designs that entice you in

By Helen Grange Time of article published Oct 23, 2014

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Johannesburg - If you’ve ever been to the famous Harrods store in London, you might have seen one of their incredible window displays. Harrods employs a talented creative team to install spectacular window exhibitions depicting everything from Christmas to the latest movie craze, with The Great Gatsby installation being one of its show-stoppers last year.

Gone are the days when a shop assistant would dress a few mannequins and throw a bit of tinsel around them. Worldwide, shopfronts and retail interiors have reached a whole new level of design, and some of them are nothing short of art, informed by a brand or chosen theme.

Abroad, window dressing is a recognised career, sometimes called “visual merchandise manager” or “store creative director”, with design skills acquired at a retail merchandising school. The job has yet to become that specialised in South Africa but, that said, we are not short of creatives in the field.

Design Partnership is an award-winning interior design team that works in retail and hospitality spaces, their most recent feat being designing the new Tashas restaurant in Dubai. Adrian Morris, an architect, and Neydine Bak, an interior architect, were the designers on the project, which entailed creating a warm, comfortable yet breezy restaurant with a South African colonial-style twist.

Dubai being known for the highest standards in the retail sector, this was some achievement.

“The lighting was important, for instance,” says Bak. “South Africans are accustomed to bright lighting, day or night, but we had to add more dimmer switches in the Dubai Tashas because the standard there is very low lighting in the evening. In the UK, too, you’ll find pendants dropped on tables as opposed to a bright wash of lighting.”

Design Partnership has also worked on a number of retail stores, including Toys R Us, Tile Africa, Coricraft and Incredible Connection, as well as a raft of eateries including Mugg & Bean and Doppio Zero.

“We do a lot of customer research before designing an interior, and we pay close attention to trends internationally,” says Morris.

“One of the strongest trends is a neighbourhood feel, so you’re talking ambient lighting and bespoke furniture. There’s also a gravitation to solids like wood and marble, authentic rather than engineered materials.”

We take a walk through Rosebank’s newly renovated mall so that Morris and Bak can show me elements that set some shops apart from others. A careful look at window designs and it becomes quickly apparent which ones employed creative flair. One of the best “window theatres”, as Bak puts it, is the Woolworths clothing window, with a strip of vertical neon lights set against a wallpaper of black dashes and crosses on white, with mannequins cheekily interacting. It has an industrial, grunge New York appeal, but it will be replaced by another window display with the change of season.

“The best shop windows and interiors tell a story, or try to evoke a feeling or experience,” says Morris. “For most brands, ambient lighting works well, to create a comfortable feeling walking in. And black backdrops are increasingly favoured to offset products or provide information. The neighbourhood theme is again prevalent, so you’re finding bespoke, reclaimed furniture – tables, chairs, cabinets – in upmarket shops.”

Colour, meanwhile, plays a huge role. Callie van der Merwe, another architect at Design Partnership, points out that colour can account for up to 85 percent of the reason people buy one product over another. “Warm colours – reds, oranges and browns – are inviting and reassuring to shoppers. They decrease anxiety. Certain shades of orange are also known to stimulate one’s appetite, which is extremely useful for restaurants,” he says.

Softer colours can appear more sophisticated and represent opulence, which supports a higher-end shopping experience. Blues engender a sense of peace, while purples and pinks give off an air of aristocracy.

Black, says Van der Merwe, is dramatic and youthful. “Black or dark grey is also often used for ceiling space to black out unsightly services and is useful to make one focus lower down to where the colour and products are on display,” he says.

Flooring is also important. Many retailers in Rosebank Mall have opted for laminate wood rather than tiles, which makes their shops feel warmer. Using different types of flooring, like tiles next to laminate, also provides an interesting, textured look.

Another strong trend, especially in consumables, is to group products that logically provide a whole experience. “So in a supermarket you’ll have the braai briquettes with firelighters, serviettes, braai tools and maybe fold-out chairs and umbrellas, for example. You’ll have everything you need for a braai together in one area,” says Morris.

Colour, flooring and product grouping have been put to good use in Incredible Connection, where orange, pink and purple display hubs are set against a mute floor of tiles and laminate. “Instead of accessories having their own space, they are arranged near their matching laptops and tablets. This also conserves space, which is a priority now as rents are so high,” says Morris.

When it comes to bespoke artworks, like those in Tashas restaurants, these are commissioned from artists after the design team brainstorm a concept and decide what would work. “For Tashas in Dubai we decided we wanted an installation in paper and glass. We gave the artist our brief, and the piece was flown in boxes from New York,” says Bak.

Ultimately, where people have stopped to have a bite or a cup of coffee, comfort is king. Chairs can be funky, but they must be comfortable to sit in, and it’s clear the bucket chair is taking the lead here.

“The look and feel of Tashas is ‘rough luxe’, and that’s a strong trend globally,” says Bak. In other words, it’s shabby chic, incorporating a worn, vintage look in a sophisticated setting.

The driver of the ever higher design standards for retailers and restaurateurs is, of course, the customers themselves. Thanks to the internet and social media platforms like Pinterest, people are far more design conscious than before.

“So essentially what we do is interpret trends out there and then work out how to mechanically manifest it in a retail space,” says Bak.

Helen Grange, The Star

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