How can brands accommodate shifting consumer values? New York architect Ron Pompei shops around for a solution
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 12/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
A diet of sprawling suburban malls and cookie-cutter boutiques has left consumers saturated yet unfulfilled. It's not more products we crave, argues Ron Pompei—head of the New York interdisciplinary design firm Pompei A.D.—but an exchange of ideas, knowledge, and experience. Best known for his collaborations with Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and Levi's, Pompei offers a corrective to today's soulless shopping landscape by yoking commerce to culture. We caught him between meetings for the retail concept and store interior he's developing for Mavi Jeans and the resort he's busy designing in Bermuda.
You design with aspirational consumers in mind. Who do they tend to be, and what sort of retail experience are they looking for?
We're reaching out to the members of the creative class—the fastest-growing segment of our society. They value authenticity and self-expression. They invest in things that speak to them emotionally, that have a story behind them. At the same time, though, they still want a brand to edit and curate the world for them, as long as they believe they have the freedom to choose.
Can you translate those values into design?
We create spaces that you want to be in, not just to buy in. We make room for customers as individuals. Serpentine pathways, rather than linear forms or aisles, allow consumers to choose how to move. Rather than closure, we create a sense of discovery, reflecting consumers' many options. Anthropologie was conceived as a walk in the woods, for instance, while Urban Outfitters evokes the experience of climbing or cutting through a building—like a Gordon Matta-Clark artwork.
Not that any two Urban Outfitters stores are identical. But every store feels like the same brand. All communicate a shared ethos. What you're building is a feedback mechanism. Design is really the residue of a much broader process that has to do with values and language and proportions of the human body.
Do sales and design connect to larger issues, too?
Beyond the product, consumers are looking for a community. It's about feeling ownership of a space. You can't have commerce without community. Think of it as trading rather than shopping. Stores are selling not only products but also the stories attached to them.
As an architect, how do you tell those stories?
I'm inspired by the idea of a cross-disciplinary Kunsthalle, where the consumer is close to creativity. It's important to have a curatorial component to retail, to have art programmed in. A store doesn't have to close to the public when it closes for business everyday. Creative activities can occur there, since the companies have already paid for the real estate anyway. They might as well use the space as an additional brand generator beyond operating hours.
It does cost more money in the beginning. You need someone who's refreshing the programs and keeping it real. But it pays off over time. It communicates to the public that you've chosen to speak to their values, so they feel a close relationship to the brand and the product. Shoppers are really searching for a content-rich experience.
What makes a shopping experience more authentic?
Literally, we don't use anything fake. We choose our materials for their own value, not as a representative of something else. We don't use fiberglass and pretend it's stone, for instance. Our interiors often look a little unfinished. They don't look so designed, more like they just came together over time. For me, designing is about speeding up that coming together, contributing to the process in a positive way. It's not inventing something new so much as connecting to a creative lineage. It's much more artistic than architectural.
Which brings us to your own training.
True. Thankfully, I studied architecture after I studied sculpture. Architectural education is often just an indoctrination in whatever aesthetic is being revered at a particular institution at a particular time.
At this particular time, what's going on with fashion?
Clothing is always what people—especially kids and young adults—use to figure out who they are and to communicate that identity to others. That's a huge thing. While shopping for those clothes, why not have a great aesthetic, cultural, or social experience?