Not Bargain Basement
How upscale retailers are learning to get down
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 4/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Basements don't have to be windowless cobweb-wreathed caves in order to be dreary, hard to find, antiseptic, or overlit. Nevertheless, shrewd urban merchants—even luxury-goods retailers— are quietly going underground. They're motivated by a desire to unlock the economic potential of the inexpensive real estate right beneath their storefronts.
Macy's may have launched the trend with the Cellar, which rebranded and revamped the downtown San Francisco store's lower level as a destination for gourmets. That was back in 1972. Decades later, the store reaffirmed its commitment to below-grade retailing by reconfiguring the Geary Street entrance. Shoppers are now immediately confronted with escalators moving downward. "With the new opening in the floor, we created an overlook," says Tom Harry of Patri Merker Architects.
O'Neil Langan Architects principal Steven O'Neil designed Diesel's downtown Manhattan store, complete with lavish basement. To improve access, O'Neil specified a steel stairway with fumed-oak treads, wire-glass risers, and tempered-glass balustrades. A landing midway down gives shoppers an excellent basement view. "Stairs should be an experience, not just a way to get from one floor to another," O'Neil says. At the bottom, the flight lands on a ceramic-tile podium three steps higher than the final destination, effectively distracting from what is actually quite a long descent. "The basement rises up to greet you," he notes. The stairwell also acts as a light well, thanks to storefront windows at the upper landing. "With the natural light," O'Neil says, "you don't really feel you're below ground." Plants at the lower landing reinforce the illusion.
Kramer Design Group recently revitalized the basement at Barneys New York's flagship by relocating the cosmetics department from street level. "Cosmetics are a big business," says principal Robin Kramer. "Bringing them downstairs was a risk." (Albeit one successfully navigated by nearby Bergdorf Goodman, where Yabu Pushelberg pioneered the basement beautiful in 1999.) Kramer made the Barneys cosmetics department more accessible by installing a spectacular "scissor stair" with sandblasted-glass treads. Oriented so that steps greet shoppers coming from either front or back, the interlinked flights also point people in opposite directions upon arrival at basement level. "This ensures that the entire department gets traffic," Kramer says. "There's a Hollywood and Vine for both sides of the floor."
Kramer says she first imagined a reflecting pool under the stairs at Barneys. Ultimately, however, she settled on a pool of light. "Light makes a woman glow, which sells cosmetics. We also used a lot of painted glass and translucency," she says. Recessed lights at both Barneys and Diesel illuminate the windowless perimeter walls. At Diesel, Kramer relied on compact fluorescent wall washers; at Barneys, drywall coves line three sides of the ceiling perimeter. "Our goal was to replicate the great lighting we have on the ground floor," says Barneys executive vice president of creative services David New.
Beauty counters in the Barneys basement stand just 30 to 42 inches tall. "The lower case lines felt more modern, plus you're always concerned about ceiling height," Kramer says. The designs of both Barneys and Diesel confine dropped ceilings to areas where they're absolutely necessary, such as vaults under the sidewalk. At Diesel, O'Neil tucked the shoe department there.
Space-hogging mechanical and electrical systems often pose additional challenges to underground design. But that hasn't deterred Barneys, now planning a basement menswear department at the new Tokyo flagship. Besides, annexing a basement offers at least one unexpected advantage over expanding into the same square footage on the floor above. "Generally, it's easier to get customers to walk down than up," says O'Neil. "People are lazy. They don't want to climb stairs."
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