Beyond the Big Blue Blob *
Selfridges sells four different interior looks in Birmingham, U.K.
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 11/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Selfridges knows firsthand how good design can revitalize a stagnant brand. After sprucing up its stately London flagship by American classicist Daniel Burnham—now awash in Prada and Gucci, B&B Italia and Cappellini, and monthlong Tokyo Life and Bollywood themed extravaganzas—the department store commissioned Future Systems to build a $68 million location in Birmingham. The only request Selfridges made of principals Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete was that the design be able to attract people from a 25-mile radius, without a sign on the door. The architecture itself would be the sign.
Amid grimy steeples and bleak postwar "urban renewal" projects, the new store resembles a beached whale sheathed in Paco Rabanne's famous metal frock from the 1960's—Kaplicky and Levete painted the bulbous sprayed-concrete structure Yves Klein blue and covered it in more than 15,000 aluminum disks that look like giant candy dots or the silvery suckers of an alien octopus. On opening day, the entire city was abuzz about the prospect of a strange, shimmery building revitalizing the moribund downtown. Some went so far as to invoke Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; others talked of printing postcards with wild, wonderful Selfridges as the centerpiece of Birmingham's skyline.
A zippy exterior wasn't enough, however. Levete says the biggest challenge was to design interiors that would match expectations raised by the facade. She and Kaplicky were asked to design the 54,000-square-foot ground floor, with its food hall and departments for home design and children's clothing. Their feeling is that of a TV studio. Colorful partitions curve across the white resin floor, beneath black-painted ductwork and lighting tracks; stainless-steel wire pendants swirl across the ceiling, like space-age tumbleweeds. In the food hall, the liveliest elements are the conversation-friendly petal-shape dining counters.
The three other retail floors went to different firms—true to the Selfridges penchant for mixing it up. Piers Smerin of Eldridge Smerin, the architects responsible for the second floor, likened the approach to town planning, an analogy that puts Future Systems in the role of master planners charged with organizing disparate interior "districts" into a coherent whole.
Eldridge Smerin's space is branded Spirit, Books, and Technology. The outside of the book department is papered the bright orange of a Penguin paperback. Green dominates the technology zone, from the crumbed-rubber floor to the foam-covered display walls; the cool grid of acrylic vitrines contrasts with the store's overall undulations.
Design firm Stanton Williams shaped the third level, housing cosmetics, accessories, and menswear. Beauty is crisp and light, with a floor of blue-green resin flecked with glass; jewelry features posh deep-red carpeting and walnut cabinets; dark gray resin floors and ceilings made of cable trays contribute to menswear's industrial character.
Cibic & Partners and Lees Associates handled the top level, home to women's wear and a sleek restaurant. Called Gallery, it's punctuated by white-on-white tables and chairs and abstracted cactus forms in high-density styrofoam covered in epoxy resin, like a surfboard.
What holds together the concessions and departments is Future Systems's two fluid, sculptural atriums framed by slick white GRP balustrades and crisscrossed by escalators with undersides finished in matte white plaster. Here, Kaplicky and Levete successfully negotiated not only the conflicts between an aggressive exterior and a diverse interior but also—more important—the demands of constant refurbishments. "You can't be too precious about it," says Levete. Rather than a single point of view, variety spices up the shopping experience. The opposite of John Pawson's strong design for Calvin Klein, Selfridges exudes the messy vitality of a souk.
The sheer size of the Future Systems atriums represents one of many risks taken by the firm. "In retail, every square foot not used for selling is generally considered a loss. But if you lose the spirit, you lose even more," says Kaplicky. For Selfridges, he suggests, image and sense of place are investments. "How can you prove it's successful?" he asks. "You can't quantify it. But just look."
Over 15,000 aluminum disks cover the sprayed-concrete building by Future Systems.
Cibic & Partners and Lees Associates collaborated on the top-floor Gallery restaurant, with its Patricia Urquiola chairs.
Stanton Williams designed the third-floor accessories department.
On the ground floor, Future Systems suspended stainless-steel wire pendants from the ceiling of the housewares department.