Balancing act


Chad Rains, founder and creative director of Illuminationworks, looks at the pivotal role of lighting design in retail branding.


FX

Words by Jill Entwistle

From the double-layered, fritted-glass light box demarcating every Christian Dior boutique in the world to the trademark dimly lit 'nightclub vibe' interior of an Abercrombie & Fitch, lighting design works hand in hand with architecture and interior design to reinforce a brand's image and help create the environment that leads a customer towards specific aspirational goals.

From a branding perspective a successful interior would be recognisable even if the logo and stock were absent. Illuminated shopfronts, dramatic window displays, unique shelf light details, differing moods captured by imaginative use of light source beam spreads -- all of these elements can play a role in lighting's ability to create the atmosphere a particular label is trying to convey. A way of illustrating some of the techniques lighting designers use to create particular effects is to look at Illuminationworks' partnership with two luxury brands: Mark Jacobs and Smythson.

The discreet detailing and low-glare lighting in a Marc Jacobs Collection boutique reinforces a more elegant feeling Paul WarChol
The discreet detailing and low-glare lighting in a Marc Jacobs Collection boutique reinforces a more elegant feeling.Photo: Paul WarChol

The working relationship with fashion designer Marc Jacobs started one weekend in 2000 spent solving last minute problems in the first New York store just days before opening and continues to this day, spanning two distinct lines: the high-end Marc Jacobs Collection and the diffusion range Marc by Marc Jacobs. Alongside Jaklitsch/Gardner Architects, my team has worked on more than 50 Marc Jacobs boutiques in the UK, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the USA. Regardless of location, brand recognition is key.

It is important to use lighting to distinguish between and reinforce the characteristics of the separate labels, but provide continuity to unite the overall Marc Jacobs brand. To achieve this IW employs similar detailing and light sources across all stores while varying quantity of light, and working within the different materials used by each division. Subtle variation to light details enhances the different ethos of each.

Collection shelving uses deeper, more discreet light details as well as sycamore finishing and rounded corners to distinguish itself from the edgier MMJ. Frosted-mirror rear panelling and similar shelf configuration brings continuity to the two labels. Paul Warchol
Collection shelving uses deeper, more discreet light details as well as sycamore finishing and rounded corners to distinguish itself from the edgier MMJ. Frosted-mirror rear panelling and similar shelf configuration brings continuity to the two labels.Photo: Paul Warchol

Collection stores feature curved wooden shelving and a warm, neutral colour palette. By contrast, Marc by Marc Jacobs has metal shelving, exposed elements such as HVAC ducts and trademark blue throughout -- blue wall finish, blue poured concrete flooring, blue carpeting and rugs, creating an altogether more vibrant appearance.

In both, shelf detailing uses basically the same LED with the same power. The difference lies in the visibility of the light source: you are more likely to catch a glimpse of the source in a Marc by Marc Jacobs shop coming around the corner or walking beneath exposed ducting, whereas in a Collection boutique it is much more discreet and completely hidden.

This is a subtle difference, but one that affects not only the customer experience but also light levels. At Marc by Marc Jacobs -- primarily aimed at a younger market -- the ambient light levels are brighter due to the slightly more exposed light source. At the same time, there are more ceiling accent lights. The chosen fittings are purposely less deep than those used in Collection and have a more visible light source, which creates a brighter atmosphere reflecting the youthful feel of the brand. In many Marc by Marc Jacobs shops, there is no finished ceiling and they take an even more industrial approach. Here suspended track laid out with exposed ductwork adds to a fresh, lively feel.

Shelving details at Smythson Collections Gallery in New Bond Street, London allow up and downlighting from the front edge.
Shelving details at Smythson Collections Gallery in New Bond Street, London allow up and downlighting from the front edge.

The distinctive blue associated with Marc by Marc Jacobs is carefully lit to give the required vibrancy. Early on, metal halide was used to enhance the blue colour. This reached its peak in the Marc by Marc Jacobs showroom in New York with its blue-to-clear graduated glass walls giving partial privacy to meeting areas. Metal halide sources accentuate the blue, non-transparent component of the enclosures, giving the illusion of privacy while seated. As source technology has advanced, these, along with all accent lighting, have been replaced with LEDs. Slightly more powerful sources and play with beam spreads replicate the intensity once provided by metal halide.

Collection has discreet, deep, low-glare accent lights in fewer numbers for a more luxurious environment. The lower lighting levels of the high-end range complement the calm interiors to create a relaxing ambience in which customers will enjoy spending time -- and therefore money. There is greater emphasis on products accented with narrow-beam spread spots. Display shelf lighting is more enclosed and there is little light spill for an elegant and sophisticated feel. Decorative fittings provide ambient light and help define seating or specific merchandising areas.

The Collection and Marc by Marc Jacobs boutiques were the first all-LED retail lighting solutions designed by Illuminationworks. We had long used linear LED in shelf detailing, but ceiling accent lights were the final piece of the puzzle. Marc Jacobs International and Jaklitsch/Gardner had asked that my team keep an eye on the technology and introduce LED accent lights as soon as possible without a decline in lighting quality and atmosphere.

Colour rendition is paramount for luxury merchandise to appear as intended, and it was crucial that LEDs achieved the requisite light quality in this respect. Other improvements also nudged the decision. When beam angles finally started getting tighter (we could not light a high-end brand with drama-free 40-degree beams) and lumen output increased to a reasonably bright level, we made the move to LEDs without sacrificing the brand's desires. An additional benefit is that because of the longevity of the source shops maintain their focused appearance for years, instead of months, after we have completed our set-up.

In 2011, IW completed the Marc by Marc Jacobs showroom in New York. First built just after the diffusion brand launched 10 years earlier, it was rather tired and outdated, and no longer reflected the image of the brand that had evolved in the intervening decade. Revisiting the showroom in NYC was a culmination of many years working with the brand. Bringing all of the Marc by Marc Jacobs elements back into the showroom was the main priority so that the showroom felt like an extension of the boutiques.

Illuminationworks’ lighting concept shows how linear light detailing will emphasise the repeating 5m-tall display window configuration at Smythson Madison Avenue, New York
Illuminationworks' lighting concept shows how linear light detailing will emphasise the repeating 5m-tall display window configurationat Smythson Madison Avenue, New York

In the past year, the Marc Jacobs brand has been entirely restructured, bringing the two divisions together under a single name. Assuming that the boutiques will stock items from right across the spectrum, it will certainly pose many lighting design challenges.

In 2010, Illuminationworks was asked by Smythson to improve the lighting at six key locations in London, after the UK luxury stationery and now leather-goods retailer changed ownership. As a result, a number of cosmetic enhancements were delivered, improving both quantity and quality of light. Part of the brief dictated that new lighting elements be compatible with future redevelopment as the company expanded its product line to include small leather goods, handbags, luggage and homeware. Within a year IW was working on a new concept for the brand with architect Waldo Works.

The New Bond Street flagship store was in dire need of updating and was used by the design team as a prototype for a worldwide roll-out of the brand. The shop consisted of two rooms with an old-fashioned lighting scheme composed primarily of linear incandescent display shelf lighting with little shielding. The architects doubled the total sales area by taking over administrative office space to create a department store feel with the different merchandise types displayed across six rooms.

On a functional level, the lighting scheme designed by Illuminationworks reflects the differing moods of each space while unifying the shop as a whole. More crucially, lighting updates the brand's image without losing its heritage. This is achieved by introducing more discreet, integrated detailing that emphasises both product design and the ornate Georgian period features of the original shop. These characteristics form the lighting standards used in the roll-out.

New cabinetry designs feature unique lighting details that show off the more varied types of merchandise on display. Continuous linear LED is carefully detailed into the front of each shelf to remain invisible to customers while providing direct downlight on to products. This more open detail has a gradual incline from the light source to the back, ensuring all rear panels are evenly lit, without the distracting 25mm shadow line that is ubiquitous in many other brands' shelf details.

Metal halide highlights the trademark blue of Marc by Marc Jacobs used as a gradient frit of a meeting space. The opaque vibrant blue at the lower part of the partition adds to the illusion of privacy when seated. Photo: Scott Frances
Metal halide highlights the trademark blue of Marc by Marc Jacobs used as a gradient frit of a meeting space. The opaque vibrantblue at the lower part of the partition adds to the illusion of privacy when seated. Photo: Scott Frances

A linear opening along the shelf allows uplight as well, important for properly lighting handbags and larger luggage pieces. Dimmable LEDs integrated at the rear of each shelf accentuate the silhouette of each product as well as highlighting architectural materials. The overall effect, as well as the meticulous attention to detail, reflects the core values of quality, elegance and sophistication associated with the Smythson brand.

This standard display cabinet is duplicated in various forms throughout each shop. An opal glass lens diffuser covers the uplight on cases that are viewable from more than one side. Rounded cases have the same detailing, but with flexible LEDs. Floor displays are lit from the ceiling, with integrated flexible LEDs at the single shelves below for maximum visibility of all items.

Currently, Illuminationworks is on the design team to bring the newer Smythson concept to the USA, with three initial locations in Manhattan. We have adapted the shelf detailing once again to introduce current LED technologies that will also aid compliance with ASHRAE, the restrictive American energy code. Further challenges will be presented with the retailer's projected move into California, which operates under the more even stringent Title 24 energy code.

As always, image dictates appearance, and lighting designers play an important role in maintaining continuity of atmosphere, product appearance, as well as brand recognition across borders, regardless of equipment availability and local regulations.





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