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The Angels are in the Details
3 May 2010

Apple StoresMichelangelo's David

The Angels are in the Details

Details keep me awake at night. They whisper things in my ear and worm their way into my dreams.


I really used to believe that the devil was in the details and as a result distanced myself from them and delegated all responsibility for them wherever possible. It was nice to think of myself as ‘big picture thinker.” That’s what design directors are, I thought, all about big ideas.

And to an extent I was right. Retail design should be about bold, simple ideas. Easy to understand, easy to implement. So why bother about detail when you have a strong, simple basic concept?

It was the Apple Store changed most of my ideas about design- as Maurice Saatchi would say, it’s brutally simple- beautiful merchandise displayed in a minimal environment. Anthropologie does the opposite- they just let the merchandising take over.
But it’s deceptive. Simple is harder to do than complicated.

It’s easy to solve a problem by adding something. Two materials meet awkwardly, so you add a trim made of a third material to hide the mistake. There’s complexity right away- and added expense. True creative thinking achieves strength by taking stuff away. Michelangelo’s David, for example, was created by taking a block of stone and removing everything that wasn’t neccessary. How did Michelangelo know when he’d finished? He’d taken enough away.

So how does this apply to designing great stores? It’s all about keeping the details under control. The Apple Store, for example, is painstakingly detailed. There are no visible fixings. Joints in materials line up with joints in other materials. Sprinklers line up with light fixtures and air grilles. You might call this unnecessarily fussy but the result is a beautiful, calm environment in which equally beautiful product is the star.

Anthropologie may seem like an exuberant, uncontrolled riot of visual merchandising but the attention to detail is unsurpassed. Even in a display incorporating vintage radios, if you listen carefully you’ll find that each one is tuned to a different station.
The simplest store we’ve designed recently is the Just Cuts concept. It is very distinctive but derives its impact from careful consideration of how a few simple materials go together, how task lighting also becomes flattering to the customer and how to deliver it all on a budget. Nothing is superfluous to requirements- we even found ways to eliminate the use of plasterboard and on site painting. Strong attention to detail, especially in the final stages, was vital in achieving this.

So the message is this: First you need the big idea- no question. But to really bring it to life, there is no escaping the hard work. As Charles Eames said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.”

3 May 2010
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