Retail Revolution - How to get physical in a digital age.
Frame Magazine, 115, Frame Publishers, Netherlands, March/April 2017
has created an open exhibition retail space around a robotic system
within the restoration of the 110 year old iconic department store, Au
Pont Rouge in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Completed in 1907, Au Pont Rouge located along the Red Bridge on River Moika was built in the tradition of great European department stores such as Galeries Lafayette in Paris or Selfridges in London. Following the revolution in 1919, the building was renamed and converted into Volodarsky Sewing Factory and in the 1930s, the original cupola was demolished. In 2011, the cupola was reconstructed and the building underwent functional and architectural transformations to restore Au Pont Rouge to its original state as a world class department store in Saint Petersburg.
Jonathan Openshaw in conversation with Judy Cheung and Christoph Vogl,
founding partners of Cheungvogl.
Openshaw: How did the project first come about and what was the
Vogl: Au Pont Rouge is part of a larger development. Our client
acquired almost an entire city block of which the old department store
is a part of. The original plan focused on the renovation of the
development, creating offices, residential and within Au Pont Rouge the
creation of a commercial shopping complex.
Openshaw: What are some of the special requirements of designing for
a luxury consumer in Russia? What are the main similarities and
differences with other markets?
Cheung: Russians are very friendly and warm-hearted people and what
can be said about Russians generally, applies especially to the people
of Saint Petersburg. There is a deep love and admiration for art and
culture, and there is a broad knowledge and awareness about their
heritage. Russians love their writers, poets, philosophers, composers,
artists and above all the famous ballet. In terms of presence and
density of culture throughout the city, probably only Paris can compare
to Saint Petersburg. Au Pont Rouge is located in closest proximity
to The Hermitage, the Admiralty, Saint Isaac Cathedral, Kazan Cathedral,
the Saviour of Spilled Blood Church and many other historically and
architecturally important theatres.
Vogl: Even though the original department store is 110 years old,
the brand itself is new and we were literally equipped with great
freedom to test and develop a new thinking that we believe would work to
set new benchmark locally and internationally. Established brands
sometimes lack the bravery to go further and explore experimental ways
to develop the brand, architecture, and/or product, as they can be
afraid of being estranged from their existing customers. In this project
we felt, that if we made the project relevant to the city and the
people, we could make it successful and memorable beyond commercial
Cheung: Au Pont Rouge is culturally too significant to be just a
common retail project. We always wanted to create something people could
relate to as a Saint Petersburg institution. If they felt its
significance, they could love it as a space as they would love the
meaning of the old restored structure to the city.
Openshaw: What was the design process – how did you respond to the
brief and evolve the concept?
Cheung: We started the design process by reviewing the meaning of
the classical department store in the late 19th century. It is
interesting to see that the creation of department stores had a much
wider social and cultural relevance to society than the modern
department store concept would suggest. For instance, the ability to buy
clothes in a general store broke down social barriers. The working class
could afford to buy ready wear clothes, which until then were tailor
made and only accessible to the upper class.
Vogl: At the early conceptualisation stage, we envisioned to utilize
a robotic system to handle all logistics, including stocks and
purchases. This would not only free up the space, but also enable the
staff to engage with people, rather than being sales staff and stockist.
The robot would enable people to focus on interhuman exchange.
Openshaw: Can you talk us through some of the key design details?
Cheung: Atypical to most department store design, which natural
light and city views are blocked, we aimed to create a strong
relationship between the four main ingredients: the outside city context
and life, the historical building, the new spaces and the historical
atrium. We wanted the new and to the old to coexist and strengthen each
other respectfully. The structure was heavily damaged and most
historical ornamentations on the ceilings and beams were lost. Within
the restoration, the distinctive art-nouveau staircase and balustrades
were carefully restored and repaired to their original conditions.
Vogl: To express the authenticity of the architecture, we decided to
created quiet and calm spaces between old fragments and restored
structural elements, which could define areas but not boundaries or
presume a path through the building. We wanted visitors to experience
the interweaving of old and new, the city life and the historic
structure. We overlaid the partially irregular historic grid with the
new grid, one that is based on defining sequence of spaces that
interlink with one another. Semi-transparent glass panels are
used, which allow at any point within the space, a co-relation to the
old structure, adjacent spaces, and the city context.
Openshaw: How did the idea for the robotic system come about and can
you talk us through its functionality?
Vogl: When we analysed the department store concept, we asked
ourselves if technology could be applied in a smarter way than simply
used as a superficial communication and promotion tool. We found that
the robot could help us to allow us to redefine the entire store
operation, which would connect online and offline shopping and create a
completely new interpretation of retail.
Openshaw: Introducing robots has freed up the shop floor for use in
other ways – describing it as an ‘exhibition space’. Can you tell
us more about the thinking here?
Cheung: Au Pont Rouge offers a range of uniquely handpicked niche
products from around the world. It appeared natural to understand and
present these products in a singular and focused manner to express their
history, ingredients and artisanship. With the help of the robotic
logistics, stocks are removed from the display areas, so the space can
be curated and designed to unfold stories more specifically about the
engineering and creativity that are imbedded within the products. The
displays are product and sensory specific. For instance, fragrances are
placed on filigree stands of different heights that sway slightly when
you test the samples. Paired with the scents of perfumes, many visitors
resemble flower fields when they walk through this installation. We
curated each exhibition around the product range. Even auditory sensory
is distinctively composed and mixed for different areas throughout the
different floors. This creates the experience of an undefined journey.
Openshaw: You mention that the store is designed as ‘museum
format’ – can you say some more about the convergence of retail and
culture here (stores such as Selfridges in London have run a Shakespeare
Vogl: Andy Warhol predicted that someday, all department stores will
become museums, and all museums will become department stores. If you
look at the global commercialisation of art and art institutions, this
prediction is certainly true. In terms of department stores as being
museums, I would not be too certain, as commercial products cannot
replace the intellectual discourse and social aspect of art. The irony
in Andy Warhol’s art would also suggest seeing either development very
Cheung: People refer to the term “art” with all kinds of
consumption related products and behaviours, the art of coffee making,
for example. Someone who indulges in this “art” will certainly
relate to coffee in a deeper way than the mere act of consuming it, but
still it does not make the act of making or drinking coffee an art form.
The comparison between retail, museums and art is certainly true when
you refer to products, which borderline and cover both fields, in
fashion, Comme Des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto or Alexander McQueen are
Vogl: We refer to the “museum format” firstly for the spatial
quality and secondly for the cultural and social meaning of the
institution and its interpretation. Selfridges itself is known as a
cultural and social institution by its history and historical
importance. The greater challenge for such an established institution is
less on how to relate to culture, which can be achieved through events
and branding, but may not represent a formula for success in the long
run in itself. For department stores to stay socially and culturally
relevant, understanding the changing social habits in parallel with
reviewing the holistic store concept, we see is probably the greater
challenge in the long-term development. This is exactly how we redefined
the department store concept in Au Pont Rouge.
Openshaw: What happens to the human touch here and those more
emotional interactions in retail – does it allow the shop assistants
to take on different roles too?
Cheung: Indeed, with the new store concept we were able to put the
team into a much more important and responsible role. Now they can
really concentrate on consultation and customer relationship rather than
being bound to sales and logistics. For this reason, the team is
specifically trained in every aspect of product knowledge, engagement
and services. Most team members have a background related to the arts,
fashion, design or other art related fields, in order to be able to
relate to the subject and communicate on an adequate level. Most
importantly, the team is composed of very open and friendly
personalities, which we feel makes the greatest difference. Performance
is conceptualised down to the smallest detail. The simple uniform
includes designer sneakers to support healthy postures and comfort
through the daylong routine of servicing.
Vogl: The physical store is the place where a brand can connect best
with its customers, where it can communicate and interact directly with
the customers on a personnel level. The employment of a robotic system
only enabled us to strengthen the human side of operation and
interaction, which employment of information technology and
automatization should really be about.
Openshaw: Why is it important to integrate aspects of digital
innovation and technology (such as the Selfie Room) into physical retail
spaces? How can physical spaces blend the physical and virtual worlds
Vogl: People like to share their experiences in the social media and
brands constantly try to break into these circles of friends, as
personal recommendation is more successful than anonymously targeted
promotion campaigns. We extended the idea further to create a social
interactive space by providing visitors with the self-reflection in huge
mirrors within an exceptional space with perfect light setting, to
animate mirror selfies, which carry the geotag of the store when shared
online. This works the same with any landmark, like the Louvres, the
Eiffel Tower – any image shared on the web is fundamentally an
advertisement for the city, the institution or brand – and/or oneself.
Cheung: What was more important to us than simply to create an
advertisement space was the idea to explore a new kind of connection
between the online and offline experience. Some brands integrate
computers, iPads or screens into their stores to achieve some sort of
online/offline experience, which seems rather irrelevant specific to
users’ experience. The Selfie Room shows how this connection could
work very effectively and naturally, even in the absence of technology
designs. The connection between the physical world and the digital one
is in fact very simple - it is already in place, here and everywhere.
The connection is in fact less a technological challenge, but a question
of how to make it relevant to users. In social media, you will find
interesting ways of how people use this space creatively, enjoying
themselves and eventually sharing it with the public or friends.
Openshaw: Although technology is used, it never becomes too dominant
and the overall impression of the design is one of space and serenity.
You mention ‘space is the new luxury’ could you talk more about
Cheung: Providing a physical space is a luxury in a world where
every information, every item is constantly available and updated
online. In a time where the online world literally creates a virtual
space, filled with information and data, which connects people with
people, places and things on a non-physical level, therefore, the
presence of a physical space must have a strong focus in contrary to the
online experience. We now have the great opportunity to rediscover
qualities of physical space as we are freed from the necessity to
provide analog information.
Vogl: Analog information requires space and infrastructure. By not
having to allocate space to information as a key component, the design
can focus much more on curating spatial qualities and users’
Cheung: Many department stores have been weaken due to steep online
competitions and many are trying to regain momentum with events,
promotions, face-lifts and makeovers instead of understanding and
evaluating the greatest advantage they have over online stores: the
physical spatial experience and all the possibilities within. It is
fundamental to radically rethink the qualities and meaning of what
timeless physical space can provide.
Openshaw: What were some of the challenges of creating such an
innovative redesign in a 110-year-old heritage building like Au Pont
Vogl: Technically, the historic structure itself created the
greatest challenge. In Au Pont Rouge, the introduction of the massive
robot required deep investigation of the existing structure and its
capability to uphold such heavy weight. It is not without obstacles that
we were able to construct the system within the existing building
structure. In addition, the irregular historic structure made planning
for mechanical and electrical engineering more complicated due to its
inherit floor to ceiling height, regulations coupled with the design
aspirations. However, the greatest challenge was to introduce such
innovation into the historic context with a key emphasis and respect for
the cultural meaning and history. We believe that the robotic system and
the connection between online and offline experience resembles the
historic innovation of the classical department store, and therefore are
the continuation of its historic heritage in Saint Petersburg.
Openshaw: What is most exciting about the department store retail
format today – why are we seeing so much innovation here? They were
put under a lot of pressure by the internet and e-commerce but seem to
have come through this process transformed into something far stronger
than before, taking the best of both worlds.
Vogl: You are absolutely right. Every challenge also presents a
great opportunity to transform in order to survive. It is an almost
evolutionary process. I think we are currently only witnessing the
beginning of this transformation in many aspects of everyday life. Many
institutions will not be able to operate anymore the way they used to,
as old concepts will gradually be rendered unnecessary in the face of
Cheung: The online challenge to retail has certainly created a
desperate need for department stores to adapt and to rethink their
strategies, but we find that retailers are still searching for the right
model. It is one thing to implement new technologies, but how to use
them effectively and intelligently might be the more critical question.
I believe the most exciting aspect of today’s state of department
stores is that with the ongoing Industrial Revolution of automatization,
we will see much more technological advancement in this sector in the
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