Giorgio Borruso has a little secret: he doesn't like shopping.
The Marina del Rey-based retail designer takes a guy approach to the experience: He knows what he needs before entering a store, and he wants to buy it and get out. The problem is that many stores are so cluttered that Borruso has trouble arriving at the transaction.
"Certain places are busy," he said. "I hate when you cannot find the dressing room or you cannot find the cash register."
But unlike most shoppers, he gets to do something about it. As head of Giorgio Borruso Design, Borruso designs concepts that change the look of displays, lighting even dressing rooms.
At the Miss Sixty store in the South Coast Plaza, the merchandise is aligned on a wall in in bubbled cases. A squiggly floor pattern is sharply defined by red and white. As the shopper gets toward back of the store, cocoon-like dressing rooms hang from the ceiling and they're not totally opaque, giving passersby a glimpse of soft human forms in silhouette.
"One step after another in this exploration you start to lose the geometry. The geometry becomes more of a free form and more natural," said the Italian-born Borruso. "By the time you reach the back of the store, an entire lifetime could have passed."
It's part of the current wave of retail architecture called organic design. "The amount of differentiation from the merchant standpoint simply is not that great," said Russell Sway, international president of the Institute of Store Planners. "The smart and savvy retailers are starting to turn to name designers."
Sway believes that Borruso is ushering in an era of retailers moving from the quick-and-easy approach that was popular with mass marketers like Starbucks Corp. and Gap Ipnc. One reason for the change is that mixed-use developments have provided retailers with different spaces where they can take chances. "You can't have creativity when you have to roll out 1,000 of these things," said Sway.
Borruso's creative designs are winning accolades from, among others, the Institute of Store Planners, the National Association of Store Fixture Manufacturers, and retail design publications Display & Design Ideas and VM+SD.
Borruso's designs are about big ideas that have a whimsical quality more out of children's illustrations than practical retailing space. One example: Borruso doesn't believe in directional signage, figuring that the designs should tell the shopper where to go.
"It is that very Italian eccentric design and very avant-garde," said Amy Dimond, a spokeswoman for sporting goods brand Fila, which hired him to design its New York flagship store. "That draws people in because it looks very unusual for a performance-based company to have something of that magnitude."
Unlike most shoe outlets, where the footwear is horizontally lined, Fila's merchandise is asymmetrically placed on the wall. Curves blanket the wall and make the shoes look like they are flying, similar to birds.
It's not cheap to build a Borruso creation. Katie Price, project manager at the San Francisco architecture firm M. Arthur Gensler Jr. & Associates Inc., remembers working on a Fornarino store in Las Vegas that cost nearly $1.5 million, several times the cost of a typical storefront.
"A lot of designs are meant to be cookie-cutter. In this case, it was not," said Jason Davila, vice president of City of Industry-based Bam Bam Designs Inc., which made fiberglass mountings and resin panels for the store that alone cost $250,000. "It was looked at as one store and they were going to give the presentation of the store a 'wow' factor."
Luxury retailers are the most obvious customers, and even then, only for flagship stores. But some retailers are realizing the hazards of their brands losing luster because of dull interiors.
"There is definitely a shift toward imaginative design," said Price. "It is not always now about revenue per square foot, it is about an image and taking the brand of the retailer to another level by incorporating art into their design."
Price said she's never spent so much time on the phone hashing out store fixtures. At one point, Borruso ended up sculpting an item in the Bam Bam studio so that everyone understood what he meant.
Even after construction, the fire department was concerned that the installations didn't meet code, and Price said that it took a while to convince them that shoppers could safely enter the store.
Product comes first
Borruso acknowledges it's a challenge to realize his ideas. "It takes so much energy. We don't use products that are already there. We rethink the material," he said. "We have been pushing the limit."
Some design-heavy stores have been faulted for relying on the design to attract shoppers and forgetting about selling products. But Borruso said he recognizes that product comes first. At the Fornarina store, where shoes are placed in circular wall attachments, he has interviewed customers to see if they were drawn to the merchandise.
Like most Italian-trained architects, Borruso works in a variety of mediums, ranging from homes to products. But he said retail is especially exciting because it's easy to see the results of designs at the cash register. Indeed, Fila's New York store is performing better than expected, Dimond said.
"I feel I am like a little kid in a toy store. I like projects that offer to me, and the people that work with me, the possibility to learn things," said Borruso. "My worst nightmare is to get bored in what I am doing."
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