Wednesday 10 September 2008

Creating Visually Stimulating Environments

The sense of journey from private spaces to public places and on to private / public retail spaces has always held a fascination for me. Where do people meet before they go shopping? Why do we go to a particular store and not another? What makes things sell? What first attracts us to a brand? Of course a whole plethora of research, theories, theories of the theories, research of the theories and so on exists to answer these questions and indeed many more. There does however remain an emotional response to these journeys, a kind of there-are-some-emotions-which-have-no-words scenario that particularly interests me.

When designing, producing commercial spaces or installing a visual merchandising concept, for example it can be particularly easy to apply motifs or plagiarise by lifting from already established and published imagery, however I encourage my students to look beyond these and apply a much deeper level of research and thinking through unravelling their initial ideas before applying them into the commercial spaces that they design.

During a period of research of public art in 1992 I first came across the Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India. This of course was pre-internet days where ease of access to such information took hours pouring over documents and publications in libraries. It was a another 11 years before my first visit to Chandigarh at the foot of the Himalayas on a round trip from New Delhi, taking several hours by car driving on the bumpy roads of Rajasthan and the Punjab. Indians are particularly proud of Chandigarh, which is probably the greenest city – in the sense of landscape rather than recycling – in the whole of India and the Rock Garden the most visited place in India after the Taj Mahal.
Built by Nek Chand beginning in the early 1950’s in a clearing of the woods on the edge of 'Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh' and new vision of urban planning. Chand created an ‘illegal’ oasis from found objects that include broken crockery, bangles, light sockets and stones, creating an inspirational and fascinating environment. Paths of polished rounded stones and walls completely covered in broken cups and plates guide you through the spaces. Rounded doorways so low that you have to bend down to pass through – apparently to ensure that you bow to the ever present ‘Gods’ to then be greeted by ‘Sculptured terraces’ of strangely shaped animals covered with coloured bangles, an abstract concrete forms applied to surfaces.
What does the all have to do with commercial space design you may well be asking yourself? Certainly Chand was uneducated and influences of the great masters of Art and Design were completely unknown to him and therefore perhaps he was in that respect ‘untainted’ by these influences. However what he seems to have done is to create a visually stimulating environment from an emotional response in its purest form and from which we can learn a great deal when working in a retail environment and creating our exciting commercial spaces. While I do not suggest that everyone cover the walls of their 'spaces' in broken electrical sockets or crockery from the home ware department or create mystical creatures from found objects – these kind of things only really work well in the environments in which they were discovered and of course that would be plagiarism and applying the motif, for me at least, this should be avoided at all cost. We could therefore look perhaps holistically at how Chand created such a variety of different environments through the use of different materials, water, shapes, spaces, forms and repetition of these. Of course there is no electrical lighting deftly creating highlights in this environment, no obvious focal points or hovering sales assistants and no obvious attempt to sell you a product (after all there are none, but that is an interesting concept in itself) What he does do is take you on a journey through spaces each one completely different and yet seamlessly joined. What would be interesting to see is how we can use the essence of what he achieved as inspiration not through the obvious routes of merely covering objects in mosaics and planting them a store window but perhaps scratch a little deeper and take our customers on a journey of experience and excitement.
There are of course plenty of examples of retailers already doing this out there, else where or at least somewhere, but as standardisation of retail environments, mega superstructured shopping malls becomes ever more prevalent I do fear for the future of these exciting journeys to and through retail spaces and the creation of visually stimulating environments within them.
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