The sleek, smooth design of Apple's iPod is now mirrored in the architecture of some of the company's high-profile stores
A look up the from elevator at the new Apple retail store on Fifth Avenue in New York. The Apple Store Fifth Avenue is Apples most architecturally innovative store, featuring a distinctive 32-foot glass cube that creates a stunning new destination on Fifth Avenue, one of the worlds most popular shopping areas. The Apple Store Fifth Avenue will be open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to offer an unprecedented level of service. (Reuters Photo)
NEW YORK - To those who dwell in the design universe,
Sleek, ergonomic, and accessible, first their computers and now their iPods have gained raves and a cult following, and they have brought terms like ``nano" out of geekdom and into everyday use.
``I think every designer in the world has been in a meeting where someone announces that their printer, toaster, telephone, breakfast cereal should become the iPod of its category," says Steve Portigal of Portigal Consulting , a California firm specializing in design and business strategy.
Now, with the opening of an architecturally audacious retail store in Manhattan, Apple has crossed another design threshold. The Apple Store Fifth Avenue -- a mammoth underground docking station for Macs, iPods, and accessories -- has made the ultimate statement of design and product packaging by morphing the design of Apple products with the design of the building that houses them.
``It's difficult to think of other companies that have such design coherence," says Paul Thompson, director of New York's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum . ``Everything comes together under one design vision. Anyway you cut the apple, design is driving it."
Apple has 152 stores around the world, but the Apple Store Fifth Avenue is one of eight ``high-profile" retail stores, which the company defines as those in exceptionally high-traffic urban locations; others are on London's Regent Street , on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district, and in New York 's SoHo.
Soon there will be another one, in Boston. Plans are in the works to build one on the site of a Copy Cop store at 815 Boylston St. across from the Prudential Center; the neighborhood's profile has gotten a lot higher recently, with the arrival of high-rent businesses such as Barneys in Copley Place and the Valentino boutique on Newbury Street.
According to Apple, the Manhattan store, located on the
Barely six weeks old, the store already seems headed to becoming one of those storied Manhattan photo-op destinations, like Tiffany & Co. and Trump Tower, further down Fifth Avenue. One morning last week, clusters of tourists flocked to the plaza to pose for photos in front of the cube, including Stacy Day from Oklahoma who pronounced it ``awesome."
``My husband sent me; he said, `you gotta go,' " said Day, who was visiting New York for the first time with three of her friends. The Apple Store was high on their list of must-see tourist spots, she said, along with the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, and ground zero.
``All this glass, it just draws you in," said Steve Henderson from Bristol, England, who is ``not into computers." He acknowledged that the other thing that drew him in was his son, Jordan, who definitely is into computers. ``He saw it and it was like a magnet to him," said Henderson.
That is precisely the cube's raison d'etre, according to Ron Johnson, Apple's senior vice president in charge of retail stores. (It has no other obvious purpose, being empty except for a huge suspended Apple logo, and a worker who seems to be on full-time fingerprint-wiping detail.)
``The function of the cube is to get people to go downstairs," says Johnson. ``The cube became a pure art form that happened to be perfect in front of the GM building, with its strong rectilinear vertical space." He adds, immodestly, ``It has to be the most stunning retail entryway, perhaps, ever created."
One of the first things you notice about the store is how iPod-esque it is -- sleek, smooth, and clean-lined, with circular signage that hints at the iPod's circular thumbwheel controller. The materials used in the store continue the sleekness theme -- smooth grey stone floors, a smooth circular stone bench that wraps around the elevator, stainless steel ceiling and wall panels, and glass stairs surrounded by glass walls that seem to be floating in air. There is a degree of architectural detail ``that's unusual for a computer store," says the Cooper-Hewitt's Paul Thompson. ``You might expect it in a high-fashion or luxury perfume store, but not somewhere you see 1,000 laptops."
Though it's underground, the store is bathed in natural light from the cube that serves as a skylight. Looking up from the center of the store, you get a perfectly framed view of the top of the GM skyscraper. It's a captivating image that seems to say, ``I, Apple, am as iconic an American symbol as GM is" (or was).
``I find this very interesting," says Kate Crail, a tourist from South Africa who had formulated her own metaphor about the interplay between the two buildings. ``There is this massive skyscraper going up, and then there's the Apple building going down. It's as if New York has used up all the space above ground, so now it has to go underground, too."
Apple's Ron Johnson insists the design is less about symbolism than function and aesthetics. ``The common elements of our stores are that they are very inviting, easy to navigate, friendly places," he says. ``Like Apple's products, they are uncluttered and easy to use." The glass cube is not meant to be flashy; rather, it ``feels right" for the space it's in, he says. ``We're not making a cube to make a cube."
What feels right to conservative Boston, though, may not square, exactly, with what feels right to Apple. The company has presented several building designs at hearings before the Back Bay Architectural Commission, an appointed board of citizens which reviews proposed exterior changes in the Back Bay to be sure its architectural integrity isn't compromised.
``Our number one industry is tourism and people want to see what they think Boston should look like," says Bryan Glascock, director of Boston's Environment Department, the umbrella agency for the city's architectural commissions.
The existing Copy Cop building dates back to the turn of the last century and housed one of the city's first car dealerships, Glascock says. ``We want to be sure we are not losing an important piece of the historical fabric of the city and . . . that what goes in will peaceably co-exist with the historical architecture of the neighborhood."
Apple's early proposal, for a three-story building with a facade that was largely glass, was thought not to co-exist very peaceably with the row house-style brownstones of the street. It got a chilly reception from the commission.
``It was too much brand," says the commission's chairman , Anthony Casendino.
``It had a glass facade that was entirely transparent with no visible vertical structure behind it," says William Young, senior preservation planner for the Environment Department. ``It seemed strikingly different and perhaps uncomfortably different" from the other buildings on the street.
But earlier this month, commission members warmed to a revised building design, and formed a subcommittee to keep working with Apple. This time, Apple came up with what Young calls a ``creative response" to the commission's concerns, introducing some ``internal structural elements" behind the glass -- vertical columns and horizontal beams -- to evoke what he calls ``a more traditional method of building."
``It recalls a familiar structural geometry," he says, ``but in an unapologetically modern fashion."
MORE APPLE STORE IMAGES View a gallery of photos from other cities at www.boston.com/living.