Design in the Wild

Retail design is the art and science of molding an environment to cater to people in a very specific demographic, to their wants and needs, to their intellectual and emotional selves. Designers use every option at their disposal to make the store look, feel, smell, and sound like something you might want to be a part of. Here are a few examples, and possible deconstructions, of retail design at the Mall of America.


Basin sells bath products targeted at 20-to-45-year-old women. The flooring is made of weathered pine planks. The display cases are pine bins and metal tubs. It gives the sense of an old county mercantile store from 150 years ago. Why? Because Basin wants to present an image about being natural, using pure ingredients, products created with care and personal attention. It's an answer to "Why don't they make things like they used to?" Basin wants you to believe that they do.

Bath and Body Works

The Mall of America is a great place to see brands experimenting. Here, we have a traditional Bath & Body Works store, following a very similar aesthetic to Basin for many of the same reasons. But the "old country" look is becoming common among bath and beauty suppliers, so it's losing the ability to convey something unique. In addition, the ideas of using natural, ecologically-friendly ingredients is becoming common practice. So how does Bath & Body Works re-brand itself to be unique?

By becoming a spa, or least looking like a spa. There are two Bath & Body Works stores in the mall, and one is trying something new. In the bath-product world, the draw to natural is diminishing as the draw to rejuvenation is increasing. The clean, modern lines, natural wood and polished metal used here are taken directly from the modern spa and resort aesthetic. Will this retooling work? It's hard to know. But it's unlikely both store designs will still be in use. If the new look works, the old one will be converted. If the old one still sells better, then it's back to the drawing board.


Staccato is an upscale women's shoe store - upscale as in "spend $200 on sexy boots to go out dancing" upscale. So it's not a coincidence that the store has a strong nightclub feel. It's dark with sleek, black, glossy furniture and wall-sized posters of legs. Sure, the legs are wearing shoes, but the posters aren't promoting the shoes. They're promoting the sexiness that these shoes will give you.

Club Libby Lu

Club Libby Lu is a clothing/accessory/makeup store aimed at pre-teen girls (4 to 12 years old) based on a "princess" aesthetic. If 11-year-old girls designed the world, much of it would be pink and flowery with hearts and rainbows everywhere. (At least that's the stereotype.) With Club Libby Lu, girls have a "dream store" in which to spend their ever-increasing allowances, and parents have a go-to store for all their pink, pre-teen princess needs.

Williams & Sonoma

This has to be one of the least efficient ways of storing merchandise. If you count, there are fewer than a few dozen plates, fewer than a dozen bowls, fewer than a dozen glasses, etc.. But this display takes up the floor of an entire room. Of course the goal isn't to maximize product density. The goal is to help you envision their product in your home. Maybe these plates are the key to setting a table that looks this welcoming. Wouldn't you like to be this great of a host?

Martin + Osa

This is a new brand to the Mall of America. It's a clothing store aimed at the 25 to 40-year-old demographic based on an active, outdoors lifestyle aesthetic. The clothes themselves aren't intended for active wear, but rather are meant to be what an active person would wear when they're not skiing or hiking. The walls are covered in slate and wood with cobalt blue glass accents. It's a beautiful store. On the subtler side, the scent of freshly chopped wood is pumped in, and the overhead lights slowly, almost imperceptibly, dim and brighten, presumably to simulate clouds drifting by.

Abercrombie & Fitch

Like Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch makes it difficult to see inside the store from the outside. That has as much to do with exclusivity as it does with escapism. Abercrombie & Fitch is an oasis in a world of parents and teachers who don't understand what it means to have fun. A teenager just wants to go to his room, lock the door, and turn up the music. When he goes into Abercrombie & Fitch, his parents aren't going to follow him in, and they're not going to ask the store to turn the music down.

Urban Outfitters

Urban Outfitters sells clothing and housewares to the teens-to-30s demographic. Often, the strategy to appeal to younger consumers plays up "independence" as at Hollister and Abecrombie + Fitch. Urban Outfitters follows this route, but with an interesting twist. Typically, when a designer wants to talk about being modern in an urban landscape, he or she will go for the converted warehouse loft look - exposed brick, wooden floor, maybe even exposed HVAC unites and pipes. Urban Outfitters tries a riskier direction with what might be described as the "unfinished basement" look - exposed 2-by-4s, plywood and pegboard, bad wallpaper. It's the raw look of a converted loft without any of the personality. The loft look is about inserting life into the city. The basement look is about an apathy towards living environment. And that fits with much of the clothing which focuses on retro, ironic, or kitschy words and images that provoke, but don't really convey any meaning.

Back to Design of Desire

©2018 American Public Media