Being asked to design John Barrett’s hair salon on the top floor of Bergdorf Goodman in 1996 was a pivotal moment for David Collins’ emergent design Studio. The family owner of the iconic New York department store had recently passed away leaving the penthouse residence vacant. The space was bestowed upon Barrett, and as the blow out champion of the city’s big-league blondes, he was in need of a suitably high-hitting design for his new home. Barrett’s friend, Iain Watson, had been working on a few residential projects locally with his design partner, David Collins, and the pair were invited to transform the former apartment into a beauty hub for club Carrie Bradshaw. “This space had to work very, very hard, it was about the use of colour, lighting, the operations and the functionality of the spaces,” says Watson, now CEO of David Collins Studio. As their joint entry into retail design, Collins and Watson knew that it couldn’t just look good, there had to be flow as well as finesse, and durability built into the design. The lavender-hued resin terrazzo floor was a stylish touch - but it took 20 versions to hone it. ‘We were testing it with hair dye and similar because there’s no point in having a beautiful floor if it’s going to get damaged,” says Watson. Their attention to detail paid off. The salon closed its doors only recently, the Collins' design still intact after more than 20 years of action.
A quarter of a century later, retail design is a corner stone of The Studio’s business, alongside residential, hotel, restaurant and bar - and most recently, cruise ship design (a current project for Cunard melds all its areas of expertise). From sandwich shops (Eat and Pret à Manger) to luxury fashion (Jimmy Choo and Alexander McQueen) and department store halls (Harrods) the team apply design minds to combining peak operational performance with endlessly elegant vistas, deploying The Studio’s signature obsession with detail in every area, from service pathways to doorknobs.
While food and fashion may dominate their output currently, The Studio’s retail teeth were in fact cut through further forays into beauty retail. The Bergdorf-Barrett penthouse project with its windows onto Madison and Central Park, gave The Studio the visibility they needed to establish themselves in the States, in retail design but specifically, in the selling of self-improvement. It brought make-up matriarch Robin Burns to its door, which began a period honing the operations of selling lipsticks and the like across the United States. Formerly of Estee Lauder and Calvin Klein, Burns was then heading up Limited Brands, which was the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, Victoria’s Secret Beauty and Bed Bath and Beyond. “We had a sensibility that she wanted to tap into in terms of the period references the use of materials the operations the lighting which of course is very important, says Watson. “She came to us with an initial briefing for VS beauty - looking at repositioning that whole beauty experience. We were designing the ultimate make up counter desk, cash desks, the whole customer experience.” On a retainer for two to three years, they worked alongside a store planning department of 200 people in Ohio delivering concept prototypes to be piloted and then rolled out.
Simultaneously they worked on a concept skincare brand, Aura Science, that married Limited Brand’s expertise in accessibility with the supreme Japanese brand, Shiseido, known for its advanced R and D. Developing a prototype store for the unique brand collaboration, that David Collins Studio also helped name, they pushed the operational revolution of the beauty store. “This was something very different,” says Watson. “It was a move away from the traditional counter - you were always served by someone standing beside you so there was much more of a relationship with the customer - rather than being distanced across a counter.” Now we think little of retail service that makes you feel like you have your feet up in your own home, but this informality was something new “Now it’s gone even further - they hand you a pouffe and you sit down to it,” says Watson.
Lewis Taylor, who has worked alongside Watson for 14 years, now leads The Studio’s retail business and has further refined and developed these models, marrying aesthetics and operation, honing the balance between consistency (what he calls ‘core DNA) and locational individuality in their roll out retail and increasingly merging their residential and hospitality expertise with retail to create new shopping models. While thoughtful deployment of colour, texture and detail might be the seen as The Studio’s signature to the outside world, ask Taylor what puts The Studio stamp on a space and he is more likely to about ceremony. “What’s the first thing you do when you walk in - if it’s a hotel room, where do you put your coat, where do you put your keys, where do you take your shoes off, where do you put your luggage, can you open your luggage up?” says Taylor. “With retail - is there a doorman or are you touching the door. There’s no doorman in the McQueen store so we made a unique door handle that’s cast in bronze - instantly you get a feel of what you are walking into. And then what do you see left and then right, how does the shopper navigate the space. That kind of ceremony.” And with experience and education leading the direction of travel, and retail becoming less transactional there a sense that all The Studio’s sectors are merging. The Jimmy Choo London flagship has a champagne bar, and there’s a distinct residential feel to some of Harrods menswear, with a standard lamp, a chair, a cabinet and ambient lighting.
Beauty is still an area that fascinates Watson ‘I subscribe to Beauty Pie,” he says, referring to the subscription based brand from serial disruptor, Marcia Kilgore, that offers premium skincare at factory prices. He and the team returned recently from a research trip to Korea with suitcases of facemasks, having immersed themselves in the latest k-beauty developments and he talks with enthusiasm about his investigations into cryotherapy. “It gave me an amazing endorphin rush!” It’s the new developments around the integration of beauty, wellness and design that animate him most, and which he is leading the team to explore “the overlap with wellness is very exciting creatively,” he says. “Harrods wellness department (not designed by us) is very holistic - it has some incredible things - beauty, dermatology, physiotherapy. It’s not just about getting the fabulous lipstick for a party but you can get that, as well as a make over,” he enthuses. And he finds the integration of wellness into hospitality equally inspiring. “Hotels are doing smarter things like putting yoga mats in the rooms and you might have a wellness menu there too rather than just the option of a club sandwich. It might be types of lighting they are using, it might be quality of light. It’s not just about having a spa down in the basement anymore, it’s about materiality, air, light. We have briefs that are looking at purified air. We’ve discussed salt rooms where you sit in a room for 20 minutes and breathe salt...” And it’s not just the concepts evolving, the fabric of the design too “We are challenged more and more to use materials that are sustainable, more natural products, less synthetic lacquers…. it can’t be just lip service.”
While for Taylor a dream future project would be a beauty hall, something he thinks can be further disrupted away from the concession-led model, Watson is thinking - a lot - along the lines of wellness integration and the holistic design of hospitality and retail. Whilst looking to the future, however, they don’t want to lose one big Studio-defining trait - a knack for creating timeless design. It’s not only the John Barrett salon that endured longer than most, this year the Wolseley is 17 years old and Claridge’s Bar, 22 yeas old. “There’s sustainability in that, ” says Watson. And indeed, there’s nothing more forward-looking than making things that last.
Emma Moore is a design, wellness and culinary writer, editor and consultant, and the former Lifestyle Director of Wallpaper*.