Frame 116 – Judy Cheung and Christoph Vogl of Hong Kong-based firm Cheungvogl take ‘social relevance’ as a guiding principle in their design of physical retail. Their approach is the product of a sensitivity to dialectical materialism and technological futurism. For physical spaces to retain their relevance in a world where the functions they host are increasingly supplanted by digital media, design must be viewed as a means of actively communicating with its users rather than as a static container or scaffolding. It must become more fluid in its adaptability to different contexts. Cheung and Vogl elaborate on these ideas in a conversation about how they see future projects and the field as a whole.
Your recent retail projects are great examples of what retailers are doing to keep physical retail spaces relevant in the digital age. They mirror the comfort and convenience of online shopping, but go beyond the digital to offer immersive social and cultural experiences. But you’ve also created more conventional stores, driven more heavily by aesthetic ingenuity.
CHRISTOPH VOGL: The retail sector is like a miniature version of society in general. It reflects the changing social and cultural perceptions and communications, especially where information and future technologies directly influence codes and standards. In retail, changing social behaviours and contextual response are directly translated into numbers: turnover and profits. It’s our responsibility to create advanced concepts that are commercially successful by being relevant to customers, so our work is strongly related to the social experience. Creating successful retail models is like creating case studies of social interaction and communication to inform a responsive built environment – the actual design language is a communication tool. We’re now working on some retail projects where these theoretical explorations allow us to overcome predefined thinking patterns and reinvent coherent spatial qualities.
JUDY CHEUNG: The challenge in physical retail is the connection between information, communication and social behaviour through information technology. Any sector related to these things will face similar challenges. Engaging social experience is one facet of social relevance, but it could also be translated into different concepts. The main issue is that we don’t believe that offline retail can be successful without transforming itself. The online world is too far ahead in consumption-related information and communication for the offline world to compete with it anymore. The true beauty in this challenge is that we’re now able to rethink the meaning of physical space and possibly create better architecture. The underlying strategy of the store concepts and design guidelines for our projects is deeply related to the investigations of interactions and communication. We call it ‘branding by operation’.
Are traditional typologies of retail and workspaces outmoded, or can they be re-contextualized to generate new meanings?
JC: The traditional ‘staged’ retail experience – with over-the-counter consultation and back-of-house, operation-bound staff – is certainly outdated now that internet and social media have nurtured educated customers. They know more about brands, products and competitors than the sales team themselves. In projects like the Aēsop Cityplaza store, we wanted to create a case study of human interaction and consultation-focused retail experience. Aēsop’s homogeneous packaging design allowed us to combine display and storage into a single aesthetic entity, while creating an honest, sophisticated and yet simple design language for the brand. The consultational component is the key factor though, it validates the existence of the physical store. The redefinition of display and storage, and the elimination of counter hierarchies – there’s no front or back to the counter – make the staff into professional consultants, rather than storekeepers or sales personnel. The social component of personal dialogue and interaction is what a physical store has to offer and its online competitor doesn’t. The store concept has to follow these values, communicating them in a way that the aesthetic quality informs a consistent environment. Otherwise, online shopping will always be the more successful retail option and experience.