The Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing the aesthetic of retail interiors – here’s how

The Mix Land by Xianxiang Design in Hangzhou, China. Photo: Wang Minjie

In each issue we identify a key aesthetic trend evident in our archive of recent projects and challenge semiotics agency Axis Mundi to unpack its design codes. In Frame 133, we explored how immersive retail spaces are starting to reference the bleeding edge of advanced scientific research and automation.

In the early months of a new decade, emerging constellations of signs and signifiers point to the hopes and fears of a new age. The nascent vectors of networked, digital technology in the early part of the 21st century have, at the start of the 2020s, become less of a novelty and more the central starting point for any serious appraisal of our cultural and economic moment. So, too, in spatial design, do we see the prevailing orthodoxy of post-industrialism informed by a reverie for 20th-century mechanized manual labour (cavernous warehouse spaces decorated with exposed pipework and rusting patinas of metal) give way to an aesthetic shaped instead by techno-scientific synthesis and automation.

Increasingly complex and global information flows accelerate and transform the tools and procedures by which we manufacture goods and build infrastructure. Spatial designers seek a new language to reflect these changes. Determined not to look backwards, Synthesphere grounds its references in ultra-contemporary modes of research and production typified by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Top: Fengdong E Pang Bookstore by Gonverge Interior Design in Xi’an, China. Read more here. Photo: Weiqi Jun | Middle: Nike House of Innovation by Coordination Asia in Shanghai, China. Read more here. Photo: Charlie Xia | Bottom: Junping by XU Studio in Shanghai, China. Read more here. Photo: Peter Zhang

Each space features an exaltation to the power of computation and data. Occasionally symbols flicker on screens, giving us a glimpse into the immense complexity and scale of data. Brushed metal scaffolding structured purposefully to support display racks and units shimmer with a delicate, molten liquidity, as if you are moving through the inner workings of a circuit board or server rack. Graded explorations of pastel ombrés and angled, metallic mirroring augment the eye’s perception of distance and boundary, illuminating the idea, if not the reality, of an infinitely expanding synthetic or digital territory. Even if we are reminded of the incomprehensibly vast plane of technology, the visitor is never permitted to entirely escape into this fantasy. Exposed folded tubing shaped like cooling elements, gently sliding pistons and tangled wiring embeds the ‘hard’ mechanics of the visitor’s ‘soft’, phenomenal experience.

Synthesphere cultivates a hierarchy structured by technical expertise. Clusters of neatly arranged test tubes and conical flasks allude to the high level of technical savoir-faire and innovation. Stark strip lighting, off-white cleanliness and bright yellow hazard signs – as in a top-secret laboratory – imbue the spaces with a forensic intensity that awakens the visitor’s attention. Products are often hermetically sealed in observation chambers, sunken in frothy deep blue liquids or suspended in giant test tubes. Inside these vessels, products are worked on by slick pressure pumps and enigmatic, silky gases. These mechanical assemblages allude to the accelerating adoption of automated production, while the retail products they cradle appear as precious and quarantined, classified artefacts. Surveillance cameras, vault doors and PVC strip curtains seem installed to monitor access or even to regulate contamination.

 

Top: Tem-Plate by Gonzalez Haase AAS in Lisbon, Portugal. Read more here. Photo: Thomas Meyer, Ostkreuz | Middle: Nike House of Innovation by Coordination Asia in Shanghai, China. Read more here. Photo: Charlie Xia | Bottom: SKP-S by Gentle Monster in Beijing, China. Read more here. Photo: Courtesy of Gentle Monster

Synthesphere makes sense imagined as an ‘auto-sophisticating’ data farm. Its products – embryonic source code, caches of information, cryptographic instruments – are wielded as the intangible, immaterial means of production and innovation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. A generally non-benevolent, even hostile environment is engendered to defend intellectual property and secure the machinic expansion of automated, networked technology. Isolate, re-create, replicate.

COLOUR

With the help of cool and homogenous illumination, pristine whites and glossy silver surfaces evoke a sense of cleanliness. Vivid blue and purple hues emulate processes of condensation and liquidation, while graded explorations of translucency in tangerines and yellows counterbalance the grey tones of sanded cements.

MATERIAL

Silicone objects, PVC curtains and acrylic surfaces make for an overall synthetic and sterile aesthetic. Frosted glass divisions and translucent tools that reference scientific facilities amalgamate with brushed metal and aluminium components. Steel machinery, exposed folded tubing and original concrete floors, brightened with matte protective layers, add a factory feel.

FORM

Spatial references to test tubes and conical flasks are combined with seemingly inflated bubbles that function as display cases. Shop fit-out systems are reminiscent of sterilizing cabinets and robot arms add an air of automation.

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More from this issue

Frame 133

The March/April issue of Frame explores how the modern museum is moving from conservation to activation. Instead of quietly mouldering away in the 21st century, museums are innovating to become critical voices in the wider societal conversation. How? By engaging with the major issues of today through platforms that are borderless, revitalizing and inclusive.

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