Steve Jobs’ involvement in the design and architecture of Apple retail stores

Tue, Oct 25, 2011

Apple History, Featured, News

One would be hard pressed to find a CEO as actively involved with the minutiae of his/her company’s products as Steve Jobs was. A stickler for even the tiniest of details, Jobs personally oversaw nearly every aspect of everything Apple churned out. From the type of wood used in Apple retail stores to how a particular form factor should look, Jobs’ influence at Apple was all-encompassing and knew no bounds.

All told, Jobs is listed as an inventor on 313 Apple patents and as the main inventor on 33 of them.  In addition to having a hand in Apple’s complete product line, Jobs was also intimately involved in the design of Apple’s retail stores.

Apple’s retail strategy has been an integral cog in Apple’s resurgence. Not only does it allow Apple to sell products without having to rely on third parties, it also allows Apple to mold the aura around Apple products by controlling the environment in which they are sold. Indeed, Apple stores are frequently used as hangout spots where folks can stop in, look at new Apple products, surf the web, listen to some music, and hopefully, get some new hardware.

A big part of that Apple store experience can be traced back to the architecture. Writing for the New York Times a few weeks back, James B. Stewart describes how Jobs and the architecture firm of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson worked together to create elegantly designed retail stores that have won a number of architecture accolades throughout the years.

The work of Mr. Bohlin and his colleagues for Apple, by contrast, is sleek, transparent, inviting, technologically advanced — and expensive. In many ways, the retail architecture is simply the largest box in which an Apple product is wrapped, and Mr. Jobs was famously attentive to every detail in an Apple product’s presentation and customer experience.

The extensive use of glass in structures like Apple’s cube on Fifth Avenue, between 58th and 59th Streets in Manhattan, its cylinder in the Pudong district of Shanghai or its soaring market hall on the Upper West Side of Manhattan have become so distinctive that Apple is seeking to patent the glass elements. Mr. Bohlin’s firm has won 42 awards for its work for Apple, and Mr. Bohlin himself was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ gold medal in 2010.

Describing what it was like working with Jobs, Karl Backus of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson said that Jobs would like to be presented with various options, after which he would make very useful and insightful suggestions.

In one example, the team was working with Apple on a two-story retail store in SoHo, a neighborhood in lower Manhattan. One of the team’s challenges was creating a two-story store that would encourage visitors to visit both floors. The solution was to create a glass stairway, an idea which Backus says Jobs loved right off the bat.

And from there, Apple’s retail obsession with glass only grew.

Just as Mr. Jobs obsessed over Apple products, he pushed Mr. Bohlin to make the glass structures ever more refined and pure.

“We got James O’Callaghan involved. He’s brilliant, a British structural engineer with offices in New York and London,” Mr. Bohlin said. “Now we’re cantilevering the stairs from top to bottom.”

In the newest Apple store, in Hamburg, Germany, the stairs float in space, attached only at the top and bottom. The fittings are embedded in the glass, “so you get this magical sleek profile when you look up the wall.” Mr. Bohlin said.

Another interesting example is how Apple’s now iconic glass cube structure at its fifth avenue location came about. The challenge facing the designers, at first, was how to create a storefront that would encourage passerbys to visit the underground retail location that “had been notoriously inhospitable as a retail destination.”

The solution, Stewart writes, “was a pristine glass cube and staircase flooded with natural light.”

The result was a resounding success. Apple’s fifth-avenue store now earns over $440 million per year and is also one of the most photographed landmarks in the world. Currently, Apple is in the midst of a $6.7 million renovation project to replace the the glass with larger and consequently fewer panes.

Before Jobs passed away, Bohlin and Jobs had been working on a new house for Jobs that the Apple co-founder was hoping to move into eventually.

“He was so busy and, of course, ill, so it was unlikely he’d ever live there,” Mr. Bohlin said. “But he loved the site. It wasn’t a very large house, and we don’t know if he thought we were finished. I remember when Steve first hired us, he said: ‘I hired you because you’ve done very good large buildings, and you’ve done great houses.’ If you’re doing houses, then you’re thinking about the subtleties of a building.’ ”

Mr. Bohlin continued: “I remember that so clearly, and I was impressed that he appreciated that.”


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