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How Bohlin Cywinski Jackson created the Apple retail experience

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The architecture firm translated Apple’s obsessively minimalist product designs into a trademark architectural language

I was, I will admit, a latecomer to the cult of Apple. But when I finally got there, I was a goner. After all, I’m a design geek, and my MacBook and iPhone—and even my now-ancient iPod—are things of beauty, lean and clean in their utter lack of extraneous elements. But it wasn’t just the seductive cool of the company’s products that won me over; it was their stores, too—spaces and structures that matched the finely detailed minimalism of the products they showed, but that still felt comfortable and welcoming.

Interestingly enough, given our obsession with designers as celebrities, as Apple rolled out store after store around the world, there was never much discussion of just who made this design magic happen. Apple’s genius was to make state-of-the art products that were both beautiful and user-friendly, but it wasn’t necessarily easy to translate the company’s perfectionist aesthetic into an architectural vocabulary that was humane instead of chilly.

That’s where Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) came in. Ever since the first freestanding Apple store opened on Spring Street in Manhattan in 2001, BCJ’s elegant-but-tactile modernism has been instrumental in building the Apple brand—in about 70 stores around the world to date.

The Soho location—in a neoclassical building formerly home to a post office—was the first of the company’s "high-profile" stores, according to Karl Backus, a principal in BCJ’s San Francisco office who has worked on all the firm’s Apple projects with Peter Bohlin, one of BCJ’s founders.

Spring Street—the first two-story Apple store—was where the architects began to use their signature gray Italian limestone floors and rectangular maple tables. It was also the first to have a glass staircase, a feature that became, along with their design for the glass cube that first appeared in the Fifth Avenue store, an Apple icon.

"It was a pretty startling thing to see a 32-foot glass cube," Backus recalls, adding that the cubes and stairs, with their emphasis on "tectonic craft," reflected Apple’s emphasis on "innovation and careful assembly."

In lesser hands, this design language could, at some point, easily have devolved into cliché. But Steve Jobs chose BCJ to work with him and Ron Johnson, then Apple’s senior VP of retail operations, because, as Bohlin recounts, Jobs admired the architects’ ability to bring a human scale to large buildings, as they had already done for him with Pixar’s headquarters.

But while BCJ helped create an instantly recognizable visual language, Backus says, the firm was also able to adapt it into a variety of architectural types that responded to their settings: stores like Fifth Avenue and Shanghai, which were largely underground and accessed via spectacular glass entrances; contemporary interiors inserted into sensitively-restored historic buildings (the Covent Garden store in London, or the award-winning renovation of a 1922 Beaux-Arts bank on Madison Avenue); and more recently, the freestanding "pavilions" in Aix-en-Provence, France; Portland, Oregon; Omotesando, Tokyo and the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto.

"We were able to avoid ‘death by replication,’" says Backus, "and we’re quite proud of that. It resonates with the firm’s history of designing buildings that adapt to varying circumstances."

BCJ’s most recent stores for Apple in New York are no exception. The brick exterior and arched windows of the Williamsburg store, which opened in July, are a nod to the neighborhood’s industrial past, while the even newer store at Westfield World Trade Center defers to the bold architectural forms of Santiago Calatrava’s transportation hub, with its soaring, arched space. "Our methodology was not to fight what’s there," Backus notes, "but to honor it and work with it." Not for much longer, however.

There are a few more Apple stores on BCJ’s project roster, after which it will step aside to make room for Apple’s new favorite architects, Foster + Partners, who designed the company’s spaceship-like new corporate headquarters in Cupertino.

The firm has already designed several stores for Apple, the most important being the dramatic structure on San Francisco’s Union Square that opened in May. With its 42-foot-tall sliding glass doors, a public plaza and gathering place, a tree-lined Genius Grove (instead of the traditional Genius Bar), a warmer material palette and a greater emphasis on community and interaction, Union Square represents Apple’s new, experience-oriented approach to retailing. It’s so experience-oriented, in fact, that the company has taken the "store" out of Apple stores; the Union Square location is called simply Apple Union Square.

Backus is complimentary about the Foster office’s designs (which still incorporate many BCJ signatures), and acknowledges that BCJ’s 15-year run with Apple was unusually long by retail-design standards. But you have to wonder where Apple’s headed; the idea that if you make a store a destination, then people will come isn’t exactly revolutionary.

And in Apple’s case, although the stores are more than worth the trip, it’s the products that are their raison d’être; any company can have its own version of the Genius Grove, or the Boardroom conference space. Steve Jobs’s genius was that he followed his instincts to develop products that consumers didn’t even know they wanted, and then couldn’t live without.

Apple’s motto wasn’t "Think Different" for nothing. If the Foster office’s stores are going to represent Apple’s future, it might well be that BCJ’s will have defined its golden age.