Betting on its reputation for quality and its customers’ passion for the outdoors, Swiss brand Wenger launches a new product line and a new U.S. flagship. In the process, it highlights a regional environmental dilemma.
When iconic Swiss brand Wenger—makers of the genuine Swiss Army knife—decided to build its first U.S. flagship in Boulder, Colorado, the company envisioned a retail space that would honor its customers’ interest in the environment and create a community hub for outdoor adventurers.
Working with the architectural and environmental graphic design teams from the Denver office of Gensler, Wenger Marketing Manager Melissa Page sought to create a space that would be “part of the community, not just something that would stand out in it.” Anticipating that Boulder’s outdoor enthusiasts would respond to the Wenger brand as a badge of exploration, the new store also sets the stage for Wenger’s expansion into the outdoor footwear arena.
Less = more
Wenger selected a space in downtown Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, built in the early 1900s at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The space affords a foundation of raw architectural materials and proximity to the beautiful Colorado mountain range—topography that speaks to the majestic outdoor imagery associated with the Swiss brand.
True to the practical elegance of the knives and watches, Page approached Wenger’s new space by thinking “not of what we could add, but of what we could take away. Less = more, beautiful = simple.” Formerly concealed sections of stone wall are now fully visible behind the shoe displays and iZone digital high-pressure laminate graphics. Wood beams and brick are also newly exposed.
“In fact, aside from removing a few layers of accumulated finishes, 85% of the existing space was left intact, including existing floors, ceiling, and brick and stone walls,” says Gensler Creative Director Harry Spetnagel. This approach was intended to unite the natural with the man-made and make a connection to the brand’s value of rugged authenticity.
A pared-down palette of re-used, naturally raw surfaces is an environmentally preferable strategy that agrees with a company whose CEO believes sustainability is important, and hikes and tests Wenger’s products in the wild outdoors himself. Gensler has articulated its own sustainability policies firmwide, and curates its materials libraries to weed out products that don’t fit its sustainability criteria. “We have an out-of-palette, out-of-network policy. You won’t even find high-VOC paint decks in the office,” says Spetnagel.
A scripted experience
Gensler was charged with encouraging customer movement through a “space kind of like a shoebox, long and narrow,” says Spetnagel. Gensler scripted the spatial experience to ensure customers would be introduced to Wenger’s shoe displays at the front of the store before reaching the back to find what the company is best known for—knives. A hand-painted ghost mural fills an exposed brick wall between the two, providing a visual transition and another link to the Wenger brand.
The Gensler team’s goal was to inspire “an elevated reverence” for Wenger’s products, explains Spetnagel. The knives and watches are displayed prominently as high-end goods, using cases and display techniques reminiscent of a gallery or art museum. But they also wanted customers to interact with the products. Knives are enclosed in cases only for safety. Watches are displayed out in the open for anyone to touch, instilling a sense that while the merchandise is refined and of high quality, it is accessible to everyone.
If the store reads like a museum, the design team conferred hero status on its most impressive artifact: the largest Swiss Army Knife ever made. Listed in the 1986 Guinness Book of World Records for housing the most tools on a multi-tool object, it holds pride of place in a special display case alongside the selection of knives for sale.
Material with a message
At the back of the store, a community space accommodates small audiences for planned lectures, video demonstrations, and storytelling. Wrapping the space is a 15- by 9-ft. woven wall/sculpture—created by artist Patrick Marold—that consists of hand-cut logs of beetle-kill pine wrapped in natural hemp rope. It evokes an obvious hand-made quality and lends itself nicely to serving as a collection point for the stories and images that visitors tie to it.
“It’s one of my favorite parts of the store, an interactive piece that’s not a digital screen,” says Page. Its use of beetle-kill pine logs, an alarmingly abundant wood in Colorado in recent years, also tells a dramatic back-story that cuts close to the heart of a community in sync with nature.
Mountain pine beetles have always taken a toll on patches of trees in the forests of Colorado, but for the past four years, the Colorado winters have not been cold enough to kill the beetles as usual. Unchecked beetle populations have resulted in large swaths of “standing dead trees” that must be cut and removed to prevent forest fires. The telltale gray-blue streaks left behind by bacteria from the beetles is “immediately recognizable to the local population, which has witnessed 70 to 80 percent of pines killed or infested with beetles in recent years,” says Spetnagel. "Pine beetles are wreaking havoc on Colorado forests, with over 1 million acres of Lodgepole pine forest dead due to their infestation.”
Erika Rowland, a climate ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s North America Program, adds a global perspective to the regional crisis: “The current scientific understanding is that climate—increased temperatures linked to increased drought stress, particularly at higher elevations—has increased tree stress and, thus, susceptibility to beetle populations, which have also expanded in response to warming temperatures.”
“These factors combined have allowed for what appears to be extreme outbreaks and mortality (at least unlike, with a few exceptions, what has been recorded historically),” she adds. “In some cases, forest structure, as influenced by management [forest fire suppression], has also played a role in that very mature, old-growth stands and dense pole stands show the greatest susceptibility.”
Gensler also selected beetle-kill pine for walls, shelving (built by RL Woodworks+Design, Boulder), and the sales cash wrap, and collaborated with artist Dan Sjogren on a five-layered, router-cut, beetle-kill pine topographic map of Boulder’s signature Flatirons, creating a compelling focal point behind the cash wrap.
“Using the wood in store finishes and shelving reminds store visitors of an issue they care about deeply—the fragility of our environment,” says Spetnagel.
Other elements of the store speak directly to Swiss iconography and heritage. The inspiration behind the store’s exterior “chalet” sign—a bracket holding “little jewels” in the form of Swiss icons—came from the ornate sign bracket on a famous hotel in Delemont, Switzerland, explains Spetnagel. The aluminum bracket armature is clad with stainless steel, and peg-mounted icons look as though they are suspended within rounded squares reminiscent of the Wenger logo. “The icons are hand-sculpted, high-density sign foam applied to aluminum cut-outs,” explains graphics fabrication and project manager Al Lenzi of Al Lenzi Group (Denver).
Spetnagel calls the 18- by 12-ft. mural located midway through the store a “history communication piece.” Hand-painted on an original brick wall, it evokes the brand’s classic motifs: Swiss chalets, hikes, and the Swiss Alps. The connection to Boulder’s own topography and iconography–its outdoor culture and the signature red rock Flat Irons at the base of the Rockies--is clear. Larry Polzin of Stargazer Creations (Arvada, Colo.) created the mural through an antiquing process that required a series of glazes on the exposed-brick wall.
Collaboration that works
With only six months from initial concept to store opening, the project demanded close collaboration and a high level of trust among team members.
Wenger was "amazingly transparent," which helped expedite design decisions, notes Spetnagel. The review process was streamlined, eschewing redlined paper reviews for decisions that were hammered out as a team during a series of face-to-face meetings. Page was a hands-on client, involved in most of the decision-making. She credits the contractor, Sand Construction, for a feat of coordination. “The store wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for him.”
Reflecting back on the design process, Spetnagel credits its success to the collaborative process. “If everyone is involved and at the table from the beginning—engaged from that level from the start—then everyone has a stake in the process, and the project benefits. Ultimately, success depends on getting to the finish in a way that all team members can be proud of.”
--By Naomi Pearson, segdDESIGN No. 32, 2011
Editor's note: Naomi Pearson is a designer, illustrator, and consultant living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She also works for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Exhibit and Graphic Arts Department in the Center for Global Conservation in the Bronx Zoo. A frequent speaker, blogger, and writer on sustainability issues, she is a member of the SEGD Sustainability Forum.
WENGER FLAGSHIP STORE
Location: Boulder, Colorado
Design Team: Glenna Tyndall (project manager); JD Praeger (project architect), William Frank (technical director); Blake Mourer (design director); Jenny West (designer); Harry Spetnagel (creative director, graphic designer); Aaron Birney, Adam Gumowski (retail consultants)
Fabrication/Suppliers: Al Lenzi Group (environmental graphics fabrication and graphics project management), RL Woodworks + Design (shelving), iZone (DHPL provider), Stargazer Creations (hand-painted mural), Patrick Marold (woven wall artist), Dan Sjogren (topographic wall construction)
Construction: Sand Construction (general contractor)