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Metal Wood Rocks

Maybe it's because I'm from the Pacific Northwest and often get homesick for the region’s amazing air, water and trees, but out in the world, anything that resembles trees always seems to catch my eye – even if it’s not wood at all.

When it comes to visual merchandising, authenticity is king, but that doesn’t mean retailers can use nothing but recycled cardboard. Recently I’ve found some good examples of fixtures that replicate natural materials – even nature itself – using metal. For example, the Woods Coffee shop in Bellingham, Wash., has countertops plated with stainless steel that has been etched and polished to look like wood grain. The top is a quarter-sawn grain exposure, and the end is a section grain of a log. Brilliant! It was elegant as well as an authentic representation of the Woods Coffee brand (their mission statement is all about being cutting edge, exceeding expectations, and having fun). I tried scratching the surface with my fingernail and talked to the staff about the counter’s durability and required maintenance, and I’m told it holds up beautifully.

Another metal “wood” that I recently stumbled upon was a tree fixture in the high-end Canadian department store, Holt Renfrew. The fixture looked exactly like a miniature bonsai tree with texture, branches and color, although it was a heavy metal - probably steel - with a dark bronze finish and a nice patina around the bottom that made it appear aged. I couldn't help but touch it lovingly - despite the raised eyebrows of the sales staff nearby – and I could only assume that other customers have had the same reaction to finding a beautiful “tree” on the sales floor, since it’s such an unexpected and fun surprise.

This trend reminds me of the late 80s and early 90s when corrugated wood veneer was used heavily in architectural settings, a reaction to the popular use of corrugated metal. Of course the corrugated wood veneer was more fragile than metal when used on vertical surfaces like walls and counter fronts, and it was always a challenge to cap or finish the edges. But at the time it was considered a reasonable response to the popular aesthetic, and the same is true today as non-wood materials are used to replicate shoppers’ interest in natural materials.

Seeing a natural element in a retail setting is always alluring and even curious because it’s, well, generally UN-natural to see a tree, plant or animal in a retail setting. Therefore, it feels playful. And, metal finishes often exude a more premium look that can speak to the permanence and luxury of the products on display.

Combining the two can have a striking effect. Metal fixtures and finishes can be an investment so the key is to make sure they’re versatile and flexible – able to hold up to the abuses of a retail environment – and especially brand appropriate. So whether it’s wood trying to be metal or metal trying to be wood, the results can be beautiful, creative, long lasting and can honor the elegance and beauty of trees.

Julie Larson is a retail designer in Gensler’s Chicago office. Inspired by nature, people and animals, Julie believes in design’s ability to inspire, touch and motivate people to think outside their usual boundaries. Approaching retail design as theatre that constantly evolves, Julie has worked with leading brands such as JPMorgan Chase, Starbucks and Nordstrom. Contact her at julie_larson@gensler.com.

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  • Response
    The point is that we have to admire and accept that all the children that born are equal may be some were more intelligent on some basis but somehow are all equal and not different among each other the need is to change the mindset of the people.

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