A Fresh Patina

Much ink, or more accurately, pixels, have been used to describe the decline of traditional retail in this country. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, the United States has over 46 sf of retail per capita, a figure that would seem plausible to anyone traversing an outer belt freeway around Houston or Dallas.

Since the post-war era, retail has been in the throes of a Darwinian transformation, with Main Street shops and department stores overtaken by malls, which soon suffered with the arrival of big box “category killers.” Now the “e-tailers,” led by Amazon, have delivered a coup de grace to the behemoths formerly at the top of the food chain. Even items that benefit from personal inspection are not immune — “showrooming” (choosing a product in a physical store then buying it online elsewhere at a lower price) is the latest indignity to befall the beleaguered sector.

Amidst this market turmoil, and on the heels of a deep recession to boot, comes Patina, a new retail concept offering floor and wall-covering products along with in-house interior design consultation. It is an ambitious attempt to fill a void in the marketplace while creating an entirely new shopping model. And who better to commission this new “brick and mortar” store than Acme Brick, the company behind the brand?

From a consumer standpoint, the purchase and selection of carpet, tile, wood flooring, etc., is typically accomplished in one of two ways. One is with a trip to the big box store, where vast, poorly-lit rows of industrial shelving feature unappealing product displays and employees are unable to offer much in the way of aesthetic guidance. There are some pluses to this approach, including a wide range of available products, transparent pricing, and installation options. The other path, usually followed by a more affluent consumer in the company of a design professional, is a visit to the “design district,” navigating a series of attractive showrooms dedicated to a single product type. Comparison shopping is difficult because of the physical distance between competitors, limited selections, and an arcane “to the trade” pricing structure that obscures the actual cost of the product. Product installation services are absent save for the occasional tackboard covered with business cards.

According to Judy Hunter, the chief operating officer of Acme Brick, who led the development of Patina, the company wanted to “open a new channel of product sales through retail. We identified a void in the market for a really nice store focused on hard surfaces, which is where we feel the consumer is moving.” Most of the brands offered are owned by Acme Brick, while others, such as Shaw (carpet), are siblings in the Berkshire Hathaway family of companies. There are also private-label products unique to Patina.

Gensler was retained to not only develop the store concept but also define the entire customer experience. Kyle Jeffery, retail design director in the Dallas office, said that the central idea was to combine a design studio and a showroom, encouraging exploration and collaboration in a non-intimidating atmosphere. Rooted in the idea of an architectural firm’s material library, the final result is as an engaging and well-organized space that has a luxe, yet accessible, atmosphere.

Several innovations make Patina a unique entry to the retail world. The first is the level of service delivered by the degreed interior designers who make up most of the store’s staff. These professionals are available to assist customers with in-store selections and make house calls by appointment. Employees move between multiple work areas along the store’s central spine, which contains a large community table surrounded by pin-up areas where store products can be arranged adjacent to materials the customer brings from home. 

A conference room is also provided for use by customers and their design consultants. In addition, Patina offers certified installers for every product in the store, and prices are clearly marked for both the raw and installed options, making cost comparison a simple task.

While the selection is quite large given the 3,500-sf store area, the available materials — wood, carpet, stone, and tile — are “curated” so as to feature complementary colors and textures trending in the marketplace. Samples are handsomely arrayed in beautifully detailed store fixtures that allow easy detachment, and lighting is provided by both artificial and natural sources, the latter filtered through the exposed wood trusses overhead.

Technological innovation adds a further dimension. Acme developed two new touch-screen visualization tools that allow for easy full-scale simulation of materials. The first is Patina’s Floor Creator©, a table comprised of huge flat panel displays that allow the viewing of flooring materials in different patterns, grout colors, and textures. The second is its kitchen vignette’s Backsplash Gallery©, another electronic display that functions in the same manner. The quality of the images is stunning and provides a clarity lacking in the typical materials board design presentation.

With Patina’s flagship store located on Dallas’ Knox Street, and two other Gensler-designed stores in Fort Worth and Southlake, the company seems well positioned to take advantage of the improving housing market. According to Gensler, “The store has become so popular that home builders have been using it as a virtual showroom for their customers.” Judy Hunter states that the plan is to roll out stores in the major Texas markets first, with an ultimate goal of establishing 100 stores nationally.

In Patina, Gensler has created a contemporary environment that avoids the faux-residential character typically seen in home furnishing showrooms, and based on the rich and meticulous detailing of the interior, Acme has clearly made a sizable commitment to this venture. The store is composed of a series of rectilinear spaces that are adaptable to differing retail shell configurations, yet it never feels regimented. And the color palette — warm grey tones with metallic blue and copper accents selected to complement the products on display — is distinctive and welcoming.

Patina serves as an affirmation of the increasing appreciation of design by the American consumer. In the age of Apple Stores, generic products sold in bland spaces are a recipe for obsolescence. While it seems unlikely that we will totally kick the recreational shopping habit so ingrained in our consumer culture, there is no doubt that retailers need to follow this type of creative approach if they wish to lure consumers away from their monitors and smartphones.

Article published in Texas Architect Mar/April 2013.