August 2, 2016

10 Questions with… Anthony Simon

If you’re familiar with brands like Starbucks, Heineken, Leica, and L’Oreal, then chances are good you’ve seen Anthony Simon’s work. The New York City-based designer has more than 20 years experience working with well-known retail brands and last year joined IA Interior Architects as global project director of retail. Before joining IA he served as group director of branded environments for CBX, a branding agency in NYC, and design director of TPG Architecture.

Here, Simon discusses popup stores, the idea of retail tribes, and the importance of changing with the times.

Interior Design: You’ve worked with clients that are household names like L’Oreal, Heineken, and Starbucks. How have these projects prepared you for your current role as global project director of IA Interior Architects?

Anthony Simon: These companies are not only brand strong and iconic, but they also have a global presence and multi-faceted formats that go from workspace to retail. Their variety of service offerings extends beyond just merchandise and into being lifestyle brands. They also have internal creative teams focused on things like packaging, strategy, merchandising, and graphic design, and I’ve been engaged with all of these facets in the design process by working with their accounts and collaborating with them. That engagement has been beneficial.

ID: From your vantage point, how has the retail industry evolved in recent years?

AS: The retail supply-and-demand format has changed. The industry has always gauged its business based on the visual workspace, and that space has been a designation point for all consumers and is how the volume of merchandise has been measured. Consumers pretty much relied on these stores, so we were able to design much more in detail, since that was their bread and butter and what they concentrated on. As a designer today, I’m working with a different canvas because e-commerce and online have become more relevant. It’s a great challenge to have. I still feel that brick-and-mortar stores are relevant, but the model is changing. We’re seeing less casework and more interactivity and flexibility. It’s an evolution that we’ve grown with and has caused us to become more nimble in our design thinking. We’re changing with the times.

ID: Are there any forthcoming technologies that you think are game changers for retail?

AS: I certainly don’t have a crystal ball as far as what will hold true and will be relevant 10 or 20 years from now, but I think that the technologies we’re working with now are pretty innovative. I do think that technology isn’t a substitute for human interaction but more of an enhancement to that level of service in retail. For example, body scanning. Instead of going to a tailor and having him measure you using pins and chalk, retailers are using technology where you step into a booth and it scans you from head to toe with an accurate measurement of the topography of your body. Some stores that are doing this are Brooks Brothers and Alton Lane. Also, Westfield Labs is initiating a digital concierge service that uses GPS navigation of its malls and offers hands-free shopping that’s digitally integrated, so you’re able to shop and your purchases are sent to either your home or a designated parking lot where you’re already in the system since you logged in digitally when you parked your car. Now I don’t know how much all of this will take off, but it’s a good, novel approach and perhaps can be used in a portion of the physical retail space.

ID: What do you predict will be the future of the industry?

AS: Retail stores won’t survive purely as a shopping experience. I think the whole transformational retail idea of dwelling, meaning what other reasons why you would go to a physical space, is being implemented more and more. I’m seeing more flexible, chameleon-like environments that can be transferred into non-traditional shopping experiences. For example, Lululemon turns its spaces into yoga studios, and now they’ve gone beyond that and are holding films and community gatherings that help promote other like-minded businesses that support health and wellness. It becomes a communal environment and creates a sense of belonging, sort of like the idea of a retail tribe. Another thing I’m seeing is mobile retail and the idea of prefab units that can move from one neighborhood to the next. For example, True&Co. uses a truck that is sort of a bento box that transforms into a popup store with dressing rooms, a consultation space, and a place for merchandise. It’s very well done aesthetically. [Popups can serve as] a litmus test for startups by letting them test a marketplace by trying different neighborhoods and targeting certain consumers. It’s a good place to start before actually diving into a traditional brick-and-mortar store.

ID: Why do you think people feel such a strong connection with certain brands?

AS: The mass-merchandise format is losing relevancy in my mind, and the market tends to be saturated, so there’s this delusion of brand distinction. Consumers, especially Millennials, want a sense of purpose. What does the brand stand for? How does it personally link to them? There’s this notion of a curated, unique, more authentic, more relevant relationship with a brand. It’s not just individuals, but a group following as well. As everyone is socially networked, it’s important for them to know what brands their friends connect with and the synergies there. They’re looking for unique products that they can interact with and have a personal experience with. I think those brands will differentiate themselves from others because there’s no longer just one path to purchase.

ID: Has there been a project where it was hard for you to imagine what the client would want because their interests were so far from yours?

AS: When I was working with a branding agency there was an e-cigarette client that came on board. This is when they first starting coming out [with this technology] and I don’t smoke. It’s not part of my lifestyle, but I certainly discovered that there’s a culture and art form to this during our programming and visioning sessions. There are also intricacies in the engineering of these products and [we had to] decide how best to do the visual merchandising and brand messaging. It was an education for me and was an interesting client experience.

ID: What first sparked your interest in retail design?

AS: I’ve always been a creative person, [and I’m drawn to] anything that fosters creativity. Growing up, my mom and dad were very fashionable and often got dressed up. They cared about their appearance and had a natural attention to detail. I have a fond memory of my dad, who once took me to his tailor for a custom suit. That experience was a proud moment for him and a great experience for me. So I’ve always carried that. It has always resonated with me that presenting yourself well in what you wear is important, since I think it exudes professionalism, confidence, and creativity. Fast forward to architecture and design, and I think it’s a natural fit for me to dedicate my profession and passion to the retail industry.

ID: What’s the first thing you do when starting a new project?

AS: I’m always about passion and immersion into a brand. [I look at] its history, its successes and failures, and what it stands for. I’m true to that approach, and I convey that to the team so that they develop the same understanding and put themselves in consumers’ shoes and are brand advocates. I encourage them to do some self-discovery and then we regroup. I like to kick off each project by sharing what we learned. We also discuss what the competitive set looks like, and what is new and notable in the marketplace. Outside of design, I encourage them to look from a business sense at the retailer and how analysts evaluated it. [That way] the team gains a holistic approach to that retailer.

ID: Where do you go to seek inspiration?

AS: The easy answer is everywhere. For instance, going to galleries, event installations, and tradeshows and hearing what industry thought leaders are saying. Also, attending festivals like SXSW and Northside Festival in Williamsburg and exploring retail while traveling. I’m a fan of street art, so I like to look at graffiti and see what they’re doing out on the streets. [I also look at] what my colleagues are doing in the workplace and how that dovetails into retail. IA Interior Architects has what’s called “Good Morning New York” in our NYC office where someone is chosen to speak over coffee and talks about anything and everything that inspires them. For example, someone went to Art Basel in Miami and shared their experience. I collect all these things and put them into the [company] library so people can reference them for inspiration and prompt conversation.

ID: What project(s) are you currently working on that have you particularly excited?

AS: We have a great opportunity with a sleepwear-slash-home goods and accessories company. We’re in development for a prototype for a small retail format and they have larger plans for expansion. So with this design there’s talk about infusion of cultures and sensibility to their female consumer. 

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