5 Questions with George Anthony Gottl of UXUS
The past decade has seen a radical shift in the way we shop for goods. Retail stores have had to innovate to keep up with the ever increasing competition from online, bringing about a new breed of retail-tainment. Riding the crest of this wave is UXUS (meaning You times Us), an Amsterdam-based consumer experience and retail design agency with a lengthy list of global retail and hospitality clients on its books.
Founded 15 years ago by two forward-thinking designers, Los Angeles-born George Anthony Gottl, who serves as chief executive officer, and French architect and chief creative officer Oliver John Palmer Michell, UXUS’ 100-strong team are in the business of creating complete brand experiences. With their services in high demand, the studio’s latest projects include the design of three Bloomingdales in Dubai, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, a new retail platform for Sephora and the store at Herzog & de Meuron‘s newly-minted pyramid extension at the Tate Modern, to name just a few. We caught up with UXUS’ co-founder George Anthony Gottl at the opening of the new Tate Modern store in London to find out about the creation of retail desire.
Interior Design: Your work covers a diverse spectrum of disciplines, can you explain why that is?
George Anthony Gottl: We work globally across retail hospitality and branding because it’s all interlinked. There’s a big hospitality component to retail these days. When we’re dealing with retail, that hospitality aspect always comes into the conversation and vice versa. When we’re designing a restaurant we ask how we can up-sell and question how can we make a stronger brand presentation.
ID: Why is retail and hospitality such a powerful combination?
GAG: Let’s face it, customers don’t even have to be in the store anymore to buy stuff. They’ll do it online–so why do you need to go into the store? You need to go into the store to have the human contact, the entertainment, to have the service, to have that connection, so what’s better than adding in, say, a cup of coffee? We’re dealing with a consumptive culture and that welcoming and hospitable aspect is a key element to bringing in customers.
We’re also talking about different levels of consumption and the different motivations behind them. The highest and most complex level is that whatever it is that you’re buying should actually enhance you and make you feel better. If you look at it from beyond a lifestyle perspective but from a holistic perspective, the customer asks ‘how is this purchase enriching me?’ I know it sounds horribly superficial when you say you can ‘buy enrichment’ but it’s not that, you’re actually buying a moment. In our wealthy western world, and in some cities where there is wealth beyond comprehension, there is no need, there is only want and desire so if you’re going to spend it, it might as well be fulfilling and it might as well be enriching somehow.
ID: Can you give us an example of an enriching retail experience?
GAG: I think the Tate Modern store is the ultimate consumption experience because not only is it an intellectual and spiritual activity to go and see art but then you can also buy something that can go back to that experience directly to continue it and to enhance it.
For instance, a pair of shoes that you can only buy in this particular location is the ultimate status symbol–even though they’re only £60 it means that you were here before everybody else. So when you’re walking around town and people say “Great shoes”, you can say “Thanks, I bought them at the opening of this new museum.” You’re saying something about your taste and your interests. It’s not about the monetary value it’s the status of uniqueness. That’s the new currency.
We use the platform that the new currency is desire, that you want something, you want it that much. We create desire; build spaces that generate want. That’s our perspective, that’s our angle and that’s what sets us apart.
ID: How is this shift in perception changing the retail landscape?
GAG: The luxury world is suffering right now because all the paradigms of luxury and the idea of exclusivity is just disintegrating. I just came back from a major department store summit with major executives from all the major global retailers, and the big message was localize, localize localize. A Chinese gentleman who worked within a government retail initiative said that Chinese consumers are changing what they consider to be aspirational, and it is not about luxury brands. What they want now is a local experience, local things that are interesting. It’s no longer about cost, they’re saying “I’d rather buy a beautiful piece of jewelry that’s crafted by a local artisan than an Hermes bag for my wife.” Instead of luxury hotel stays they’d rather do Airbnb or stay at a local boutique that has a more specific local point of view rather than staying at the Ritz.
ID: Your latest project is the design of the Tate Modern’s new museum store in London. How do you create an excellent retail experience for art products and publications in one of the world’s leading retail cities?
GAG: A lot of credit goes to the Tate enterprise team headed up by Laura Wright, who was very much a visionary about what a museum store should be, and that it should be exactly that–a store, not a gift shop–and that’s a big difference. It’s a change in mindset when you talk about things in that way.
We approached the space using best practices for retail and making sure that we were accommodating not only the needs of products that need to be in there but also the needs of the team in terms of flexibility, presentation, and visual merchandising. For example we created gondola units that can display diverse product ranges–from pillows, bags, notebooks, tees, tiles and posters–and showcase them well. They focus on framing the products and lighting them in a beautiful way so that they sparkle and come alive in what would usually be a very dark and cavernous space–like mini boutiques. It’s deceptively simple looking but every VM element is made bespoke. Every detail has been addressed.
We also had to make sure that the store fitted into Herzog & de Meuron’s total point of view. If you wander throughout the new areas you’ll see that the store looks and feels very cohesive with everything else and we wanted to make sure that this store worked very well with what they [Herzog and de Meuron] were doing. This is an incredible investment and the Tate wanted to make sure that the whole experience was very cohesive. That’s why we have an industrial language, we used steel, simple wood and that was basically it–there are just three materials that make up the store. The color palette is also very restrained, which I think is really good because it brings the product out rather than the design of the store out. It has a maturity and a refinement while being very industrial and welcoming at the same time.