Various Associates Looks to Shanghai’s Past to Create a Cosmetics Store of the Future
The Bund has retained an allure ever since the 1920’s, when wealthy merchants and traders began building art deco–style structures beside Shanghai’s bustling Huangpu River waterfront. Thanks to recent revitalization efforts, this celebrated and protected stretch now sits proudly in contrast with the twinkling lights and super-tall skyscrapers of the Pudong district on the opposite riverbank.
The tug of old and new, and influences from East and West, have long been present in this important port city and global financial hub. It’s these dichotomies that Various Associates, a studio led by cofounders Qianyi Lin and Dongzi Yang that has a growing portfolio of hospitality and retail projects, kept in mind while designing Haydon Shanghai. Just off the Bund, the Chinese beauty retailer’s first outpost in the city is located in a landmarked neoclassical building steeped in history.
Since 2020, Haydon’s approach to physical retail has involved opening one store in one city at a time (there are now 10 throughout China) and imbuing those interiors with nods to the cultural nuances of each location. For Shanghai, Lin and Yang looked to local architectural heritage and the building’s century-old past for cues, just as they did for the brand’s Hangzhou store. The duo then considered the contemporary city and devised a “circular space station” concept to pair with the traditional motifs and materials. This surprising union creates an aesthetic they describe as “exactly like a Shanghai lady: elegant, modern, with a little bit of futurism and contradiction.”
“We extracted distinctive Shanghai-style elements, ones that carry the memory of the city’s exotic old houses, and interpreted them through a contemporary lens,” Lin says. “Reliefs, patterned tiles, wood in classic tones, pale gold, dark green—we combined them in a creative manner that recalls the city’s past glory.” The result is an eclectic 6,500- square-foot, two-story environment that’s part retro, part futuristic.
To reach the store, formerly a sports brand flagship, shoppers pass through the building’s grand public atrium. Without doors separating the two spaces, VA aimed to “harmonize” the area where the lobby ends, and the store begins. “We couldn’t insert a totally different style or design language into this 100-year-old building, especially where it faces onto the building lobby,” Yang explains. “Connecting the old and new, and balancing the design between tradition and futurism, was our challenge.”
The main distinction between the two areas is the store’s sci-fi ceiling, which is partly informed by the circular shape of the atrium. Concentric rings and linear beams, patterned with gypsum reliefs that appear lifted straight from a French Concession villa, emanate below a seemingly continuous light box that dazzles the entire store with a laboratory-white glare. “The ceiling reveals a sense of technology and generates a mysterious atmosphere, like a black hole in the universe,” Ling notes.
From the innermost ring hang black letters spelling out the Haydon logo, which crops up in other unexpected places around the store, namely the staircase, its tight spiral form, rendered in traditional walnut, also residential in feel. But it too mixes in 21st-century elements. Regarding the logo, keen-eyed customers can spy it CNC-cut into the stair’s handrails. It appears again topping a column surrounded by the spiral that spins and is fronted in panels of gold-tinted stainless steel.
The staircase also incorporates textured glass banisters, and the same gypsum reliefs found on the ceiling beams and rings. Elsewhere, fluted dark-green leather framed in walnut forms wall panels and display counters that sidle up against stark white surfaces. Curved mirrored counters and additional golden columns reflect the white and green mosaic floor tiles. “The reliefs and patterned tiles were commonly used in 20th-century China, but definitely not now,” Yang says. “They drag the customer into another age.”
VA’s implementation of materials and finishes that evoke either the past or the future, coupled with the firm’s layering of them over one another, yields an overall atmosphere that lands somewhere in the forward-looking present. Speaking of looking, the contrast of yesterday and today is apparent toward the back of the store, where the staircase is partially encircled by a tall, wide partition of mirrored vertical slats. Each slat is angled slightly to form a curving arc, which, like a carnival’s hall of mirrors, stagger and overlap the reflections of the spiral, as well as anyone traveling up or down it.
To get around the city’s strict fire regulations, which limits the amount of fixed furniture, silver capsule-shape cabinets, based loosely on Shanghai’s old trolley cars, are mounted on wheels. The added bonus? The custom displays can be quickly and easily shifted around the upper level when needed.
Through varied visual references and conspicuously juxtaposed elements, Haydon Shanghai conjures memories and sparks imagination. For VA’s “Shanghai lady,” who is ultimately Haydon’s customer, her experience of moving through the store is no doubt like a stroll down the Bund, absorbing both the historic charm and the bold outlook that together characterize modern China.
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