Blurring the boundaries between retail and gallery
Kanuk culture and legacy transported through retro futurist design to new SoHo store
Kanuk, a Canadian manufacturer of handcrafted winter coats since 1970, opened up its first international boutique in a historical 6-storey building on Greene Street in the heart of SoHo, far away from its original headquarters on Rachel Street in Montreal.
With the addition of this New York store, designed by Montreal architecture studio Atelier Barda, the Quebec-based brand continues to export its legacy to international markets, where this thoughtfully designed new retail outlet is key to spreading the brand’s unique culture.
“Our proposal focused on a reinterpretation of Kanuk’s history and current evolution, providing glimpses of, and connections to, its proud legacy,” explain the architects. “The company is fiercely proud of its Canadian-Quebecois-Montreal roots, and this new store plays an important role in exporting the essence of the brand’s unique culture.”
The design consists of three distinct spaces, including a reception hall, a product showroom, and a fitting room area. In approaching the project in its entirety, Atelier Barda endeavored to capture the unconventional and visionary character of the brand through sensory experiences that are highlighted by subtle nods to utopian and idealistic references of Kanuk’s history, including emblematic design elements from 1960s and 1970s Montreal.
A gallery-like setting
Upon entering the store, the wide-open hall, with its 14-foot ceiling, immediately diverts attention from the conventions of a classic retail space. Blurring the boundaries between retail and gallery, the hall’s minimalist design features immediately shift the focus to ambiance. A monolithic desk stands as one of the only furnishings in the room, incarnating a sort of ritualistic ‘altar’, built out of a semi-translucent resin.
“The altar accommodates a long-standing ritual of the brand, where full-length coats are laid out and folded in front of the client in accordance with the Kanuk ethos,” explain the architects. “A small, recessed screen was integrated into the surface of the altar, as well as a shallow machined change bowl as a subtle nod to retail tradition.”
Blending historic references with elements embracing the store’s New York setting, Atelier Barda designed the space with a gallery-like ambiance. Next to the reception desk, a compelling print and video screen adorn the walls and display Kanuk’s ad campaigns with wall-mounted texts beside them, describing the brand in both French and English, in the spirit of Montreal’s bilingual culture. Light-coloured carpeting helps reduce the space to a human scale, with retro hints of grey and brown that subtly contrast with the otherwise contemporary look and feel of the space. Directional lighting focuses exclusively on the horizontal surfaces of the space, creating a darker atmosphere on the surrounding vertical surfaces.
Moving from the reception hall to the product showroom, the latter space is accessed through a 7-foot-high portal, providing a sense of compression in contrast to the 14-foot ceilings of the spaces on either side of it. Through the incorporation of basic geometrical shapes, Atelier Barda was able to infuse interpretations of both the past and the future.
“The idea was to infuse very subtle archaic architectural elements into a contemporary setting, rendering a retro-futuristic ambiance to the space,” note the architects. “It is through that lens that we designed the transition from the reception hall to the product showroom to be both a physical and sensorial moment.”
When transitioning through the portal, sounds resonating from the reception hall suddenly fade as you enter a much quieter, more brightly and uniformly illuminated space, inspired by the Light and Space art movement of the 60s. Lighting was key to bringing the distinct atmospheres of the various spaces to life, and Atelier Barda achieved that objective in collaboration with Derek Porter Studio and James Clotfelter Lighting Design. Hidden cove lighting shines upward and reflects off the vaulted white ceiling of the showroom, returning abundant diffuse light throughout the seemingly infinite, shadowless space. This brightness and infiniteness invoke a sense of winter white-outs and weightlessness which blurs the physical limits of the space, redirecting the eye to the ground-level and its seemingly floating products and fine details.
Exit stage left
At the rear of the showroom, another 7-foot-high transitional portal connects to the store’s fitting rooms, with a waiting area on the showroom side denoted by its curvature. A blue curtain separates the vast showroom from the more ambiguous ambiance that lies behind it, and resonates as a subtle nod to theater and a state of suspension in anticipation of the curtain rising. Beyond the curtain, a curved corridor underlies elements of the original building design, which Atelier Barda complemented with contemporary infusions to create a very theatrical and dramatic space with no clearly defined end in sight. Directional lighting adds contrasts to the walls of the corridor, while blue curtains conceal the placement of the fitting rooms.
“Our intent was to create an atmospheric and experiential space for visitors in an attempt to move away from the traditional retail environment,” conclude the architects. “We also prioritized a focus on Kanuk’s uniqueness, while remaining true to the essence of the brand’s vision and culture.”