Design Sells

Material innovation can come from a variety of motives. Recently Starbucks, the world-known coffee shop from Seattle, hired an architect as their president. Now some Starbucks stores exhibit their vision for an innovate experience and sustainable design. Three projects caught my eye from their new stores, each based on a popularized architectural idea: rethinking typical materials, a portable Starbucks, and reclaimed shipping containers. Each of these stores provides an enhanced experience for their customers. Are these projects simply a way to brand Starbucks? Or is it a way for design to be used in vernacular architecture?

Rethinking a Typical Material (Fukuoko Prefecture, Japan)

Above you see a very unique example of Starbucks’s new image scattered around the world. The unique experience introduces their customers to a new way of seeing quality space. I think seeing these examples of design in everyday architecture can open up our imagination and awaken our senses to better design. But to have it all happen under the label of “Starbucks” seems to undermine the work of the designers involved. Above we see the innovation of Kengo Kuma & Associates at work. Their use of wood as a deconstructed lattice-work adds texture to the space. I can imagine sitting in this Starbucks for hours: intrigued but not distracted.

Portable Starbucks (Colorado)

In this Portable Starbucks, the entire assembly can be compressed and fit on a flat-bed semi. This is a drive-thru and walk-up Starbucks. The specific materials of the facade make it seem more permanent as it meets the ground and engages the site. The crossing of the drive-thru window perpendicular to the main volume allows the building to gesture towards the landscaping around the building. The pictures shown above are cropped fairly tightly so I wonder how well the building actually integrates with the adjacent sites. While other design strategies seem to be unique to a specific location, the nature of a portable design implies that it can be dropped in almost any location. I wonder what the long-term intent of the project may be. It may be more economically sustainable to pick-up and move a store from an unsuccessful location to another. But being a drive-thru Starbucks next to a gas station seems to counter the sustainable role it is trying to set.

Reclaimed Shipping Containers (Tukwila, Washington)

The reuse of existing material (particularly shipping containers) can spark interesting design strategies. I recently visited Seattle and saw the thousands of shipping containers sitting in their harbors. Being the birthplace of Starbucks, the use of shipping containers seems most appropriate in Washington. The blocky containers are offset in this design and almost seem to float above the drive-through window. They are also porous on the ends to let light make silhouettes of the unique artwork. These punctures in the solid metal make them beacons of light and not heavy solid masses. I have not found any interior shots of this project, so I wonder what kind of working space it creates for the barista.

These Starbucks projects are intriguing and unique examples against competing coffee shops. If their efforts pay off, as their new president Arthur Rubinfeld believes, Starbucks may be paving the way for commercial chains to involve better design in their stores. I can’t help but question what Arthur Rubinfeld has really started: Will our designers be better or worse off from this boost in business by the vernacular? As more people are able to access high quality design, will it be cheapened? Or will the actual cost of design fall on the consumer?

With the economic recession of the last few years, people have focused more on price than quality. As our economy picks up, these projects by Starbucks may introduce people to a way to spend their new-found money. When the choice is up to the consumer, will they want a higher quality experience or will they move back to finding the cheapest solution? Starbucks may be the business model to watch and see if design can really sell.


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