Apple’s retail footprint today spans nearly 500 Apple Stores globally and serves as an important public touchstone for the company, its products and aesthetic vision. Now, the very first store it ever opened in Europe, on London’s iconic Regent Street, is about to unveil a refurbishment that points to where the company wants to take its retail experience next.
Designed by Foster + Partners, the same firm that has been working for the past six years on the new Apple HQ in Cupertino, the new Regent Street store features high ceilings, natural stone and wood, trees, huge windows and wide open spaces. For a company that sometimes has been dinged for its lack of openness or communication, it’s a new look for Apple: The message to the world is to come in and be a part of the experience.
Apple designed the space to “feel like a town square,” in the words of Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s SVP who oversees its retail strategy, who spoke at a special press preview of the new Regent Street store today.
“You’ll see those open more than you’ll see them closed,” she added gesturing at the big glass doors set in tall glass archways facing the street. It’s a design that mimics the new Cupertino HQ that Foster + Partners is working on with Jonny Ive (who also was involved in the store upgrade), and also has been a part of Apple’s new flagship store in San Francisco, which opened last month.
That San Francisco flagship store, in Union Square, was the first place where we’ve seen some of these design elements come together, and now we can see how that will serve as a template for the Apple Store in other places, too, tying them back to the company’s master design plan. Apple Stores have the most valuable retail square footage in the world, emulated and copied by just about all other major computer retailers (and some others). It will be interesting to see how and if that trend continues.
The open, glass facade marks a shift for Apple and its use of glass as a design element. The previous Regent Street store, which was effectively closed a year ago when Apple began the work, also featured glass, but in a very different way. When you walked in, your first sight was a prominent, wide glass staircase smack in the middle of the ground floor, cutting the space vertically and horizontally. That staircase led to a mezzanine that circled the full perimeter of the store in the past. That mezzanine is gone now, too, also in the name of opening up:
If glass has been a recurring theme in Apple Store design in the past, what seems to be replacing it in the Regent Street store is marbled, light-pale Italian limestone, which is used for the walls, columns and two staircases, now moved to the perimeters of the space.
The detail on the stonework is beautiful but also smart: Stefan Behling, the senior executive partner from Foster + Partners who has also been working on the Cupertino campus for the last six years (“I used to be blond,” joked the steely haired architect), pointed out how the angles on the stair rails reflect the contours on the edge of Apple’s phones, tablets and laptops. Also of note: no hard edges on this stone, where even corners are smoothed and slightly rounded.
On the subject of the hardware, Apple is taking an interesting approach to openness on this front, too: Notably, not one device in the store is attached to a cord (the charging ports are, just to keep the batteries running). The reason for this, Ahrendts told me, is to let people take a device and walk around with it, and maybe try out a case or two to see how it would look. “We want people to feel what it would be like to have it in their life,” she said.
Of course, there is a line drawn here, too. Try to leave the store with one of these devices and it will immediately brick up, never to be used again — a security feature built by Apple and baked into the platform. You could imagine it as something Apple could potentially sell as part of a bigger device deployment to businesses that might need such a feature on their own campus.
Also downstairs, Apple has installed a massive video wall in an open area that it calls the Forum, where it can hold events for developers, but also the wider community, which can sit up to 75 people, or probably more if they’re standing and mingling.
Upstairs, the company has laid out rows of clear tables in a Genius “area” with other products discreetly slotted into the wall displays.
In addition to the Genius assistants who help with technical problems and sales assistants who help you buy things, you can now also visit with creative pros in the store, who answer questions on Apple’s software and services like Apple TV and Apple Music. That in itself is an interesting move, as those services increasingly become a part of Apple’s strategy and potentially bottom line.
In the back of the store is a doorway that leads to Apple’s “Boardroom.” Ahrendts told me the focus of the room will be business meetings for Apple, including with potential enterprise clients and maybe (occasionally?) journalists like me. It was already being put to use during the preview. While I was doing a walk-through of the new store in a Facebook Live video (embedded below), I couldn’t go in because it was occupied.
I did manage to get in later, and I’ve got some pictures below. Hands down, it’s the nicest windowless room I’ve ever spent time in. More wood, art and architecture books, lamps and table sculptures and an easy chair set off to the side behind a partial screen for people who just want some time to contemplate things.
Watch my Facebook Live video, and see more pictures, below.