CHALLENGE When designing Alessi's $1.4 million dollar, 980-square-foot store in New York's SoHo neighborhood, architect Hani Rashid and his firm Asymptote faced not only the constraints of a cramped asymmetrical site, but the daunting task of creating an entirely new image for the Italian housewares manufacturer. "Rather than impose our corporate image we wanted to adjust our American flagship to the locality," explains Alessi executive vice president Jan Vingerhoets. "In New York you can't do the same thing you do everywhere else. We wanted something different, something quirky." As part of their strategy to create a unique aesthetic for Alessi's first U.S. outlet and integrate the brand with the spirit of the neighborhood, Vingerhoets and his team drafted a program that included basic retail functions, as well as an espresso bar--the first in any Alessi store worldwide. For Asymptote this meant finding a way to keep these two programmatic elements, each with their own hours of operation, distinct within the space, while maintaining flow and visual coherence.

ARCHITECTURAL AND LIGHTING SOLUTION The store's Green Street location presents a typical New York City condition--a narrow entrance opening to a larger volume in the rear. The coffee bar greets shoppers as they enter the store and move through the space to the shopping area behind. To connect the two sections, the architects inserted nine successive bands of white light that run vertically up the north wall and continue horizontally across the ceiling within suspended geometrical boxes of varying shapes and sizes. "The action of these surfaces combined with the repetition of the bars of light draws the eye to the back of the space and creates a continuous reading," notes Asymptote project architect, David Lessard. Continuous is the operative word--a mirrored rear wall reinforces the surface geometries, while visually creating an infinite sense of space.

In addition to creating formal clarity between coffee bar and store, the "light boxes" can be individually dimmed to distinguish the functions of each space. Constructed from medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and stretched Barrisol fabric, the boxes conceal T5 fluorescent fixtures, three per vertical wall element and three per horizontal ceiling element. Rather than using dimmers, which would have exceeded the project's budget, lighting consultant Tillotson Design Associates set each fixture on an individual switch. "By turning two on and one off, three on, or just one on, you get varying light conditions," says Lessard. This function is generally employed in the morning to dim the rear lights, when the coffee bar is open and the store closed. Standard halogen MR16 recessed downlights, arranged in strips of five, four, and two, make up the remainder of the store's general illumination.

To highlight Alessi's products, Asymptote teamed with furniture manufacturer Vitra to design a modular shelving unit, complete with built-in accent lighting. Fabricated from bent, white-painted steel, the shelves feature constellations of two-inch-diameter fixtures, each directing the light of a single 2W white LED onto the coffee makers, vessels, and flatware. The architects chose LEDs in direct response to Alessi's stainless-steel-dominated product line, a material that, Vingerhoets says, "can blend in without the right lighting." The choice was appropriate. The 6300K color temperature of the light from the LEDs appears as dazzling white points on the stainless-steel wares, immediately catching the eye in the already well-lit room.

The success of Alessi's SoHo flagship store illustrates the benefit of having a single author behind every element of a shopping experience--Rashid designed all of the store's ephemera, from the graphics to the packaging to the paper cups--but the power of lighting distinguishes these elements within a tightly confined space, while simultaneously unifying them.


project | Alessi Store, New York
design team | Asymptote, New York (architect); Tillotson Design Associates, New York (lighting designer)
project size | 980 square feet
photographer | Elizabeth Felicella, New York
manufacturers | Bartco, Con-Tech