Style Court

Textiles, Art History, Gardens, and a Little Mental Traveling with Courtney Barnes 2006-2016


Shopping with Benson and Whitaker

[The Benson-designed café, wine bar and specialty retailer, Reid's Fine Foods, in Charlotte, North Carolina. All photos of Reid's are by Chris Edwards.]

It's been a widespread trend but particularly where I live, in the Southeastern United States, some of the most interesting retail-related design projects of the past decade have involved smaller niche shops. Boutiques seem to be where the creative action is.

[Capitol photographed by Brie Williams. Architecture by Perry Poole with interior design by Barrie Benson.]

If we have a Wearstler-designed restaurant, like venerable Bergdorf's BG, in one of our department stores than I've been asleep on the job and am not aware of it. What we do have are some very chic locally owned boutiques including Laura Vinroot Poole's much buzzed about Capitol and her eponymous Poole Shop in Charlotte, North Carolina. Interior designer Barrie Benson is responsible for the look of both, along with architect Perry Poole.

 [Again, Capitol with a view of the amazing vertical garden wall by Patrick Blanc.]

Well known in the design world for her signature mix of modern style with classic Southern elements, Benson is definitely comfortable with glamour. However she sees beauty in straightforward, utilitarian design too. Take for example Reid's Fine Foods, Charlotte's 83-year-old specialty retailer. When Benson was called upon to breathe new life into the place, she brought back the down-to-earth look of an old school green grocery.

Still, this is Charlotte in the 21st century, so Reid's offers an abundant wine department with bar and a café. Apple-green bar stools and a few Thonet chairs with leafy-green floral seats are nods to the region's agrarian roots, softening the shop's more masculine natural materials -- richly stained wood, metal, leather -- without being fussy.

I tend to gravitate to relatively intimate shops like this rather than the big emporiums.

[Harrods, London, dressed in holiday lights as seen in The World of Department Stores,Vendome Press 2011.]

That said, Jan Whitaker's book, The World of Department Stores, is giving me a new appreciation for the wonder of the big, multi-level spaces.

[Cover of Nordiska's style magazine, Stockholm, summer 1932. Nordiska Kompaniet archives as seen in The World of Department Stores,Vendome Press 2011.]

Months ago, when Vendome asked me if I'd like a sneak peek, I envisioned a book with a brief history of a handful of iconic stores, such as Liberty, accompanied by lovely images. Instead what I found was an incredibly in-depth study and an array of pictures encompassing vintage ads and striking architecture photography.

[An example of national advertising, this Marshall Field ad ran in The New Yorker in 1971. Image from as seen in The World of Department Stores,Vendome Press 2011.]

 [Glass funnel inside Berlin's Galeries Lafayette, designed by Jean Nouvel, as seen in The World of Department Stores,Vendome Press 2011.]

Whitaker makes the case that, long before museums welcomed the masses, department stores introduced the public to unfamiliar ideas and styles -- modern furniture and decor, fine art, monumental architecture, couture and even fine dining.

She explores stores across the globe from France (birthplace of the department store) to Japan to the U.S., explaining why these businesses became the heartbeats of their communities. In their golden era they provided jobs for large segments of a city's population and they were frequented by, well, everyone from the society matron to her housekeeper.  For housewives, especially, the hometown department store of yore was a sort of oasis -- according to architect Louis Parnes, the equivalent of the businessman's clubhouse.   

[1925 poster by Marcello Dudovich highlighting luggage at La Rinascente as seen in The World of Department Stores,Vendome Press 2011.]

With Whitaker's expansive section on architecture (she covers innovative design from the 19th century to present day), I think there is plenty of material here to interest design enthusiasts. In fact, architect Stefan Hurray recently weighed-in here. But I have to add that I really got into the psychology. Whitaker is a sociologist whose area of interest is retailing and restaurants. While business psychology isn't a particular interest of mine, her exploration of marketing -- how the merchants courted children by creating fairyland toy departments, zoos, and more, and how they shaped the way we celebrate Christmas -- held my attention.

And of course stores used to have larger in-house creative teams with graphic designers and other artists. This history (with details including shopping bag design) should interest today's art students.

Gift wrap departments still exist and many people look forward to seeing a store's signature box under the tree. Since Barrie Benson is so creative, though, I did ask her how she wraps her own presents. The Duquette fan said Paper Source's peacock satin ribbon is her go-to choice. "I think it looks great with most red papers," she added.

[Paper and ribbon via Paper Source.]

No over-thinking it. Just the dynamic combination of blue-green against red. Her extra effort goes into food prep: a scratch-made batch of brandied cherries for friends and a copy of her French 75 recipe from a fave cocktail book, The Art of the Bar.


Clinton Smith said...

Capitol in Charlotte—and its garden wall—is the chicest store in the South, without a doubt.

mikky said...

I couldn't figure out how to post a comment on your most recent post so I will leave my comment on this one. Unfortunately I don't live anywhere near Atlanta, would have to hop on a plane! However, just thought I'd let you know that your post on the older kids has inspired me, I will make sure to do something for the teens. It's so true, when you look into collection baskets the toys are always for young young kids and we are no diff we always buy young kid toys to drop off at the charities. Thanks for opening my eyes. Sorry for the super long comment!

ArchitectDesign™ said...

Thanks for the shout out! Here in Paris everything is Printemps and Gallerie Layfette which I hope to visit tomorrow. Like you, I gravitate towards smaller stores (and etsy and small online retailers) but trips to department stores really do feel like adventures, don't they? As you say, it is all planned and the psychology of it all is amazing.

Style Court said...

Stefan, adventures, yes definitely. Keep enjoying your time in Paris!

Style Court said...

Clint -- and you've seen them all. You would know.

Style Court said...

Mikky -- glad the post inspired you. Happy holidays!

Ms. Ainee C. Beland said...

Articles found in this blog reminds me why you are one of my favorites and admirable. Lovely reminder and introductory to department stores. I am not fond of Macy's but I have been fortunate to have been around and exposed to Woolworth stores 5cents and dimes store and I would frequent one in Newton, MA and Central Square Cambridge, MA years ago and they were lovely. I would buy all my threading/needles/crochet yarns there; as well as soaps, toothpaste, toothbrush and shoe polish and the likes.

I can honestly say when Woolworth went out of business part of me did as well. I remember this as if yesterday.

Thank you for all that you do.

Style Court said...

Seule -- thank you for taking time to comment! It's great to hear the post struck a chord.