Flight of Fancy

Designers of a SoHo boutique created a ribbonlike sculptural staircase that draws shoppers in and entices them upstairs, where the retail experience begins.

January 01, 2008 |

The sculptural staircase draws shoppers into the store, encouraging
them to follow the undulating ribbons through the atrium to the upper
retail spaces. Magnets (pictured below) allow for flexible merchandise display. PHOTO: ADRIAN WILSON, INTERIOR PHOTOGRAPHY INC.

T he property that luxury French retailer Longchamp found for its flagship Manhattan boutique, La Maison Unique, was almost perfect. The two-story brick building had high ceilings, original 1936 detailing, and a great SoHo address, just steps from the corner of trendy Spring and Green Streets.

The property had one big drawback, however—a meager 1,500 sf of ground-floor retail space. Luckily, the second floor boasted a spacious 4,500-sf open plan, augmented by an additional 1,700 sf when a third floor was added during renovation. It was obvious, then, that the retail environment would have to be located en haut.

What was needed to make this, Longchamp's 100th store, a perfect fit for its portfolio was a dynamic street-level element that would capture the attention of passersby, draw them in, and sweep them upstairs—where, naturally, they would spend beaucoup bucks.


Longchamp's owners, the Cassegrain family, called on Thomas Heatherwick, of Heatherwick Studios, London, with whom they had worked to create their hot-selling Zip Bag collection. For this job, Heatherwick teamed with local firm Atmosphere Design Group to transform the building's unevenly distributed spatial configuration into a stunning multilevel showroom.

The Design Team quickly rejected the idea of using a conventional staircase or escalator—way too blasé. Instead, they conceived of a three-story, skylit atrium with a dramatic “ribbon” staircase as the focal point. Shoppers would be attracted first by the bright, natural light, then dazzled by the unusual sculptural ribbons that organically morph from window display, to walkway, to staircase, to landing, to wall, in an undulating pattern through the 60-foot-high atrium.

Heatherwick wanted a clear balustrade so as not to obscure the staircase, but he felt that conventional glass was too lackluster for such an unconventional design. Instead, he specified 46 polycarbonate panels that were shaped by heat and gravity to express the look of draped fabric. This final touch catches the light and directs one's eye upward where shoppers ultimately focus on the retail experience unfolding on the upper floors.

The components were fabricated by Hillside Ironworks, Albany, N.Y., the closest steel manufacturer with operating presses large enough to bend the 1 ¼-inch-thick hot-rolled steel to the proper radii. The components underwent 4,500 man-hours of grinding, sanding, and finishing before they were complete. The undulating steel ribbons were finished with a decorative natural rubber overlay in strips up to 55 feet long.

New York engineers Gilsanz Murray Steficek were tasked with making the design structurally sound and tweaking it so the staircase could be built with a limited number of connection points. The firm created a 3D model to simulate force, strength, and stress, and to determine how the components would fit together and how much welding was required. The final pre-construction step involved building a full-size mockup, at which point the one-of-a-kind balustrade was tested with the design.

Boston-based Shawmut Design and Construction, the project's CM, spent six months getting the massive 55-ton staircase safely planted inside the atrium. This included outfitting the store with 150 tons of structural support steel. Stair components, some weighing as much as 10,000 pounds, arrived at the project site in 17 pieces.

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