I was born lucky. With a tarnished silver spoon, a doting grandmother fed me a romanticized heritage of the American Northwest that still shapes who I am today: tales of timber and shipping, the Victorian mansion that housed our civic-minded family, a founding clan of Port Townsend, Washington. Though wildly successful to a point, my people lost everything in the Great Depression—except their resilient pride in family lore, heirloom treasures and the faded glory of “the good life” once enjoyed.
My grandmother found in me an eager sponge for culture. The rich fabric of her storytelling included instruction in the tangible texture and feel of the few treasures still intact. She lectured on ancestral portraits and Eastlake and Queen Anne furniture, and she explained the differences between the Heriz and Serape rugs. She impressed the importance of first-edition books and the marks that differentiate American from English silver.
Her story was about the power of place, of legacy, of how comfort shapes the way people live their lives together—“the intrinsic value of things,” as she liked to put it. My grandmother ignited my creative yearnings and the desire for a specific way of living. Our connection led to my passion for creating environments that aims to articulate and heighten the importance of place in everyday life.
When I grew up, I turned this passion into a profession generating what the corporate world calls “Branded Environments”: brick-and-mortar stores, restaurants and hotels. Properly conceived, these projects bring personal visions of the good life, like the vision my grandmother instilled in me, to light in the world of commerce. Design elevates and illustrates the values and aspirations of a brand in a physical space while helping individuals to make emotional connections with their own desires and ideals. The tactile comforts and functionality of the spaces I design aim to elicit in the visitor an immediate familiarity.
The desire for community is as important today as it was in the Victorian Age or in the heydey of the Masonic Temples and the Elk’s Clubs. Yet today, in a society thoroughly pervaded by consumerism driven by media-saturated, virtual experiences, people have learned to find a sense of belonging in different kinds of places. In my opinion, the corporations driving this social shift must try to satisfy not only market demands but also human needs for meaning and comfort.
One of my most powerful discoveries of this reality began in 2008, when I was invited to lead the rebranding design efforts for the global portfolio of Starbucks Coffee stores. My goal was to create a Starbucks’ environment that speaks to today’s customer at the local level, while connecting to the brand’s 40-year history as an “American” gathering place.
I started the project by comparing how Starbucks customers experience public space to the way they inhabited these same spaces in the pre-laptop age. Most customers, I found, have come to think of Starbucks as a “third place,” an alternative to the home and office that has elements of both spaces. My design team found that community groups use the stores the way their parents might have used neighborhood church halls. Business people gather for out-of-office, off-site meetings. Moms with strollers come in the mornings. Students come, too. (Today, there’s a student study-hall laptop-lane in nearly every location). Starbucks customers value sustainability, so we elected to have all new stores LEED certified. And since visits to the coffee shop are such an important part of everyday life for so many people, we built bridges between the store designs and their neighborhood settings.
In most Starbucks-sized corporations, commercial design follows the dictates of market analysis. My team took a broader approach. We looked at variations of communal seating, room layouts and furniture proximity in coffee and tea houses in Europe, Africa and Asia. We gathered inspiration for texture, scale and experience. We riffed on study halls, pubs and hotel lobbies—the public space equivalents of living rooms and dens. We respected and highlighted the regional, cultural and architectural components of changing neighborhoods, responding to the needs of new residents. More than five hundred new design elements were introduced into a refurbished design library. By conjuring echoes of the past and making connections with an ever-changing present, our aim was to create distinctive new physical environments that each community could embrace.
Design can bring us closer to our roots, both romanticized and abstract, tangible and concrete. Our aging cities are rich in urban design and an architecture that can inspire community-building in the present. The purpose of thoughtful architecture and interior design is to set the stage for a good life, one that respects history even has it reaches forward, satisfying some desires while stimulating others—and evoking a sense of longing that is, strangely but certainly, its own form of contentment.