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Skylab Architecture Explores Great Outdoors with Snow Peak USA Flagship Store in Portland

Skylab Architecture, Snow Peak USA, Portland, BnK Construction, Lango Hansen Landscape Architects
Courtesy of Skylab Architecture

By Bekka Wiedenmeyer

For more than 60 years, Snow Peak USA has been a leader in outdoor apparel and gear. Founded by Yukio Yamai in Japan in 1958, the company began its United States adventure in 1999 under the guidance of Yamai’s son, Tohru Yamai, and follows its brand vision, “Let’s Dwell Outdoors, Together” by manufacturing products that not only reflect the beauty of the natural world, but also celebrate the unity of the human experience in a world of advanced technology and diminished interpersonal connection. With the help of Portland-based design studio Skylab Architecture, Snow Peak USA has reached the next step of its upward journey: Establishing the Snow Peak USA Flagship and Headquarters in Portland. Through carefully planned designs that embody the heart of the Pacific Northwest and features that activate the customer experience, Snow Peak USA pays homage to Yukio’s original mission of the company, by creating a community for adventurers from all over the world to come together in the spirit of honoring “The Great Outdoors.” 

“As a family-owned, heritage company, it was important that we got to know the history of Snow Peak deeply and to make sure that it was reflected authentically in the project,” said Reiko Igarashi, project director and interior designer at Skylab Architecture, in an email to The Registry. “The Snow Peak corporate team as well as the founder’s son and his daughter worked closely with us to guide us in our understanding of the brand. They helped us craft a unique experience that feels like a natural extension of Snow Peak in the Pacific Northwest.”

Located at 404 NW 23rd Avenue, the flagship location came to fruition with the joint efforts of Skylab Architecture, contractor BnK Construction and landscape architecture firm Lango Hansen Landscape Architects. The team began construction in fall 2019 and finished during spring 2020. Nestled in a four-story building from the 1980s, the flagship occupies 14,725 square feet of the first two levels, with retail on the first floor and the headquarters on the second. First floor amenities include a store and a restaurant and bar, with a 1,000 square foot patio featuring fire pits and camp chairs for customers to enjoy at their leisure.

The design was influenced by Snow Peak USA’s brand vision and evolved from three key experience principles: 1) Enter the outdoors and leave the city behind, 2) Build a new language both deeply Japanese and of the Pacific Northwest, and 3) Provide strong community-building experiences. 

“Stepping into the Snow Peak space is an inversion – you must go indoors to ‘enter outdoors,’” Igarashi said.

When entering the building, visitors first approach a large hand-painted mural of Yukio. This is actually a recreation of a historic photo taken of the founder when he was younger, kneeling on the mountainside of Mt. Tanigawa in Japan. This photo instigated the team’s discussion on how to transform the memory into an accurate scale for the wall.

“After some consideration, the project team and Snow Peak agreed that a hand painted mural would be most appropriate here and they worked directly with Seattle artist Shogo Ota to create the artwork,” Igarashi said.

Throughout the first level, the team chose to incorporate century-old milled Douglas fir beams, black-stained wire-brushed wood flooring, stone-like tile and custom ombre wallcoverings to elicit an atmosphere of American-Japanese architectural fusion. Fabrics with natural fibers are used throughout to emulate the blend of man-made creation with the natural world.

A center circulation core featuring historic Snow Peak imagery is illuminated from above by lantern-like fabric installations, and visitors are guided into the second level event space and showroom with a sense they are ascending to the sky. A custom fabricated metal bridge then connects the showroom to the office space, whose details and materiality found inspiration in the flagship’s own restaurant and bar, the Takibi Fire & Grill.

The Takibi Fire & Grill continues to use the inversion principle to unite the interior to the exterior.

“We wanted a brightly lit, plant-filled, intimate but almost spare space that had jolts of color from the iridescent hues of Snow Peak anodized cutlery,” Igarashi said. “It needed to feel familiar to the retail space while maintaining emotional separation and had to address large expanses of sterile storefront that looked out on an equally uninspiring view.”

The team took design cues from traditional Japanese architecture to create deep eaves, or nokishita, that helped to extend the transition from interior to exterior by meshing the two through visual framing, shadow and “a little bit of mystery.”

“We translated the nokishita into a deep vertical soffit with hanging plants and lighting – illuminating the transition into and out of the space and connecting the interior to the exterior through formal architectural division,” Igarashi said.

The outdoor patio space is adjacent to the restaurant but still embodies the character of the store. Fire pits, cookware, furniture, tents and tarps are all Snow Peak USA-branded, and the wood-fired hearth and the chef’s table are vital elements incorporated by the team to enhance the user experience.

“We wanted fire to be central to the experience, showcase the art of cooking and have a place to display Snow Peak cutlery and dishes,” Igarashi said.

The design of the building didn’t come without its challenges. The NW 23rd site had low ceilings and a partially subterranean first level that forced the team to brainstorm different design solutions, and the building’s exterior expression needed to be integrated into the Snow Peak USA brand. The project also faced additional challenges escalated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Almost every project has some version of the cost and timeline challenges that we faced,” Igarashi said. “Ours were magnified by the pandemic. What was uniquely challenging to this project was that it was small but complex – 6 different programs in one project were essentially separate projects unto themselves. We also concepted a number of artistic installations within the project and we had to be creative in order to keep them in the project while figuring out a way to execute them well.”

Igarashi also noted how Snow Peak USA’s focus on the use and preservation of outdoor spaces became even more relevant during COVID-19 as communities relied on outdoor gathering spaces as a safe haven. 

“I think there’s a difference between the relationship Snow Peak has to the outdoors and that which western outdoor retailers have to the outdoors,” Igarashi said. “It has to do with the Japanese relationship to nature which seems fundamentally different than the American relationship to nature. Rather than a Walden-esque exercise in self-reliance, or a wild landscape to be conquered, the Snow Peak landscape is an approachable one which humans can inhabit and find community. We didn’t imagine it when the project was conceived, but I think that the model of the Snow Peak Way can offer some sort of comfort to us as we stay safe while trying to keep community.” 

Courtesy of Skylab Architecture