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The Changing Nature of the Transaction: Graham Baba’s Perspective on Retail in the Era of E-Commerce and Technology

Graham Barba Architects, Puget Sound, The Retail Design Institute, New York, Seattle, Deep Dive, Trailbend Taproom, Dockside Cannabis
Dockside Cannabis. Image Courtesy of Andrew Pogue.

By Meghan Hall

When Jim Graham first began Graham Baba Architects with Brett Baba in the early 2000s, the firm was only just beginning its foray into the world of commercial retail and food/bev design. According to the pair, the introduction of technology into the restaurant and retail sphere has altered the way that consumers transact and has placed a new impetus on business owners to create more engaging experiences for their customers —  ones they cannot simply find online.

“Whether it is food/bev or retail, it has to be experienced-based,” explained Graham. “Experiences are what people are after. It’s not just about going and getting food, it’s the environment that you’re in; it’s being with others. That experience now trends largely into retail because it’s really the only way retailers can compete with online purchasing.” 

Over the course of its tenure in the Puget Sound, GBA has become a pivotal influence when it comes to retail and food/bev design. In 2019 alone, four of GBA’s projects were recognized by The Retail Design Institute in New York City. The program recognizes retail design projects from around the world, and this years Design Award Finalists included GBA’s contributions to Deep Dive, Trailbend Taproom and Dockside Cannabis. Trailbend Taproom also received a special Innovation in Materiality Award for its unique use of materials.

Deep Dive. Image Courtesy of Haris Kenjar

However, according to Graham, GBA’s origins in food/bev and retail grew organically, as some of GBA’s original projects included adaptive reuse of older buildings. Many of the architecture firm’s first clients were not just property owners working to redevelop local assets, but also the future tenants who would be utilizing the new spaces.

“As we would change building uses from warehouse or other things to prepare for commercial activity, we were working not only with developers to reimagine these buildings, but we were helping them lease-up the spaces, so we started getting into the full design for the tenants that would eventually occupy those spaces,” explained Graham. “The whole place-making and the spaces that people connect in, that is what got us into that retail and restaurant typology.”

Graham, as well as GBA Designer Francesco Borghesi believe that GBA’s success has largely come from finding authenticity in every space and learning as much as they can through working closely with property owners and tenants, especially as the market and consumer expectations have continued to evolve.

“It’s a learning process for us. We have had the opportunity to get real-time feedback from the people running the retail spaces or restaurants — we definitely saw this change happening as the businesses changed,” said Borghesi.  “It seems like technology has brought a lot to the space. While it is about convenience, it is also about the transaction.”

Borghesi continued, stating that more than ever, retailers and restaurants are looking to open themselves up more to a different transaction, one that is more social than monetary. “Before it was about a display of product, and then the act of purchasing and taking it home. Now, barriers are being broken down, and that’s connected with technology.”

Technology also continues to influence retail design as it continues to permit local businesses exposure through the wide-spread use of social media platforms. But for Graham and Borghesi, it has also allowed architects like themselves to shift their focus from product to people.

“Retail and restaurant [design] is moving away from a kind of overt, commercial-inspired commerce,” added Graham. “And through that comes an authenticity that makes people feel comfortable. We’re not designing retail because we want to work with retailers; we’re not designing restaurants because we want to design food-focused spaces. We’re designing spaces for people to be in, and those interactions that follow are supported by the environment folks are in.”

In the case of Dockside Cannabis, that meant designing an environment that worked to destigmatize the product, as the cannabis market in Seattle is still new an emerging. For GBA, this meant minimizing how the product was displayed through the use of sleek, clear cases, as well as the use of a natural, neutral materials palette. 

“For retail, if we can put the act of making [the product] in there or express the qualities of making the craft, that puts the experience to the forefront,” said Graham. “It starts to become more authentic, it’s more welcoming and more inclusive, rather than being about a commodity that is shoved through a commercial activity.”

For Deep Dive, the design was all about showcasing the bar, where the staff crafts creative and elaborate mixed-drinks. With the design of the Trailbend Taproom, GBA took a more muted focus, showcasing all 42 of the brewery’s beers the same way, behind a slab of Carrera marble. 

“If you look at the beers, they are all listed in the same way.  It’s not about each individual beer and brand being celebrated or advertised; it’s not a cacophony of visual colors and shapes and brands,” said Graham. “It’s totally neutralized. It’s a really reduced, restrained palette that is just about the beer and the people there.”

Looking ahead, Graham and Borghesi predict that technology will only serve to alter the retail and restaurant sphere even more, as alternative reality and automatic check-outs become more prominent. 

“The act of retrieving a product is going to become easier and easier,” said Borghesi. “In that sense, the way stores are designed is going to change, because there is not going to be a formal checkout. That will change the whole layout and will open up a lot of possibilities.”