A Retail Space Odyssey

It pays to have an architect in the family.

Andrea Fortunoff is the architect for the Fortunoff family’s retail empire, charged with creating new retail spaces for the company as well as maintaining existing spaces for the growing chain of regional stores that sell everything from vacuum cleaners and household furniture to some of the world’s finest jewelry and gift items.

Her most recent project was The Source at White Plains, a four-level, 262,000-sq.-ft. retail complex in White Plains, N.Y., that opened in September 2003 on a site that once housed a Saks Fifth Avenue store. The first floor of the complex houses various retail establishments, including a Whole Foods supermarket, Morton’s Steakhouse, Cheesecake factory, and a fitness facility. But the centerpiece is a 185,000-sq.-ft. Fortunoff store that occupies the top three floors.

In the store, the premier attraction is a 17,000-sq.-ft. department for jewelry, watches, flatware, hollowware, and clocks. It was designed by GRID/3, a New York-based interior design firm.

“It’s a little bit bigger than our typical jewelry department but not that much,” Fortunoff says. “It’s about 10 percent larger. It’s on the second floor, right off the attached parking garage—one of our most convenient doors into the stores.”

Design and installation of the department posed several challenges. Among them:

  • The floor plan had to isolate vastly different product sales areas yet also unify them.

  • The department had to look beautiful but also withstand the daily punishment of a busy store. In addition, materials and finishes had to be designed with details unique to how Fortunoff runs its business.

  • High ceilings were used, which posed lighting issues.

Completing the Puzzle

“Getting it to all work together was like doing a giant jigsaw puzzle,” says Keith Kovar, GRID/3 principal. “The family tradition of providing good service meant that it had to be a pleasure to work in as well as be easy to shop.”

Because the company displays a great deal of jewelry, it uses three-level showcases as well as vertical cases. A total of 500 linear feet of showcases was specified for this project. The goal was to display the jewelry in a way that would let customers consider pieces individually and not be overwhelmed with choices.

“Five-hundred linear feet is a lot of case work,” says Ruth Mellergaard, a principal with GRID/3. “The challenge was to organize it so the customer can focus on specific things.”

Another challenge was to make sure that a space designed to appeal to women would also be comfortable for male shoppers.

In addition, the materials and colors had to present a classic, rather than trendy, appearance and complement, rather than compete with, the merchandise.

“You work with a palette of materials that is appealing in a very long-term way and try to put them together in such a manner that they are still up to date, fresh, and intriguing; but not so intriguing that they don’t set off the merchandise,” Fortunoff says. “You design the department so that it is a frame for the merchandise.”

As if that’s not enough, the department’s merchandise includes approximately 450 flatware patterns and 250 clocks. Because of the quantity of products and their unique features, Fortunoff uses its walls and upright cases to display products vertically.

The first solution was to separate the different merchandising areas into a series of islands. To attract men, an island with men’s fine watches is closest to the entrance. The gold island, which features men’s jewelry, is also near the entrance.

“Like every jewelry department, our base customer is largely women, but we also try to make sure that men are not uncomfortable coming in,” Fortunoff says. “We do have male customers for watches and prospective grooms buying engagement rings.”

Next in line is the “fun” watches island. The center of the department is the diamonds island. To the left is an island dedicated to earrings, while directly behind is a rings and pearls island and a bridal area.

All islands have cash registers and computerized work stations that are connected to the company Intranet.

Along one front-to-back wall is the service center (with polishing room), areas for private viewing, and offices. In front of this is a silver island, which extends to a curved floor-to-ceiling window that contains hollowware. A rear corner space contains the clocks and flatwear areas.

The structural columns in the space were used as organizational elements, separating and tying together the different departments. Mellergaard clad the columns with a white-granite base, painting them above with “gilt” paint. A fabric-embedded glass was installed over the paint, making the columns a focal point. Custom down lighting designed by Fortunoff created sparkle. Bronze trim and bumpers are used to accent as well as protect the columns.

‘Beautiful Tanks’

All showcases were custom-made, built with welded bronze frames with a pale maple finish and a white-granite base, which matched the columns. Fortunoff says bronze was used for beauty and welded for strength. Granite also provides beauty and strength. Locks were custom-designed because the cases may be opened upwards of 100 times per day. Fortunoff calls them “beautiful tanks.” “There are no cases as strong as those cases,” Mellergaard adds.

The showcases also function in practical ways that help support Fortunoff’s business practices. Because the retailer displays as much as three-quarters of its total merchandise on the floor, the cases contain three trays to display a maximum amount of jewelry (with the exception of the cases in the diamond and watch islands). Andrea Fortunoff designed the showcase trays and doors to allow employees to remove an entire pad of jewelry at the end of the day and store it in the vault as a single unit, instead of removing each item from the cases individually.

“Everything was sized based on the pad size and the door size,” Mellergaard says. “It’s very tricky. You have to know upfront that you are going to do this, because you have to figure it out right when you are doing the fixture layout. Very few people will take as much time as Andrea will.”

Lights, Floors, Ceilings

The showcases were built in two lengths to suit Andrea Fortunoff’s lighting plan. Fortunoff prefers high ceilings, and the ones at this store are 14 feet high. This posed lighting issues, particularly when it came to lighting diamonds.

The solution, developed with lighting manufacturer Eye Lighting International of North America, Mentor, Ohio, was to install 150-watt EYE Color Arc lamps in the ceiling 13 feet above the jewelry case displays. The recessed Par 36 lamps are spaced two feet apart in a linear pattern to match the layout of the jewelry cases. T5 fluorescent lighting is used inside the cases.

Fortunoff was also concerned about the color temperature of the overhead light, because the diamond jewelry had to sparkle inside the case and on the customer. Fortunoff says skin tones look fine under 3,500k lights, but diamonds look better when exposed to higher color temperatures. She decided to use 4,500k lamps, which allow skin tones to look pleasing and diamonds to sparkle.

Meanwhile, GRID/3 went to the Armstrong company to specify a ceiling that would accommodate the lighting scheme and floor plan. After settling on an Armstrong Axiom cove ceiling system, coves were installed above the product islands, which allowed lighting fixtures to be placed according to Andrea Fortunoff’s requirements. The product is also flexible, so if the showcases are moved, the ceiling can be changed as well.

The clocks and hollowware departments posed special challenges. “They merchandise vertically, which is unusual,” says Mellergaard. Flatware couldn’t all fit into one wall, so GRID/3 designed a specific boutique with angled walls.

“They [Fortunoff] sell more patterns than anybody in the country, so we had to come up with a way of laying out all this product,” Mellergaard says. “Rather than doing a straight flat wall, Keith [Kovar] came up with something shaped like the letter E.”

One problem with displaying flatware vertically is gravity. So Andrea Fortunoff developed a magnet system to keep the merchandise in place.

Clocks posed another unusual challenge. Fortunoff displays 250 of them. Because many are inexpensive, the clocks section—even though it’s in the same department as the high-end merchandise—had to give the appearance of separation from the other products. The solution was to create a custom slat-wall system framed in cherry.

The overall color scheme of bronze, pale maple, rich cherry, and soft blue complemented the custom Fortunoff display color of deep “Wedgwood” blue.

The carpet tile throughout the store is a custom pale-taupe pattern over-tufted on a soft blue background, again, customized for Fortunoff. Considering the amount of traffic the carpet will endure, Fortunoff specified modular tile carpet rather than wall-to-wall carpet so portions can easily be replaced.

The floor in the flatware, clocks, and hollowware departments is white granite with a black granite inlay.

Timing Is Everything

Any big project develops unforeseen problems, but some of the challenges associated with The Source at White Plains bordered on the bizarre. For example, the granite for the floor of the hollowware, clock, and flatware departments—imported from Turkey—almost never arrived at all, much less on time.

“We were under construction right at the beginning of the Iraq war, and the granite was held up in customs for so long,” Fortunoff says. “At the beginning of the war they stopped all imports into the country for a while. It was a real rush job.”

To make matters more interesting, the quarry went out of business. “We got the last stone out of the quarry,” Fortunoff says. “It closed after our order. Fortunately, I ordered a little bit of added stock.”

Fortunoff also encountered what she calls “silly difficulties.” For example, she had a problem finding door handles to match the bronze used for the showcases. “You can get shiny brass and white metal door handles,” she says. “But getting the door handles to match so you have a cohesive statement is not very easy.”

“It was really quite a project, and it worked really well,” Fortunoff says. “It was on time and on budget. And considering the quality of materials used, that’s quite a feat.”

Fortunoff in November 2004 announced plans to sell a majority stake
in the firm to two private investors,
Trimaran Capital Partners and Kier Group, both based in New York. The family is expected to
retain about a quarter of the company
and will remain in control of day-to-day operations. At the time of the announcement no changes in the roles of family members were planned.