Downtown in Raleigh means Fayetteville Street. Fayetteville Street spreads from the Capital building to the Concert Hall, past the office towers and the Convention Center. It’s our Broadway, and it’s where the city has put the most direct development effort. It’s a good street, and it’s better than it has been since photography was in black and white.
Among the restaurants, the furniture store, the City Museum, and the Post Office on Fayetteville Street is Fragment Labs – a web design studio. Their storefront looks great – I love the sculptured logo in the window. And, today I got a tour of the shop.
These designers obviously respect the history of the building, they understand the street, and they want to be part of it.
It’s fun to think about the paradox of designers for the virtual interweb having a so physical presence in the tangible city. The conversation about real and unreal was mostly answered in the 60’s, but I like the reminder that real people design cyberspace. At Fragment Labs, those people are on display.
Our office is beginning design for a similar storefront-studio. The nature of a storefront is to display goods. The goods are their own advertisement for sale. Whether merchandise or food or experience, the goal of a storefront is window shopping that becomes a cash transaction. Window shopping works when you have pedestrian traffic, and it works on Fayetteville Street. A storefront design-studio blurs all those lines: am I selling goods or service and do I want walk-in traffic? And it feels like performance art, watching other people work while I walk to lunch – it’s weird.
Mostly, storefront studios are a commentary on the retail market and on plunging leasing rates that make these spaces available to starving artists. An editor could also talk about retail in the age of amazon.com, and maybe on the nature of entrepreneurship and human marketing. There’s a lot going on when you see a design shop in an empty storefront.
My concern is that with storefront-studios, the storefronts are still empty, even when occupied. As my new web-designer friend told me today, the conference table at the window is “expensive floor space.” The space at the glass may be an metaphor for “potential,” but it’s not active space.
Response number one is that they could have gone into a smaller storefront. Besides saving money, they would have looked busier. And, busy begets business.
Response number two is more interesting – they could add retail. It’s a case of architecture demanding its own use, and it’s an opportunity for collaboration and truly creative business development.
I tend to think the answer to every urban crisis is to install a bookstore: that’s my autonomic nerve. The design shop our office is doing will be next to a jazz lounge – I want a place for the lounge customers to buy records and artsy books. My associate wants to compete with Father and Son Antiques, also nearby. Either way, we want the new storefront to be busy, even when the designers have their heads down on their desks or when they’re out of the office on site. Fragment could sell something virtual, start a new economy.
There’s a difference between selling things and selling service – and the difference is largely in how the product looks to the street. Fragment Labs is working in a world in-between, and we’ll all be watching what they become.
Andy Osterlund AIA | LEED AP
Andrew Osterlund, Architect, PLLC
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