Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

September 28, 2016

Back on the Old Block

A deluxe homecoming for Barneys New York in Chelsea.


Architecture, Articles, Cooley Monato Studio, Steven Harris Architects

Who says you can’t go home again? Last February, retailer Barneys New York opened a new store on the same New York City block where the company was founded in 1923 and maintained an outpost until the late 1990s. Located on 7th Avenue between 16th Street and 17th Street, the 55,000-square-foot flagship marks a glamorous return to Chelsea, a neighborhood that’s undergone an equally dazzling renewal over the past 20 years.

Designed by New York–based firm Steven Harris Architects (SHA) with lighting design by Cooley Monato Studio (CoMoS), the five-story retail space evokes the luxury of the early 20th century though a rich material palette. Marble, glass, and metallic surfaces suggest the age of Streamline Moderne while staying true to the current Barneys New York contemporary upscale brand identity. (SHA and CoMoS first partnered the client in early 2012 with the renovation of the Madison Avenue and Beverly Hills store locations.)

On 7th Avenue, the architects and lighting designers continued the brand’s established design language and adapted it to the specific (and sometime difficult) conditions on site. “We wanted something very glamorous and minimal,” says Andrea Mason of SHA, who served as project architect. “We wanted to create layering in the space, while still making sure it felt cohesive.” But the existing building conspired against uniformity: large floor areas, non-aligning columns, and uncomfortably low ceiling heights.

The architects looked to modernist lessons to allow visitors to perceive spatial unity instead of chaos, such as the boogie-woogie dynamics of De Stijl and the marble and stainless steel illusions of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. “We wanted horizontal planes to divert the eye from seeing the disorder,” says Mason.

Rigid lighting patterns would have highlighted the building’s irregularities, so instead CoMoS minimized the number of apertures in the ceiling, using recessed integral 14.8W 3500K LED fixtures with a narrow-flood beam spread to illuminate circulation paths and wall display units.

To give the space a visual hierarchy of illumination along with a glam feel, CoMoS used “local lighting”—sources in close proximity to merchandise or integrated into and around accessory and cosmetic counters and indirect sources for spare ambient fill light to flatter shoppers. Emily Monato, CoMoS principal, worked closely with the architectural team to integrate low-wattage sources into the displays. “If we saw a new millwork design that was being developed, we’d ask ‘Can we put a light in there?’ ” she explains.

For instance, at the ground-floor perfume counter, the lighting team positioned parallel rows of LED tape underneath a thick white glass top so that the whole surface appears to glow. In Freds, Barneys New York’s signature restaurant, CoMoS kept the circulation lighting to a minimum and focused on the tables with indirect 7.5W-per-linear-foot 2700K LED light strips installed under the front edge of the bar and tucked behind the banquettes. After testing numerous mock-ups, the designers decided that the best way to light the mirror at the back bar was to simply illuminate the lineup of liquor bottles and leave the mirror alone. “There’s an innate physiological response in people where their eye is just naturally drawn to the brightest object in their field of view,” Monato says. “The most efficient way to do that from an energy point of view is to put the light as close to the object you’re trying to highlight. Light doesn’t have to travel as far so you don’t necessarily need as much power to get light onto that product.”

Still, the sales floor needed a large-scale focal point to create a much-needed spatial hierarchy. SHA designed a new spiral stair for the central glass atrium to add grandness to the space and to draw shoppers’ eyes up. It’s an illusion that hints that the ceiling height is taller than it actually is.

In homage to the stairwell in the original Barneys, the sculptural stair connects the lower level to the third floor. It’s surrounded by an atrium lined with custom glass panels (that also function as smoke baffles), each ornamented with an abstract design of mirrored vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines inspired by the artworks of painter Agnes Martin and sculptor Fred Sandback.

The dramatic stair is the flagship’s centerpiece. SHA considers it a functional sculpture and initially was hesitant to embed fixtures in the corkscrew form. “We didn’t want to break the plane of the iconic stair and we wanted to retain a continuous spiral,” Mason says. “We worried if you saw the [fixtures] it would look like a casino stair or cruise boat.”

But Monato and team insisted that the stair needed illumination in order for it to stand out from the sales displays, and they built a full-scale mock-up out of paper and foam core with actual light fixtures in order to convince the architects. The elegant solution highlights the stair without overpowering it. A 1W 3000K in-grade LED uplight is installed on every third tread, its wide-flood beam spread shielded so that 50 percent of the light directs toward the inside of the stairway. A 7.5W-per-linear-foot 3000K LED light strip traces a glowing line along both sides of the handrail.

Throughout the store, the design team used “amoebas,” organically shaped coves outfitted with direct and indirect fixtures, to illuminate the sales areas. Mason notes that their unusual shape came from wanting to uniquely mark a sense of arrival in each department. First developed for Barneys’ Beverly Hills outpost, the amoebas were well suited for the low ceiling heights in Chelsea, which are less than 8 feet in some places, forcing the designers to hold tight to the existing structure. Each cove is ringed with 7.5W 3000K linear LED light tape that bathes the merchandise in a soft glow.

The amoebas create a particularly magical effect in the shoe department as the light reflects off the brass display tables and creates watery reflections on the ceiling. For Monato, this playful end result is all part of the process. Her team continually works with material samples during the design phase in order to test how certain fixtures create reflections or unwanted colors. “There’s definitely something to be said about old school hands-on exploration,” she says. At Barneys New York, CoMoS’s design is meticulously crafted, which adds to the tailor-made quality of the space. Just as the shopping experience is made-to-measure for style and a luxurious identity, the seemingly simple pairing of light and materials creates a tailored homecoming for the brand.