Over the last few years, experiential retail spaces have been popping up across the world in ever greater numbers, aiming to offer customers a more immersive and memorable alternative to online shopping. Spearheaded by technology, fashion and beauty brands, experimental stores can nevertheless serve any kind of retail brand, even a bakery, as Holiland Lab in Nanjing, China, attests. The latest in a series of experiential outposts by Chinese bakery chain Holiland – hence the “lab” designation – the store looks nothing like a bakery or pastry shop thanks to Shanghai-based interior and product design practice Sò Studio who conceived the space as a cross between a high-tech manufacturing facility, science laboratory and a transportation hub. Located inside the newly completed WUYUe Plaza, the space complements the brand’s culinary experiments with a spatial experience that challenges customers’ perceptions as much as their expectations.
Sò Studio’s design is inspired in large part by the concept of the “space elevator”, a proposal to lift people and payloads out of Earth’s gravity using a ground-to-space tether in combination with motorized elevator pods. As preposterous as this idea sounds, researchers around the world, including some at NASA, believe that this feat is not unfeasible; in fact, China wants to build one as soon as 2045.
Interestingly, the concept of the space elevator was first proposed in the late 19th century by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who was inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Therefore it’s quite fitting that the designers combined a high-tech industrial design language of metallic finishes, composite materials and LED displays with low tech elements like wooden pallet-like furnishings. Tying everything together is a minimalist aesthetic underpinned by engineered cubic forms, clean lines and a muted colour palette as well as an interplay of reflections and transparencies.
At the heart of the store, the main retail area is set up as a laboratory where customers get to inspect the brand’s culinary specimens - think artfully decorated cupcakes, trompe l'oeil desserts and “drinkable cakes”. Custom-built furnishings that include floating display cabinets, “packing box” vitrines and a “transport cart” cake wall, give the impression that they are ready to be shipped out, or in some cased beamed up, thanks to a subtle network of cranes, pulleys and cables extending throughout the space. Industrial elements are contrasted with wooden surfaces and splashes of yellow, pistachio and orange-red, imbuing the space with a retro-futuristic sensibility while the combination of the mirrored ceiling with illuminated floor sections play with the customers’ perception of up and down – a subtle form of illusion which the designers call “reverse space”.
Adjacent to the retail area, a series of dining booths designed to resemble retro travel pods further convey the idea of a culinary journey. Swathed in vibrant blue hues and featuring yellow trays, the booths also add a convivial note to the otherwise antiseptic sensibility, as well as make the culinary journey that awaits even more delectable.