Here comes Wonderwall

Nov 12, 2010
  • Article by Gillian Serisier
  • Photography by Kozo Takayama
  • Designer Wonderwall

Since its establishment in 2000, Wonderwall Inc. has become the face of contemporary Japanese retail design. Essentially the work of Masamichi Katayama, Wonderwall has expanded over the past 10 years to incorporate architectural design as well as product design. However it is his in-store work that has been most striking. So striking in fact that an architectural tour of Tokyo can be arranged that visits only stores with a Wonderwall interior and takes the visitor from the Nike Flagship store through Marc Jacobs, Uniqlo, Pass the Baton, Bathing Ape, We, B&B Italia, Dean & Deluca, and so on. His most recent, and as of yet unrevealed design, has been for Sydney’s Westfield, slated to open later this year.

The most apparent and distinguishing characteristic of the Wonder- wall aesthetic is its immersive quality that far outweighs slim notions of paint and cabinetry. On the contrary, Katayama and collaborators provide a physically and emotionally engaged encounter, incorporating all aspects of the experience from fit-out and practical aspects through packaging, music, uniforms, lighting, logo, furnishings, signature and general ambience. This pursuit beyond presentation of goods is aligned with his thoughts on general trends in interior design of the last 10 years, which he sees as “becoming a more organic thing.” To this end, and certainly in keeping with the experiential nature of his designs, he feels “there is a great possibility that no-design could be recognized as design. In other words, it would become like music or scents, which can be communicated without form, so concept could be function or phenomenon.”

The Soho Community 2010, comprising apartments. The Lobby Lounge, The Canteen and The Bar, make an interesting case for his exploration of phenomena and function, where every aspect has been orchestrated by Katayama towards an aesthetic experience, though not necessarily designed by him alone. “These days, I am asked to be involved in the project from the very early stage, such as advising on the suitable location and casting the creators from different fields,” says Katayama – who has essentially assumed the role traditionally occupied by the architect and developer of ensuring product cohesion. He is however, also fostering an integrated position based on his own design acumen. “Since I am starting to do areas of creative direction, or like a producer might work, I hope to be involved in the project more dynamically,” he says. The orchestration of the Soho project allowed Katayama to direct areas as finite as ‘Book Direction’ by appointing appropriate individuals, in this case Yoshitaka Haba from Bach ltd. Areas such as music production (Hiroshi Fujiwara), Uniform Design (Yoco Morimoto), Logo (Groovisions), Branding Produce (Sadahiro Nakamura – Transit General Office) and Hospitality Management (Hikaru Patrick Okada) were also optimised through specialised expertise.

Another constant through the Wonderwall oeuvre is whimsy, and a sense of playfulness firmly rooted in the brand identity. These departures from function operate as visual adjectives to the store’s offerings and are most decidedly not a last minute folly: “I am not trying to create eccentric form at all; I am just trying to communicate who they [the client] are through space,” says Katayama. This is an interesting tactic and something that has only started to appear outside Japan recently. The speaker wall in the Lenny Wong designed Via Alley, Sydney, is one such example that creates a sense of enjoyment, appropriate to the Via Alley product line and clientele. In Tokyo, The Bathing Ape stores, (Bape) exemplify this position masterfully with amusing figures perched on impossible walls at various junctures, the sole purpose of which is to amuse, but in a fashion that is specific to the psyche of the clientele and brand.

Though Wonderwall was officially founded in 2000, Katayama’s 1999 design for Bape Exclusive, Aoyama remains a solid embodiment of the Wonderwall style and should be considered the starting point of Wonderwall, and Katayama’s break from his previous firm, H. Design Associates (1990-99). Playing with what Katayama describes as a mischievous idea, Bape Exclusive was fashioned in a space whose function more closely aligned to that of a delicatessen. The predominantly white T-shirts were placed in racks at slight angles while the remainder were neatly folded below glass in steel display cases. The store as a whole was excessively light with the logo limited to large mosaics set within an overall mosaic tiled floor. In effect, the design was stark but stage-like in its approach to the clothing and clientele, an aspect that has remained despite the store being redesigned.

The Bape stores have been a constant with Wonderwall and a survey of their design evolution paradoxically reveals a continuous Bape signature without a standard or repetitive style. This is in keeping with the Wonderwall aesthetic that has never stayed still or been more pronounced than the brand it is supporting: “From the beginning of my career, I have not changed my style or method of thinking, which is to share the client’s vision and express the brand itself with the space,” says Katayama. In 2008 the Bape Harajuku store embraced colour with a ceiling in the Bape camouflage delineating retail zones: blue for boys; pink for girls. The lower portion of the store is themed in ironic, mid-century, middle-American tropes further lampooned by their cartoon like appearance. The upper floor also played nicely with whimsy through the melding of pared-back minimal style with motifs of tiki modern. Across town in Karuizawa, the Bathing Ape Pirate Store, another 2008 project, delights us with wood grain patterns and seafaring motifs. Treasure boxes function as display cabinets and the idea of the customer experience is fully realised with an outer shell designed to resemble a ship’s hull. “It is important to communicate its brand as part of their branding strategy. On top of that, I want consumers to have a delightful time, enjoy shopping as an entertainment and experience a great shopping experience that touches their curiosity,” says Katayama. More recently, the Bape camouflage logo has been expanded to a wall of neon within an otherwise bare interior of concrete and glass. This 2009 design resembles the 1999 store for pared-back, hard-edge design, and similarly boasts an interior more suited to cold-cuts than designer shorts. Again, the emphasis is on the culture and the brightly coloured clothes Bape customers buy. It’s works well within the fastidious neatness.

The Nike flagship store in Harajuku is Nike’s largest in Japan, and almost mind-boggling. One of the very few Wonderwall signatures is a chandelier of product appropriate material. For Pass the Buck a chandelier of teacups sits centre stage, while for Nike an enormous cascade of white sandshoes dangles over the staircase void. The level of detail in any of these interiors is not only extremely well executed, but just as well considered with themes explored beyond cliche. “What I am trying to do is explore how I could show things differently or freshly by using people’s subconscious. The most important thing is for these presentations to well matched to the brand concept. Eccentric design would not be valid unless there is special reason to do so,” says Katayama. To this end, the wooden floor has been inlayed with the grey stripes of a race-track, while Astro Turf forms the equivalent of a lap lane along the display wall. The same turf has been used inside display cabinets for a somewhat insouciant effect that is unexpectedly masculine. Central to this room is a round floor-to-ceiling display case of uniformly akimbo mannequins in full sporting regalia. Walls of rubber, boasting the texture of shoe soles have been created as display units, while gold soccer studs have been utilised for logo signage. In a particularly cheeky execution of the Nike ‘Just Do It’ slogan, a glass encased wall of shoe forms has been written across in bright orange.

New York brand, Dean & Deluca, has had the Wonderwall treatment for its Roppongi cafe, and while it may retain the brand signature, it has also been given a decidedly Japanese edge. This is largely due to the meticulous detail of its repetitions of tiling, angle and light. Fundamentally the cafe is recognisable as a Dean & Deluca, but honed to the essentials through scrupulous attention to quality. This mode of response has also been applied to the B&B Italia and Marc Jacobs stores, each of which, having a strong branding aesthetic, have benefited from a minimal design response with maximum at- tention to detail. B&B Italia is particularly pleasing as each floor is only subtly different, while the whole has an utterly pronounced demeanour of luxury.

Looking forward, Katayama envisages a shift in the role for interior designers to one of increased inclusivity, working from project inception and then continuously through the life of the undertaking: “we will be required to have the ability to give direction or become producers on an entire project, and to expand our possibility on design.” He also feels that the advent of the internet has expanded the realm of each designer allowing them to be appointed to projects far more precisely: “each designer will be specialized in their own field of specialty more and more….if you have this kind of ability, you will be able to work worldwide since the world is becoming smaller.”

The choice of Wonderwall by Westfield Sydney came off the back of the design competition that saw John Wardle Architects take on this ambitious project. Essentially Westfield required a design company that would challenge the group’s thinking and methodologies, while bringing sufficient experience to execute a range of functional design requirements. Wonderwall were chosen for their existing iconic designs, but also for their thinking and ability to understand brand equity, heroic merchandising and clever materiality: “Wonderwall has provided a design that takes our briefing literally and yet maintains a purity of original thought that is directly related to consumer desires and retailer demands,” says Frank Alvarez, Principal Designer – Concepts, Westfield Design & Construction Pty. Ltd.

Part of the Wonderwall charm is the fact that the impressions these designs make are all individual, and achieved without the hallmark of the designer overshadowing the primary brand. This has been achieved through Katayama’s philosophy of immersive experiential design, perhaps com- pounded by his own immersion in the projects he decides to undertake. In a field often besieged by self-parody, Katayama’s stance has proven a sound means to evolution in contemporary design, and will continue to be a design phenomenon of exceptional merit.


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