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Koko Black Indooroopilly


Image above, Koko Black Indooroopilly. Image Scott Burrows.

For Ryan Russell and Byron George of Melbourne based international design studio Russell & George, the current state of retail design is all about innovation and evolution. Not designers likely to shy away from a challenge, the self-proclaimed design theorists have stated, “what worked twenty years ago may not necessarily work today. This is potentially one of the most exciting times [to be in retail design] for this very reason.”

This outlook is proving to be a winning one for the duo who recently took out the Dulux Colour Award in the Commercial Interior Workplace and Retail category for their Koko Black Indooroopilly project. Last week following the win, we spoke to Ryan Russell of Russell & George about their recent award-winning project, and the practice of creating originality in an industry often called on to merely “curate or reassemble” the designs of others.

ADR: How did the Koko Black project come to you/your practice?

Ryan Russell: Koko Black founder Shane Hills approached us in late 2013 to design three sites and establish a new direction for their store design in 2014. This was following a talk I gave about The Emporium Melbourne development, as we were designing the 1000 seat Café Court and working on the Retail Design Guidelines at the time.

How involved was the client in the initial conceptual stages and during the design process?

All our clients are heavily involved in this process, especially in this case, as we were also working with Jessie Stanley who was designing and co-ordinating the re-brand, new logo and new packaging concept. Conceptually however, we tend to work in isolation as we find that when a client is heavily involved, especially one that has been in their business for a while, it is important that we create a bit of distance to allow for a new way of looking at things, rather than just moving back to what a client is comfortable and familiar with.


Koko Black Indooroopilly, image courtesy bmag.


What were the key points of inspiration behind the Koko Black fit out, and how are these iterated throughout the design?

For all Koko black sites we’ve completed, we looked to local context for inspiration. For Indooroopilly an abstraction of the Queensland outback was used to create warmth and create an emotional connection. Koko Black is about transporting people’s imagination via chocolate and we wanted the space to provide mental escape and establish a sophisticated engagement with the product.

A few elements of the design stand out, particularly the patterned tiles and mirrored elements. What, in your view, is the most successful element of the project?

We tend to think of design a whole atmosphere and not as a series of bit and pieces. All pieces of the puzzle have to come together to create something poignant. Singling out elements is dangerous in all design but especially in retail and hospitality projects as it is not about putting together a shopping list of items but rather a careful curation of coordinated experiences at a multitude of levels. The successful aspect of the project for us is always about the client and the customer response to the design.


Koko Black, images courtesy KoKo Black


Can you give a little insight into the challenges and highlights of your work?

The challenge has always been balancing a design business and the opportunities it offers with commercial realities and one’s sense of sanity. The highlight is actually getting better at managing the challenges which is often driven by questioning the mechanisms behind whatever design problems or issues are presented. Like design its an evolutionary process that will continue to shift and change throughout my career. If it doesn’t then I know it is probably time to do something else.

Where do you turn for inspiration, and which architects or designers have had the biggest influence on your work?

For inspiration we tend not to look directly at the design industry. Inspiration comes from a variety of sources, a newspaper article, a piece of art, a landscape, a podcast, the structure of conversation or anything really that may trigger an idea or a connection to another idea. Generally, we admire anyone – be it architects and designers, or any profession that as a product of its endeavours, opens the door for critical debate and secondly produces something tangible. Anyone in this industry knows just how hard it can be to get something built.


Aesop Claremont designed by Russell & George, image courtesy Stephen Nicholls.


What excites or frustrates you about the current state of Australian architecture and design?

It’s always an exciting time to do any design work, the frustrating thing at the moment is that design is being confused with curatorial shopping. Design is about creation. What we are finding more and more is that design is being mistaken for an assemblage of other designer’s work or designed pieces to create a lovely image rather than the creation of a dynamic spatial concept.

Aside from the many awards you have won for the practice, what has been the proudest achievement in your career?

The proudest achievement is all about the day to day operation of a design practice and watching a group of interested and intelligent people grow in their careers. Getting design projects built is never a sole exercise, but with a framework of respect, courtesy, professionalism and dignity, it’s amazing what people can achieve, and how much they can grow professionally.

Ryan Russell's pivotal Left boutiqe project

The effortless industrial glamour of Left on Gertrude Street, Fitzroy


What is your favourite project from your own body of work and why?

It will always be my first personal project that I did back in 2006, Left fashion boutique on Gertrude Street, Melbourne. A very unique set of circumstances came together and at the end of the process I managed to find myself running a design business. Read our insightful interview with Ryan Russell about his pivotal Left boutique project here.

What is your favourite space/place in Melbourne or Sydney – is there a spot you wish you had designed?

It’s too hard to have a favourite space or place as each space meets a specific need, want or requirements depending on how one feels at a particular time. I generally don’t wish that I had designed something but rather applaud and acknowledge the designer’s role in a space I may find particularly captivating.

What are you working on currently?

We currently have about 60 projects running at the moment across all major fields of design including multi- residential developments, single houses, some large scale commercial projects along with some in-house projects we have been working on.


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