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Kings of the Road

Retail Interiors, February 2000

by Jo Young

'The Harley Davidson dealership in Chelsea has been in the Warr family since the 1920s. The current owner felt that it was time for a makeover for the oldest dealership in Europe and, on a site off the King's Road, where once there was just a tin-roofed workshop, stands a bright, modern showroom. The space combines retail design, visual merchandising, display ideas and technical innovation.'

'Most companies would kill for the kind of brand endorsement enjoyed by Harley Davidson Motorcycles. Nobody is likely to get 'C&A' tattooed on their back, after all. Harley enjoys the sort of loyalty and recognition that - in retailing at least - is contested by only a handful of sportswear brands. Since the launch of its clothing, fragrance and you-name-it ranges - Harley Davidson has also become a considerable retailing force.

'The change in the Harley Davidson Chelsea site, though perhaps not as dramatic as the image metamorphosis experienced by the legendary motorbike manufacturer itself in recent decades, is nevertheless a remarkable one. Established in 1924, by the grandfather of the current owner, John Warr, the showroom is renowned among Harley fans and is the oldest dealership in Europe. Just like the typical Harley biker who these days is more at home in a Paul Smith suit than greased-up leathers, the King's Road location - surely the bastion of 'new', professional biking culture - has been transformed.

'Through the design ideas of Cullum and Nightingale and a team of builders, shopfitters and manufacturers, an impressive glazed-fronted building has been erected in a space that was previously empty but for the existing workshop: otherwise known as a large, corrugated metal shed.

'The original plans for the building were more ambitious than the final result: foundations are in place to support a four-storey 'egg' shaped building, comprising the showroom, a new workshop as well as flats and offices to finance the whole project. The construction of the complete building as intended is on hold pending planning permission, so for the moment, the showroom is a self-sufficient operation.

'To a certain extent, the 'raw' appearance of the building's interior disguises the fact that this is a highly sophisticated, meticulously planned structure; from the sleek, simple fixtures right down to the environmentally-sound heating and ventilation system. It is nicely contradictory: a well executed and highly wrought construction, that is essentially quite basic and raw - not unlike a Harley Davidson motorbike.

'This parallel between showroom and product was, at least in part, deliberate. Although much of the structure is exposed for environmental stability, the materials used are of a high quality and are expertly finished: for evidence see the the solid walnut counter that acts as a focal point for the retail end of the interior space. Throughout, bike elements are picked out within the display equipment.

'The visual merchandising exploits the architectural sweep of the building, with the machines hugging the perimeter, leaving the central space open. Indeed, the design was conceived with the specific purpose of glorifying John Warr's beloved machines. Ceiling supports enable the bikes to be suspended from above, while photos and logos reinforce a lifestyle message which continues into the retail areas.

'The old workshop still stands and is incorporated into the new building. the difference is that, as has come to be expected by consumers of any brand taking its place in the multi-layered retail environment, the new showroom is more customer-focused and has a lot more to offer. The shape of the building is designed to lead customers naturally from the central section to the retail area. These days, bike owners can sit and have a coffee, listen to music or browse through the merchandise while waiting for their bikes to be services. Less motor oil, more cafe latte.

'The new showroom still celebrates the joy of the two wheeled machine, but injects entertainment into the retail mix. The engine workshop wall feature display windows that are meant to look a little like an art gallery's. The idea is to give bike parts more value than expected, in recognition of the specialist interests of Harley enthusiasts.

'The showroom has already proved popular with Harley Davidson afficiandos and new converts alike. According to John Warr, it is the job of one employee to clean the fingerprints of nearby public house patrons from the street length windows every Saturday morning. You can't ask for greater approval than that.' Jo Young.

Architecture and design

Richard Nightingale: "Before this project, our previous retail job was designing a showroom for Graff Diamonds on Bond Street, which could hardly be more different. It was wrapped in gold leaf!

"Initally we designed a much larger building than was actually built. The oval shape was chosen partly because of the site - to make the most of the perimeter in terms of display - and partly to create a distinctive building. The resultant structure fits the pavement curve, but also gives maximum perimeter visibility from the King's Road. Planning permission was not given for the original plan. What this meant was that the old workshop had to be kept for the time being. In a way, it wouldn't be a disaster if the next phase wasn't completed, but you can see that there's potential for a full 'oval'.

"A dramatic space was needed to show off the bikes. To that end, the whole project was designed around the showroom, which is very tall in volume and adds presence. Our intention was to create a robust, unadorned and straightforward building that - by using basic materials handled in a sophisicated way - will provide an appropriate backdrop for the bikes.

"The designs were not consciously tied in with the motorcycles and machinery, but we did feel it important that the interior was in sympahthy with the 'product'. We did think about the bikes while thinking of design. Obviously, we are influenced by what we're designing for, and recognise the relationship between the design and materials and what's being displayed.

"The cantilevered counter, for example, is in itself a feat of engineering, and the chrome fins beneath the counter top give the visual impression of a bike engine.

"The ceiling is designed to suspend bikes from, with fixing mechanisms installed that carry the weight. Ultimately the entire showroom space can be used for display."

Richard Nightingale is from architect Cullum and Nightingale.

Client

John Warr: "I would be the first to admit that my customers don't exactly fit the traditional biker profile. For most of them, Harleys are a weekend hobby to be fitted in around playing with the kids and washing the car. The new showroom is ideal for the people I cater for, because it doesn't conform to cliche and also appeals to a new kind of customer. So many people say to me that they'd love to buy a Harley but for one reason or another, they don't give it serious thought. In this place, where they can browse around, have a cup of coffee, look at stuff on the walls, the product has become more accessible.

"Because there is a generous amount of space in the showroom, it houses an unusually wide variety of bikes. We were visited by a couple of American Harley fans - some make a point of going to a Harley showroom in every country they visit - where they insisted this was the best bike selection they had ever seen...I was quite proud."

John Warr is managing director of the Warrs Dealership.

Retail Systems

Julian Brafman: "We supplied the retail systems for the perimeter and the midfloor units, as well the counter metalwork. We also did the lighting on the perimeter area; because the building has such high ceilings, there was some concern that the clothing would not be lit properly. Our intergrated low voltage lighting system was used to light the wall displays - the merchandise in other words - rather than the ceiling lights that were six metres up and too far away to provide the spotlighting needed.

"We made two kinds of perimeter systems. On one wall was a post-based system, in the service area behind the counter desks. On the opposite wall we installed an integrated panel system, to change the emphasis slightly in the 'working' and the 'retail' sections. The lighting system in each is also different.

"In addition, we made recessed alcoves for bike parts: something for the enthusiasts! The important thing for the client was that, because of the eliptical design, rather than screaming out 'this is Peerless', our product fits the concept discreetly."

Julian Brafman is sales director at Peerless Designs.

Lighting

Nigel Hawkes: "The showroom was ideal for high bay luminaires for general background lighting. Fully enclosed glass diffuser type pendants were chosen to give some upward light onto the architectural ceiling. We used 150W ceramic metal discharge lamps (CDM) for their good colour rendering. Some luminaires have additional standby lamps to give light while the main discharge lamps are warming up.

"Track mounted spotlights were installed on three-circuit suspended track, to give flexibility and to complement the clean lines of the wave form exposed ceiling. The upper showroom combines narrow beam recessed downlighters with blue fluorescent display lighting. Display units in the showroom are lit with low voltage dichroic lamps. All the power and data sockets are contained under the raised wooden block flooring."

Nigel Hawkes is a lighting specialist at Fulcrum

Main pendant luminaires supplied by: Holophane
Spotlights, track and downlighters supplied by: Concord
Display lighting supplied by: Peerless Designs

Merchandising displays

Deyan Yovichevich: "We completed the previous shop in King's Road, and so the owner John Warr recommended us to the contractor. We produced the counters, the fitted joinery and did the cabinet making for the showroom, including the glass back wall shelving. We also made the staircases, so, quite a lot of what you see is ours, really!

"The main 'boat' counter is made from American black walnut. It followed the architect's drawings, in which it was all curves and quite complicated.

"It was made completely out of solids - jointed strips so it won't crack or split - after having calculated how much weight the counter could take. It weighs about 300, 350 kilos and so there is a reinforced metal substructure under the floor that's bolted to metal inside the counter. The cantilevered edge can take up to 170 kilos in weight."

Deyan Yovichevich is managing director of BATA

Heating & ventilation

Eben Simmons: "As a general practise, Fulcrum always uses energy saving, high insulation systems above building regulations. The company's ethos is one of green design. The system used here was an energy-saving system and so a cost effective one as well.

"We fitted a displacement vent system. With it, instead of air conditioning the whole room, you simply cool the area where people walk. To heat or air condition the whole room in such a large area would have been extremely costly. Basically, you supply air at a low velocity, just slightly colder than the room temperature and ir creates a 'cushion' of air which you supply locally to the occupants.

"We also retained as much of the uncovered structural surfaces as possible, to give a better exchange of energy across surfaces. Both these measures serve to cut down energy usage quite dramatically. We used an alternative system on the upper floors and installed sensors on the windows; this means that the system is flexible to use since an unopened window would cause the air handling plant for that room to close down - preventing energy wastage.

"Our need to place drum diffusers around the showroom itself was an influence on its design. The design of the main counter incorporates the air conditioning system; we have air supply ducts rising up inside and spilling air out in front. It's an unusually integrated feature in that respect.

"The other important advantage to the system is that it is healthier. It uses no recycled air, unlike standard ceilin grills, which circulate air so it feels right but the air quality is low. This system runs on 100% fresh air."

Eben Simmons is a ventilation specialist at Fulcrum

Displacement units supplied by: Halton Products
Radiators supplied by: Hudevad Britain.'