Monolab is a Japanese speciality homeware store designed by Nexus Designs to create a distinctive retail experience for customers. Located in Melbourne’s upmarket South Yarra, Monolab showcases ‘Japanese Hand Made’ household products imported from 12 regions in Japan. Based on the design brief from their client, Loft Alpha that called for a classy retail environment, the interior designers conceptualised a space that sets the scene and stage for both the products and their origins.

Instead of going down the familiar retail design path of noise, distraction and visual riot, Nexus has reined in materials, colour and complexity to one of assured authenticity.

The gallery-like design outcome highlights natural timbers and monochrome materials with Viridian’s ScalaMirage – a geometric black glass etched with grey rain pattern – providing a durable yet delicate backdrop to showcase an assortment of high-end crafts. Nexus chose ScalaMirage for its ability to mirror important elements of the Japanese landscape. The black backing allows light to reflect and shine like a mirror.

Monolab’s 127-square-metre store is divided into three zones, each defined by its own circulation area. The first is the ‘active zone’ focused on traditional Furoshiki wrapping and children’s items, set on two four-metre-long benches. The second is the high-end gallery zone for the handmade brands individually defined on five separate timber plinths.

The third zone is defined by traditional hanging fabric panels dropping down the centre of the store to create interest as well as a visual divide between the two main retail sectors. These screens contrast with the 'lab' ceiling of the exposed services, which is deliberately left unfinished. The central area has the point-of-sale counter and the feature product cube.

Nexus Designs' lead designer for the project, Lucy Marczyk, spoke with Peter Hyatt about a design where restraint helps achieve the wow factor.

Did you approach the store design with a half-formulated idea?

Everything in the store is unique and handcrafted and really made with love. It was about ensuring each item is represented individually and very specially. The rain glass pattern really highlights those special products. When the store introduces new products into its range, they’re showcased on that glass for their exclusivity. Japan produces some of the most innovative, whimsical and beautiful homewares in the world and that's where we really saw the rain glass as this whimsical take on Japanese landscape design.

Other than storefronts and display cases, glass is rarely this prominent in retail fit-out.

It allowed us to reveal and remind visitors once inside the store of the Japanese landscape. Glass elements here are of a large scale. They are sculptural elements made possible by such a special material. Rather than seeing glass as secondary to timber, we wanted it to be just as strong. The scale really allowed the glass to have its own special personality and very subtly talk about Japanese design and Japanese high-end fashion.

Was there a key project challenge?

We were really responding to a couple of elements. One was Monolab’s products and how we displayed them in the very best way. This project is really a journey about working with the clients and how we could help their products achieve a great response. A lot of the products have history and a story with interesting techniques of manufacturing and it was really about describing those 4 manufacturing techniques that we thought would be most interesting to the clients in South Yarra.

How did the Japanese design influence your approach?

We wanted to incorporate typical Japanese design principles of simplicity and minimal use of materials. The striking etched glass idea instantly grabbed our imagination as representing the natural element of water, which is so important in Japanese landscape design.

How important is it to understand the design need and to ask the right questions?

Yes, absolutely. When we were working in the project it was really about looking at typical Japanese elements in design and then looking back to our own philosophy and how those two were really quite a lot more aligned than I probably thought when we started. We kept to a restrained material and colour palettes of glass, timber, white and black.

The connecting design overlay and simplified material palette performs a background role that permits the products to star.

We divided the store into three main zones. There are two zones on the left and the right using timber veneer and centrally, black mirrored glass. There is a range of products and one of those is Japanese handbags and each of those 12 different suppliers comes from different areas and different regions in Japan.

Is a type of miniaturised ‘town-plan’ required in the way the whole store is designed and operated?

You’re right in that there are clearly defined circulation zones and ‘assembly points’ that hopefully reward the visitor. The store is defined by a series of individual presentations and retail offerings. This is achieved by elevating and showcasing products on a series of glass and timber display ‘islands’. There are timber elements on either side with central glass elements that form a pretty heroic monochrome backdrop.

How complicated is it to create visual and functional cohesion?

It is quite a large store. The test was to create retail excitement in that space by incorporating traditional Japanese inspired elements. We used minimal materials and a fit-out that felt contemporary and high-end. There is a quiet subtlety to most Japanese design and so we selected materials consistent with that; materials which felt high-end and reflected the quality of the store’s handmade, handcrafted products.

Can you explain a little more about bringing the interiors to life?

We wanted to provide scale to the display units and visually link the three separate retail zones. We wanted the various plinths to be seen as something really special. We wanted to express this store in a way that resembled and felt like a gallery space and high-end retail store. We definitely played around with scale and things like reflectivity.

Your use of glass on counters and displays areas in this context is quite enriching.

When we were looking through our sample library, we looked into the glass section and thought, ‘okay, that's shiny and a bit nice’. Looking through Viridian’s etched glass range, we discovered their rain pattern. This instantly grabbed our imagination. It speaks of a traditional Japanese landscape element of water, or rain.

Once on that, we started to play around with the glass sample, which was clear. It had this beautiful, linear rain pattern running through it. We experimented with paint samples and put those behind to resemble colour-back glass. With black paint behind it, the linear rain pattern became even clearer.

We sent our sample off to Viridian who were prepared to make up a sample for us. When we first saw the sample it really said ‘Issey Miyake’. It had this reference to a high fashion Japanese designer and added to the story of what we were working with, so it felt like just the right material to use.

How else does black glass contribute to the in-store experience?

We used the black backed glass because it reflected quite beautifully and it felt stylish and formal. The existing floor was actually black and we were trying to avoid replacing it when it was already in good condition. These black glass sculptural elements felt so much like Issey Miyake, as landscape and water elements and this really grew out of the black flooring.

Does the black rain pattern deliver anything else?

A material like glass really reiterates that idea that this is a lab. The glass is a little bit technical. It has a linear pattern through it. It does look like it's easy to clean, just like you would have in a lab, but it's a retail store. The main materials we used in the store were timber and glass. The timber really gave the feeling of the handmade, crafted with softness and warmth while glass added that layer of the technical, hygienic and slick. It was really a lab feeling we tried to create for this store.

Are there design elements unique to this kind of store?

We didn't want to scare people away who might not necessarily be looking for items made in Japan. It is really offering a retail experience. The products are grouped by regions and recognize certain specialised skills – paper, metal, china etc. On one hand we wanted to create calm and stillness, but at the same time, with a retail space you want buzz, excitement and visual interest.

Text, Images & Film: Peter & Jenny Hyatt