June 23, 2022
Snow Peak Welcomes Guests in through the Outdoors
When Snow Peak president Tohru Yamai visited a storefront for lease on Portland’s 23rd Avenue in 2018, he immediately knew this would be the location for the Japanese outdoor retailer’s flagship U.S. store and headquarters. A prominent spot on perhaps the city’s most popular shopping street, the building featured a wall of glass frontage continuing around the corner to the back of the building. Because the first floor was sunken a half-story below street level, there was an interior a mezzanine upstairs for the company’s offices with a view down to the retail space.
To the design team from Portland’s Skylab Architecture, however, this circa-1987 building came with inherent challenges. The sunken first floor could seem cut off from the street, and to the north of the space, away from the wall of glass beneath the mezzanine, a low ceiling made the already dark space feel cave-like. When Skylab lead designer Reiko Igarashi visited the kitchen supply store still occupying the space over the holidays, its cramped aisles were packed with shoppers, “It was just chaos,” she recalls with a laugh. “I was like, ‘How can this space work?’” Yet the unusual configuration eventually became an asset. “What at first seemed like limitations,” she adds, “became drivers of the design.”
With a flagship retail outlet, American headquarters, and a restaurant occupying this four-story building’s first two floors, the variety of spaces was ideal. The sunken first floor makes the shop feel like its own world as you descend, and the mezzanine, covering half the first floor, creates multi-story volume in the front of the space. The mezzanine, looking down over half the ground floor, also meant Snow Peak staff (whose offices continue on the second floor) could be visually connected to the retail experience below. And because the ground-floor glass wall continued down the south facade, it created a striking space in the rear of the building for a restaurant and covered outdoor dining area. It could also double as product demonstration space, something that particularly attracted company executives.
At Snow Peak’s global headquarters in Niigata, “we operate our own campsite on the same property,” explains the company’s brand-engagement manager, Michael O. Andersen. “Our research and development team can take new designs outside and get feedback from customers immediately. This adjacency drives a lot of what we do, so it only made sense to continue that in Portland.”
To begin the process, Skylab and its client created a slogan that could inform the design: “Let’s dwell outdoors together.” The idea was to take advantage of the Pacific Northwest’s natural beauty as much as the company’s origins across the Pacific. “They were clear that this isn’t Japan in Portland. This is about Japan and America coming together,” Igarashi explains. “It was important not to take the influence of the Pacific Northwest specifically and bring that into the design.”
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The retail space, where customers are first greeted by a large mural of founder Yukio Yamai (who found solace in mountaineering after World War II) is defined by century-old Douglas Fir beams that were milled and stacked into a unique wall retail fixture system. “They’re stacked very precisely, but they’re also a reference to the language of Japanese woodworking,” the designer says.” The team added river rock and dark stained wood floors to create the sensation of being on the forest floor. “Then as you go toward the second level,” Igarashi says, “it’s about getting closer to the sky, getting lighter.”
The restaurant, Takibi (which means bonfire in Japanese), blends humble and refined touches. Walls are clad mostly in simple plywood, and the brightness of the glass wall is softened by boxing in its upper portions, to mimic the low-hanging eaves of traditional Japanese architecture.
The earth-toned fabrics of the booths and banquettes soften the restaurant’s wooden forms and become a neutral vessel allowing the design to focus on the open kitchen. There, activity revolves around a wood fired oven set against a backdrop of tile reclaimed from inside the kilns of Heath Ceramics.
The restaurant’s soft color tones also allow the colorful Snow Peak cutlery to stand out. “You don’t really notice it off the bat, but they do a lot of fun, bright, anodized colors. So one of the early inspirations was this calm palette with a brilliant pink anodized spork sitting on the table,” Igarashi says, “We took a lot of cues from their product: their aesthetic of being very simple. Nothing is extraneous. Every move that they make for in their products is there for a reason. But it also becomes an aesthetic in itself.”
The covered outdoor space was a late addition. “It just became so clear that they needed an outdoor space, where they can pitch a tent, set up a camp stove, and eat some good food around the fire,” Igarashi says. Of course, adding the covered pavilion became an even smarter decision with social distancing rules during the pandemic, and has helped Takibi to continue to welcome guests. Yet the design of Snow Peak’s combined store, offices, and restaurant were always about a larger idea.
“We look at ourselves as a gathering company,” Andersen says. “It’s really a place where we think people can come together, often around a fire, often around good food for a comfortable experience that’s grounded in nature and allows people to have more genuine connection with one another. That sense of community informs all that we do, whether it’s the way we design at our spaces or how our products are designed: as vessels to create connections.”
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