In the field of business theory, it’s pretty much a truth universally acknowledged that hiring multiple people to do the job of one makes little financial, managerial, or practical sense. Knoxville-based architectural firm Studio Four Design (S4D) embraced this idea in its own way when it formed in 2002 in the wake of post-9/11 economic upheaval, combining the components of building design—architecture, interior design, master planning, and LEED expertise—with an unlikely yet related field: graphic design.
“We recognized the importance of shifting away from traditional corporate environments and toward being obsessively focused on serving the needs of our clients,” says Greg Terry, a designer and partner among the firm’s current staff of 13. “My partners and I believed we had complementary strengths unique enough to create a company that combines multiple design disciplines within a single firm.”
This approach is most apparent in S4D’s work for nascent clothing retailer Altar’d State. Thanks to its array of capabilities, the design firm has been able to coordinate with the small chain since its founding in 2009, not only helping Altar’d State build and open a total of 17 locations in 10 different states so far but also working to craft the particulars of the retailer’s brand image from the outset. “We’ve been with Altar’d State since day one,” Terry says. “When projects like this come along, they create a great blend of challenge, opportunity, and exposure, and it works really well with our goal to become a trusted advisor.”
Altar’d State, headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee, was founded by retail veterans Aaron Walters and Brian Mason, whose backgrounds included work with Kohl’s, Macy’s, Goody’s, and other giants. The brand itself is distinct from those of other independent clothing stores and specifically reaches out to a faith-based niche market. The clothier also participates in myriad direct philanthropic efforts to complement its fundamentally commercial endeavour, including funded employee community-volunteer hours for a program called ‘Mission Mondays,’ which relegates 10 percent of Monday profits to service for local charities, and retail partnerships with charity-oriented brands such as TOMS, FEED, and Jedidiah.
“We’ve been with Altar’d State since day one,” Terry says. “When projects like this come along, they create a great blend of challenge, opportunity, and exposure, and it works really well with our goal to become a trusted advisor.”
Greg Terry, Partner
“When Altar’d State started to seek architectural partners, it was a start-up, with all of the limited finances and infinite visions associated with most new companies,” Terry says. “However, rather than just hiring a big-name retail designer, Altar’d State wanted to find a partner with a unique perspective and a shared passion for design that they could grow with—and that could grow with them. They chose us.” Since then, S4D has collaborated with Altar’d State to help develop numerous elements for its brand, from its logo, tagline, and business cards to its store prototypes, exterior concepts, and in-store environments.
Because all the current Altar’d State locations are infills, every store is unique and presents its own criteria to be responded to or resolved. “Our prototype design for their store is based on achieving a memorable and authentic feel,” Terry says. “Down to the last detail, our goal is to create customer delight. The key is to develop a long-term design approach that supports their core values and creates brand loyalty but that can also adapt to seasonal trends in the market. We have some elements of the stores that have been consistent from the beginning, but there are materials and features that will continue to evolve as needed.”
Altar’d State’s look—much like those of Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie—is intentionally low-tech, both functional and affordable. The store’s curved walls, wrapped with unfinished Luaun panels, separate various product zones and frame the flat gypsum-board merchandise walls, which themselves are outfitted with a grid of piping, flanges, and plywood shelving. Reclaimed wood, textured wall coverings, and plush touch points introduce a feminine quality to an otherwise neutral backdrop, and shipping pallets and specialty lighting hang strategically from the ceilings to highlight featured areas. Arguably the most memorable and consistent feature in each store is a hanging, backlit decorative element composed of thousands of glass marbles; it’s a modern abstraction of the stained glass window, and, to date, nearly 1.5 million marbles have been used for the jewel-like features.
The mostly ascetic design choices correspond to Altar’d State’s “give back” mission and product offerings. By using natural materials and simple textures in unexpected ways and complementing them with a soft, industrial palette, S4D has helped Altar’d State build a series of stores that are modest in their budgets and materials but definitive in their style. “As a relationship between the four main services we offer—planning, graphics, architecture and interiors, and consulting—our partnership with Altar’d State is a textbook example of the successful outcome from our approach to design,” Terry says.
S4D has completed a variety of other projects in the Knoxville area, including the sustainable relocation and expansion of the Three Rivers Market food co-op and the renovation of the Thompson-Boling Arena at the University of Tennessee. However, the boutique firm’s work for Altar’d State has opened it up to a larger network of potential clientele, so it looks forward to pursuing new work on expanded fronts. “We’ve done one-off projects for clients in other regions,” Terry says, “but Altar’d State has really helped us showcase our own brand by doing projects in multiple states.” ABQ