|A place to dwell
Posted Date: 15/01/2013
By Robert Stockdill
No-one in their right mind would open a 2000sqm bookstore in today’s market. Or would they?
Fangsuo Commune is a groundbreaking concept in Guangzhou, China, blending a bookstore with a gallery, cafe, fashion and homewares.
By design it’s a place to be. As much a gallery as a retail store, its interior architecture, curated exhibits and merchandise encourage people - Chinese locals, expatriates, and tourists alike - to visit, be entertained and inspired, as much as to shop.
Quite how that converts into bottom line profitability is not clear - but it must work because a second store is now in final planning stages, this one in the capital, Beijing.
Fangsuo Commune creates a statement from first sight.
Rather than an entrance, the store has a ‘gate’ made from black iron and natural timber.
The wood comes from one tree, which when felled was more than 10m tall. It’s imposing, yet alluring at the same time, and walking through the gate gives one the sense of entering another world, somewhere unique and special. Which it is.
Behind the cashier’s desk, built from a recycled timber railway sleeper, stands a wall constructed from three tons of brass with a bevelled line sloping right to left through the centre.
Beyond this, the visitor is drawn into a reading gallery, three metres tall and more than 100m long; a tunnel with books shelved to the ceiling on either side. A display table in the centre can be moved to accommodate cultural events and readings.
Another large, more square room houses books for children and is decorated with angel’s wings and a tree house wrapped and filled with cotton, hanging from the roof, centreplace. It serves no purpose other than to provide a focal point and break the studiousness of a book store display.
There are no books in ‘Exception de Mixmind’ a curated space where fashion is sold from racks lining curved bamboo walls.
The space features living plants in giant ceramic vases and antique travel chests, reminiscent of China’s colonial era, as visual props. And more natural timber. A curtain can be drawn to shroud the entire space creating a theatre stage effect for functions.
Curved low-rise timber walls frame a cafe area with wooden tables and chairs.
Adjacent is a Y’s for Living concession featuring clothing, accessories and bedding from Japanese fashion master, Yohji Yamamoto, who now has five stores in China. It’s displayed on rough recycled timber planked floors, lit by oversized factory lamps.
In the Living Collection area, Fangsuo selects and assembles “exquisite living” collections from all over the world, from handmade works of century-old shops to creative products of new edge design brands, all of which derive from the spirit of young and senior world-famous designers”.
Here you’ll find whacky zebra-patterned canvas shoes, china teapots, miso soup bowls, candles, trinket boxes, exclusive stationery, ornaments, vases, toys and accessories; an eclectic collection from more than 40 international suppliers, half on sale for the first time in China.
You can also buy miniature house plants, carefully gown in tiny pots made from recycled materials such as paper, copper, bamboo and stone, a deliberate homage to handicraft in an increasingly production-line supplied world.
Fangsuo Gallery showcases works from designers, photographers, fashionistas and craftspeople, frequently changing to encourage people to return to the store.
After all of the above, it is easy to forget this destination is primarily a bookstore. It is by no means all books for all people: the focus is on art, design and literature.
Fangsuo selects the best books from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and mixes it up with foreign books to create what it describes as “diversity and richness”.
You’ll still find best sellers like the Steve Jobs’ biography, but you’ll also find rare releases and glossy design books with limited print runs.
Fangsuo is a combination of two words: Fang means 10 squares of the world, namely countless worlds, while Suo means “at present”; here and now.
“Fangsuo Commune expresses the Oriental human spirit. It is a place for those who go for culture and life to find their sense of belonging,” the company explains in its concept brief.
“It aims to promote and enrich the culture of Guangzhou to make a contribution to Chinese culture. When people come to Fangsuo they can feel freedom and joy. This is the meaning of ‘always dwell, forever and ever’.”
The company explains that visitors can sense the atmosphere from the gate.
“People can feel the unique, profound, and broad (atmosphere) of Fangsuo. Enter the store, people slow down their steps through sensory experiences, such as warm and quiet tone, music, and coffee aroma. As a customer says, ‘When walking into Fangsuo, I feel the quietness suddenly’.”
The focus on creating a destination is clear in the company’s philosophy.
“In Guangzhou, you can go to a place, drink coffee and pick books, while enjoying the home furnishing art, and play with beautiful plants. You can listen to a lecture, pick up a few pieces of clothes while the children indulge in reading.
Many customers touch the furniture, the walls; smell the wood. Some customers even sit next to the tree house for several hours. One day, a couple of customers came to Fangsuo with a beautiful doily and spent their afternoon tea time there.”
It sounds like artspace meets Apple store: the ultimate place to hang out.
There is an overwhelming sense of attention to detail evident in every part of his store, from the ambitious use of brass, natural and recycled timber - not just in walls, floors and furniture, but in drawer handles.
Everything in the store is made from wood, copper, iron, bamboo, paper, cloth, stones, and other natural materials.
The detail extends to the growing of dozens of orchids on pillars, through to handmade pottery mugs in the cafe.
Coffee beans are sourced from Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa. Even the menu is specially designed, with the names of coffees, teas and cakes connected by poems.
Poetry has a special place at Fangsuo - every morning the staff assemble to read poems; there are poems written in Chinese characters on their uniform aprons and poems hanging from banners around the store.
And lastly, there are the environmentally friendly paper shopping bags which are light, tough, and somehow waterproof. Purchase something in this store and you walk out carrying a bag which suggests you’ve been shopping in a fine arts gallery. In a way, you have.
* This feature first appeared in the October/November 2012 edition of Inside Retail Magazine. For more stories like this, subscribe to Inside Retail Magazine's bi-monthly print edition here.