Thursday, March 28, 2013

Best Products and SITE; The Showrooms, Part 3

My previous post covered the Best Products showroom built by SITE Inc. during what was probably the company’s most profitable period.  The late 70s brought great prosperity to company founders Sydney and Francis Lewis, and they continued to bring art to the masses in the form of SITE’s strange, seemingly precarious showrooms.  Best operated hundreds of stores across America (not all of them were designed by SITE, of course) and they were still working to create the unique “signature showrooms” that made their business legendary in the late 20th century. The 1980s brought some of the most daring designs so far, but also marked the end on an era.  Best started experiencing financial problem in the mid-80s and their collaboration with SITE and architect James Wines effectively ended in 1984 after the construction of the ambitious Inside/Outside Showroom in Milwaukee (see below).  By the start of the 1990s, consumerism in the United States was changing, and the catalog showroom format that Best epitomized in the sixties and seventies was becoming quickly outdated.  By the time a new form of buying goods called on-line shopping emerged in the mid-90s, Best Products was all but done.  They officially closed their doors in 1998, but not before leaving the art world with some truly unique combinations of art and consumerism.  The last three SITE designed showrooms are spotlighted below.

Cutler Ridge Showroom

Built: 1980
Location: 19600 South Dixie Highway
Cutler Ridge, FL 33157

The Cutler Ridge Showroom (built just outside of Miami, not far from SITE’s Rainforest Showroom) continued the theme of deconstruction and precariousness that typified the designs that James Wines provided for Best Products.  Here, the basic Best Products store (we would call it a “big box” today) was separated from its façade, which floated in front of the building.    

Jagged sections from the main façade were further removed, creating a progression from the largest section (which contained the Best Products sign), to the middle section, where the awning over the doors was located, and concluding with three smaller sections that contained operable doors.  Overall, the main sections of the front of the building were each highlighted, and to a certain extent removed from their normal, useful context.  The awning that normally protected shoppers as they entered the store now shielded empty space, and the three sets of entry doors opened onto nothing.  As passers-by traveled past the building, the different section would appear to shift, sometimes seeming disparate, sometimes coming together to form a complete façade.  On a side note, the Cutler Ridge Showroom was the only SITE designed showroom that wasn’t given a title (like the Indeterminate Façade or Peeling Project).

I'm not sure if people actually used the false doors on a regular basis, or if this was set up for a photo shoot.

From certain vantage points, the facade appeared complete.

The fate of the Cutler Ridge Showroom

It was completely torn down and replaced with a new structure.  This made its original location very difficult to find.  When I started researching the Best Products showrooms a few years ago, I found that some of the addresses for the former locations were easy to find on-line, and information was plentiful. Others, like Cutler Ridge, proved a little more elusive, mainly because there’s no longer any physical evidence of its existence (the search for the physical location of these buildings is one of the main things that lead to the creation of this blog in the first place). Only after I found an old architectural rendering of the original site plan was I able to pinpoint its exact location on a map.  The photo below shows that architectural plan laid over the site as it appears today.

The red lines indicate the location of the store as well as the wall sections.

Forest Showroom

Built: 1980
Location: 9008 Quioccasin Road
Richmond, VA 23229

This showroom was the second SITE design to be built in Best Products hometown of Richmond, Virginia (the first was the Peeling Project).  Like Cutler Ridge built shortly before it, the Forest Showroom appeared to have a large chunk removed from the front.  Approaching the building from the road, it looked fairly normal and had the overt appearance of a typical Best Showroom.  But, once a shopper got closer they could see that the whole front section of the structure was disengaged  from the main store, and a shallow trench overflowing with vegetation filled the space between the two fragments.  Trees grew up between the sections, making it seem as if nature was reclaiming the area.  A short bridge over the trench allowed access to the showroom.  The showroom was located in a fairly wooded area, so the forest-themed design complimented the natural surroundings and celebrated the setting as opposed to the more commercial aspects of the site.

The fate of the Forest Showroom

It survives!  Of the eight showrooms designed by SITE for Best Products, this is the only one that exists as it was designed.  After Best went out of business, it was bought by West End Presbyterian Church in September of 1998.  They operate at the location to this day.  They have carried out extensive renovations inside the building in order to suit its new purpose, but the outside of the building remains intact.  Thanks to everyone at the church who was involved in preserving this unique structure for future generations.

Inside/Outside Building

Built: 1984
Location: 8604 West Brown Deer Road
Milwaukee, WI 53224

The Inside/Outside building was easily the most ambitious of the Best/SITE collaborations and served as a fitting swan song to the partnership.  Even before the building was completed in 1984, Best Products had made the decision to suspend the signature showroom projects.  The southeast corner and front (east side) of the building appeared to be crumbling, opening up several large holes in the side of the structure.  This was not terribly different from previous SITE designs.  What made the Inside/Outside Building so unique was that this building included “merchandise”.  For the display, hundreds of everyday household items were cast in aluminum and arranged on aluminum shelves.  Everything was arranged to look like shelf displays in a typical Best store.  Metal clocks, bicycles, and toys were displayed along with a lawn mower and garden equipment hung on aluminum pegboard.  The structure around the objects seemed to be decaying, including the drywall and studs as well as the acoustical ceiling tiles (all made out of metal).  Openings at the top of the building revealed the mechanicals, such as ventilation ducts.  The building was highlighted in the May 1894 issue of The Architectural Record, and these photos are literally the only detailed pictures I was able to find of this section of the building.  The Inside/Outside Building is truly the epitome of a Cultural Ghost.  It existed for only a short period of time (1984- c. 1998) and there’s virtually no record of it online.
The view of the building from the street
The main entrance from the street is on the left.

Everything, even the pegboard, was reproduced in aluminum.

This is the view near the east entrance.  The awning over the doors is visible on the right.
The bicycle crossed the boundary of the window.  It was an actual bike on one side, a sculpture on the other.

The fate of the Inside/Outside Building:

At this point, you probably wouldn’t be shocked to learn that it was dismantled.  Even when it was new, it was the target of vandals trying to steal the aluminum “merchandise” and I don’t know if this continued or not (as mentioned above, this design is probably the least recorded of all the SITE/Best designs).  There are some reports on the web that it became a Wal-Mart after it was Best, but I was able to neither confirm nor deny that.  It was most recently a K & G Fashion Superstore, but I don’t know if they’re still operating at the site.

It just looks so boring today.

Next time, some parting words on the Best Products/SITE collaboration.