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Preview: Arthur Rubinfeld

As president of global development at Starbucks, architect Arthur Rubinfeld and his team are responsible for everything you love about your local Starbucks, minus the coffee: That's the design, site selection, and creative concept for over 16,000 stores in 50 countries. Seated at a table made from a recycled bowling lane at Starbucks Support Center in Seattle, the Dwell on Design speaker talked with us about the importance of Starbucks as a gathering place, its new green building initiative, and the secret to a great retail experience.

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I've heard of a lot of architecture students working in coffee houses, but how does an architect go about working for Starbucks?

I practiced architecture for seven years, then went into real estate development and built a couple of hotels and shopping centers. I also developed a shopping center and got very involved in retail real estate in the Bay Area. I have a love of retail that connects my architectural project management with my construction and development experience. In 1992 I moved to Seattle to head up the real estate design for Starbucks' development department. That was before the company went public, when we knew that espresso beverages were on-trend, and we knew that we were going to grow the company worldwide. It's the perfect position for me after practicing architecture, being in construction and real estate development, as well as retail brokerage. I was uniquely suited to head up the department.

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You were at Starbucks from 1992 to 2001 and then you came back in 2008 after it had grown substantially. What were the biggest changes—or challenges—in the company from then to now?

The brand was always presented in as very high-quality, leading-edge design to the general public. In the mid-1990's we actually developed what became the American experience of the European coffeehouse, where we were able to match community connection to our product line of fine Arabica coffee and quality beverages. We became the gathering place for many, many neighborhoods in many regions around the country. That was a big part of the first ten years. Coming back, I was asked to lead a new design initiative going forward. What I pinned the future vision of store development and the physical representation of Starbucks on was right here in our own Shared Planet initiatives, which the company had adopted a year prior to me coming in. Shared Planet has three legs of the stool: Ethical Sourcing, Community Involvement and Environmental Stewardship. It was the Environmental Stewardship part that gave me the 'a-ha' moment of the direction for new store design: organic materials and recycled materials, which can be stone, steel, iron, recycled glass, fallen woods and reclaimed woods.

Were sustainable materials always a part of your practice as an architect?

I went to the University of Colorado and got my original degree in the environmental design program in Boulder, and then went to Denver for my masters. In the mid-'70s we were very much ahead in Boulder, in environmental design and awareness. We were one of the first schools in the country to adapt that program. I was so crazy of an environmentalist I actually invested hundreds of my hard-earned money in something called Bio Gas in the '70s, which was the use of the methane gas that's given off by cows. Cow manure! So I was really ahead of the curve. That investment didn't work out. But I think people actually do capture methane gas now.

So environmental design was a huge part of my training and the way I viewed design and architecture. When I came back and the company had adopted the Environmental Stewardship as part of the Shared Planet pillars, it was pretty natural for me as a designer to envision certain design palettes. The first one that we opened at First and Pike, right here in Seattle about two-and-a-half months ago is called Heritage, and it's rooted in our company's own heritage in high-quality coffee and coffee-sourcing and it's also rooted in the history of our company, our mission statement and our coffee authority. We've been around since 1971.

What are some of the environmentally-responsible steps you're taking in these new stores?

First and Pike has been very positively received. It's registered LEED-certified, with fallen wood used in the bar and repurposed leather from the automobile industry as a facing on the bar. We use what we call live-edge wood counters on the bar—not squared off; it's how you would see the wood in natural form. We use recycled laundry detergent bottles as dividers and countertops made from recycled stone. This week we just opened Paris Disney, our 50th store in France. It, too, is registered LEED certifiable, but it's very interesting to use LEED in France. They do not have standards yet for retail, they only have standards for new construction, so we opted to take LEED over there. And we're taking a leading edge in design going forward: By year-end 2010, we will be 100% registered LEED-certified by company-owned stores worldwide. Other firms get a lot of PR for doing one-offs, but we're talking about every store we do: company-owned, new, certified LEED.

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How will you be retrofitting the old ones?

Some materials and elements will be used in the renovations, but because of the level of renovations, it's hard to say. It depends on the way we renovate and the money we put in. But, as you know, we've been closing some stores in the U.S., and we're adaptively reusing the elements from those stores in a very successful way, saving us millions of dollars, making sure things don't go to the landfill, saving on shipping, and reducing our carbon footprint. So we're pretty proud of that initiative, just trying to stay in line with our 2010 goal.

We also have a group of five people here that are working with LEED for certification. We are covering the cost of any partner in store development who wants to become LEED certified and we're getting a very high percentage of graduates. It's in keeping with our values, and it's on-trend, but it also touches the hearts and minds of our customers. We think over the years we have not spoken with our own voice and now we'll be able to tell our customers more and more about the positive things we're doing. We've been a lightning rod for so many issues globally, and everyone has an opinion on what we do, pro or con. But for a long time, we just let customers figure it out. Over the first years of the company's development we never talked about our store designs, they spoke for themselves. We had people come in and ask if they could buy couches or lamp designs—we could have been in the manufacturing business. But due to eBay, a lot of our initial store designs are in people's homes!

They brought Starbucks home. Do you make all the furniture and fixtures custom?

Not all of it, but for the new prototypes for the most part, many of the items are custom-designed by scratch in our Global Design Studio, which is here. We have a team of architects and graphic designers and interior designers that worked on the new palettes, one of which is the Heritage palette that I just talked about. Another is the Artisan palette which is based on more modern design and layering, similar to the artists and craftsmen of the early 1900's in Europe. This will open first in University Village remodel here in Seattle, which is a major store of ours, on June 30. It, too, is using environmental initiatives and green materials but it's much more fashion-forward and modern in its appeal. When we're opening new stores, these elements will be interpreted by in-house designers around the globe and infused into local store designs connecting with the neighborhood.

The one thing about Starbucks is that no matter where you went, all the stores looked the same. Now it sounds like you're moving towards a little more local personality. How do you make sure that people still know its part of the same brand?

We are looking much deeper into the individual designers' interpretations of the palette as opposed to the stamp-it-out kinds of designs we needed to use for rapid growth. And that's where that individual interpretation locally comes into play. So in the Heritage store, we used recycled tables—one was used in a commercial application, then someone bought it for their house, then we bought it and so it was sourced locally. What's cool about it is that we're improving the degree of design for the individual design in the markets around the world, without telling them exactly how to do it. We're working on a store in London that used to be a high-end clothing store—it has a stone facade and this woven herringbone wood wall that's just beautiful. Normally you'd think that this stone facade and the wood wall would not work together with this existing white terrazzo floor, but we're adaptively reusing all those elements in our Artisan palette.

There's so much talk about Starbucks' role as a "third place," and its importance culturally of being a space that's not home, and not work. What has that meant to the design of the Starbucks experience?

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The original idea of the third place was mentioned by Ray Oldenberg in his book The Great Good Place. In the early '90s we used a lot of that philosophy in our store approach: We were this third place, the place between home and work, the place where you go to be seen, the place where you go to socialize. Ray Oldenberg was originally speaking about the German beer gardens, where people took their families and their dogs, and hung out late into the evening. It was their gathering spot. Maybe it was because of the climate because it was warm out, or maybe their apartments weren't big enough. When we were growing in the '90s, the garage door became the front door, and people did not socialize as much. But through the late 1990's, as technology kicked in, people were sitting in front of their computers all day long, texting and tweeting and doing things that are one-on-one, but not face-to-face. We believe now that the need for the third place is stronger than ever, but it's interesting to track the development of the third place coffee shop in the U.S. Originally Starbucks brought the independent corner espresso bar idea from Italy here, where people had a quick in-and-out on the way home or to work. Then our customers started asking us for pastries to go with the coffee, so we met that need. Then they started asking for savory items and lunch items because they were coming back in the noon hour and early afternoon. And then they asked for more comfortable seating, and we accommodated more comfortable seating. It's really interesting to track consumers' request for comfort and their idea what the third place should be over time.

In your great book Built for Growth: Expanding Your Business Around the Corner or Across the Globe you mention something I thought was interesting: "retail is detail." What does that mean when designing a space?

It's truly understanding environmental psychology, as well as understanding that each and every customer, at any point of the day, is going through their own individual state of mind. They view and experience the retail environment at any given point. For example, humans generally go to the right upon entering a space. If you understand that human behavior is inculcated to go to the right, as you experience retail spaces, you'll see that good designers meet that need by helping you go to the right in the natural way. Rarely you'll walk into a store and see people going to the left. The other example is in the early years when we only used round tables, small round tables, two- to three-feet in diameter. Understanding environmental psychology, you know that when sitting alone at a coffee house at a round table you get the feeling that it's so much less formal, so you feel more comfortable sitting alone in a larger communal space.

It's also understanding that a retailer should invest heavily in everything the person touches, especially at the point of sale. Wherever someone puts their pocketbook down, that's where you invest because they can feel it. And you might be able to save money by not putting in, say, a drop ceiling. In how it's presented, Starbucks has always been an innovative company and you can observe it's something that's finely-packaged, that's leading-edge.

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Now for the important question. What's it like at Starbucks HQ? How much free coffee do you really get per day?

Starbucks Support Center is in a LEED-certified Gold building that had been restored after the earthquake and was converted into offices. It was originally the largest warehouse on the west coast. Each one of the floors is a 100,000 square foot footprint, and the floorplan is laid out on as an 'X.' At each leg of the 'X' are coffee and beverage stations that have espresso machines, tea selections, refrigeration, sinks, hot water taps. In the middle of the 'X' where the diagonals meet, there's also a gathering place and coffee beverage station. As you know in covering these kinds of things: It's important for the look and feel of a building to convey the mission statement and positioning of the retailer.

So, of course, I have to ask: What's your Starbucks order?

Generally an Americano, a tall Americano. But I think we're bringing Via to the conference, an instant coffee, which has been a big hit with a lot of people. It's very convenient.

See Arthur Rubinfeld in conversation with editor Aaron Britt during Friday's conference and taste Via in the Dwell Exhibition, all at Dwell on Design, June 26-28 in downtown LA. Register at dwellondesign.com

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