The eyes of retail shoppers, although sharp and exacting, are often encouraged to appreciate the forest for its trees. If store design succeeds in its mission, then its smaller components - such as color choice or fixture materials - lose their individual significance as they contribute to a refined, unified environment. To shoppers, the store makes its design and image impressions as a whole while unselfishly giving the merchandise the store's top billing.

But for designers, a retail environment may truly succeed by what shoppers do not consciously absorb. Each building block component of retail store design - its materials, colors and textures - must be harmoniously matched, manipulated and enjoined to create a warm, inviting retail space.

For example: Wolfgang Puck restaurants use pizza-shaped, glazed ceramic tiles on the floors, walls and counters; Starbucks Coffee shops use a color palette of eggplant, golden yellow and deep olive to impart a feeling of sophistication and comfort; and Urban Outfitters stores lure members of the young and rising Generation Y with highly textured stores featuring raw concrete, original brick, rusted steel and unfinished wood.

According to Ann Dudrow, vice president of environmental graphics for Baltimore-based RTKL Associates Inc., using materials to complete the design whole has, and always will, challenge store planners. "Architects have always understood shapes and materials and how to use these things to create interesting space," she says, adding that it is the combination of those shapes and materials that truly completes retail presentation. "But architects haven't always understood how to make space into a place that people understand and like. In recent years, we've learned a lot more about place-making."

With place-making as the goal, retail store designers continue to explore the latest combinations of materials, colors and textures that strive to achieve a unified design message to consumers.

Materials re-materialized Over the years and through many remodeling efforts, Saks Fifth Avenue has aimed to give its stores a residential feel. But how many ways can that be done? The recent redesign of Saks by New York-based Tucci, Segrete & Rosen suggests that with every new material spin comes a new design option.

In the redesigned salon department, for example, designers have used genuine silver-leaf wallpaper and woods with striated surfaces. A cream-colored carpet with subtle ribbing covers the floor and provides a backdrop for 1930s-inspired furniture, which includes a sofa, coffee table and two chairs.

Lisa Contreras, vice president of creative resources and product development for Tucci, Segrete & Rosen, notes that faux materials were essential in conveying an upscale image. "In Saks, we used a faux limestone wall covering to tie the architecture of the store together," she says. "It's a paper-backed vinyl product done in the neutral beige tones of limestone."

In some cases, faux materials are growing more "faux" than ever. During a recent Dayton-Hudson remodel, Contreras' firm used anigre (West African wood resembling walnut) laminate to finish the cash wraps, showcases and back islands in the cosmetics department.

"Exterior materials are coming indoors," Dudrow explains, adding that other exterior materials used in store design today include chain-link fencing, metal screens and wire cloth. "These materials might be appropriate for stores catering to young urban markets," she says.

Recycled materials also have begun to catch the interest of store designers. Sears Automotive Centers have been using recycled tires for flooring for several years now. Food court chairs made from recycled plastic bottles offer playful multi-colored mosaic looks. "I've also seen materials usually made of wood appearing in recycled plastic versions," says Dudrow.

Colored forms Oftentimes, old materials can look new and new materials can look old, depending on the colors designers choose. Patsy Kuipers, color and design specialist with DuPont Commercial Flooring, prepares an annual color forecast every March. Her forecasts, issued to keep carpet mills up to date, offer designers a number of cues useful in developing color palettes for store designs.

"Usually one primary color influences the current color palette," she says. "Over the past couple of years, yellow has been the prime influence. We still see the influence of yellow this year, especially in terms of yellow-green.

"But red is becoming the primary color that influences the others," she continues. "And this year, we're seeing a lot of interplay between the yellows and reds. For example, there's a new range of rusts, corals, adobes and clay tones that reflect the way that red is [influencing] the yellow palette."

Kuipers also notes that while shades of brown have been drawing interest over the past couple of years, it may hit its peak this year, in terms of red- and yellow-influenced browns, and neutral browns. Cooler colors such as teals, blues and purples, she adds, are returning to popularity.

"I really like this year's color forecast in that all colors are widely useful, even the accent colors, which are much brighter than they have been," she says. "In recent years, we've had colors that are not widely useful. Take bright neons, for example: While these colors have been popular in certain retail categories like sportswear and children's wear, they haven't been useful across a wide range. This year, all the colors are useful."

Soft to the touch? Store designers describe texture in two ways. First, they talk about the physical textures of a store, embodying rough, raw, smooth or neutral qualities. Second, designers talk about emotional store texture, the feelings evoked in customers by the overall environment.

Jewelry stores have for years fought their image of being cold and hard, a feeling that stems from the nature of gemstones and precious metals as well as from the hard-edged casework used to merchandise these products. But in a recent remodeling effort for French jewelry store Christian Bernard, Ruth Mellergaard, president of New York-based design firm GRID/3 International, set out to alter the emotional texture dictated by traditional jewelry store presentations.

For these 1,500 sq. ft. jewelry stores, Mellergaard designed the showcases in wood and metal to soften the look. She also raised the cases off the floor by installing metal legs. "Because of the legs, the cases seem to be floating in the selling space," Mellergaard says. "In addition, instead of using shiny metal textures, we softened it with matte finishes."

Mellergaard continued the soft texturing with a floor treatment featuring level-loop and cut-pile combination carpeting set within wood borders. The color of the carpeting moves from cream to pale taupe to deep taupe through a series of abstract swirls. To avoid losing the sense of strength important to a jewelry store presentation, Mellergaard also specified limestone tiles for the floor, while building up the exterior with limestone slabs.

The final flourish appears on the 12-ft. by 30-ft. back wall of the design, where a wall-sized, hand-painted mural depicts a Paris street in the late 1800s. "There is a party on the street, with people dancing," Mellergaard says. "The idea is to create the feeling that you've stepped into a miniature vacation spot at the turn of the century."

According to Lyn Falk, president of Retailworks Inc., a Cedarburg, Wis.-based store design firm, many chains fail to use texture effectively. Designers, Falk says, should aim to layer textural communications into their designs.

She lists four possibilities: A masculine texture affects customers with rough materials such as rock or unfinished timbers. Second, the use of natural or organic textures appeal to both women and men. A third category is contemporary high-tech, a texture such as smooth metal surfaces. Rounding out the group are feminine textures, which feature smooth surfaces that evoke warmth and softness.

Sometimes textures can run together, as in Falk's design of an outdoor shoe display for Stan's Bootery, a four-store chain based in Milwaukee. "We used rough wood and rock to create the product displays, and we made the chairs and stools from hickory," she says. "It's a treatment that produces both a natural and masculine feel."

Retailworks also set design in motion for Playthings, a toy store in Madison, Wis. The environment features a playful texture based on a bright red, purple and gold color scheme combined with vinyl floor and wall coverings done with large, raised red and charcoal dots. "We also created jack-in-the-box door handles for the store," Falk says. "Jack-in-the-box is the retailer's logo, and the door handles have an interesting physical feel to them."

Although design materials are likely to fluctuate with changing consumer tastes, the textures and colors of design will remain the building blocks of environment planning. Many designers note that those store materials are at least as important as the sum of their parts. And as Falk notes, if they are manipulated properly, the resulting design will form a focused message that is certain to nab consumer attention.

"If you can create a store texture that people like to touch," she says, "then you've got them."