If only e-mail could be this stylish. The new store prototype design for Oakland, Calif.-based Papyrus, complete with higher light levels, richer wood tones and a more expressive color palette, takes a 140-store stationery chain into new design territory.

Drawing on the word origin of "papyrus" as a plant used by Egyptians to craft paper, Kiku Obata & Co. designed the store to reflect and celebrate the art of papermaking. The designers delved into the history and equity of the Papyrus name, which formed the basis for the project, explains Kiku Obata, president of the St. Louis-based design firm.

"We developed a graphic visual language related to handmade paper and the tools and materials that go into making it," Obata says, citing the sheets of paper hanging in the window as an example. "That's how paper was made: It was hung on racks to dry. We had beautiful photographs of these old buildings where paper was hanging on rafters. There were ladders along the side, and that was part of the visual look."

Designing for an electronic age With an increasing number of people depositing mail in electronic in-boxes rather than in the beloved blue box down the street, the visual look and customer interaction of Papyrus is essential - even somewhat rebellious.

"When we went to Papyrus for our interview, we talked about the potential to make this the best store of its kind for the whole country," Obata says. "In this age of e-mail, where everyone is one-on-one with their computer all day, it's a nice personal switch to be able to go to a store like this and hand-select something beautiful that you can communicate to someone in a personal way."

Obata refers to the store as a backlash to the age of electronics. "For every action there is a reaction, and we felt this was a great reaction," she says.

Troy Berry, director of real estate and construction for Papyrus, agrees with Obata, affirming that the store design reflects and celebrates the passionate side of paper.

"Kiku brought that wonderful art back into the store design," he says. "And she reminds the customer that there is an art to making paper, and there is a meaning to that social expression in reaching out and touching somebody."

A monument to thoughtful, specialty gift and paper creations, the store features oversized, rounded cherry and cypress wood display tables, which allow for seasonal flexibility and cross merchandising. Custom-designed bent wire racks and tiered baskets are fronted by a writing desk and nesting tables displayed in the front windows.

The all-important card selling space is defined and delineated by painted tin icons reminiscent of folk art images, suspended from wire above. The cards are merchandised on stair-stepped wall fixtures with the entire front of each card displayed for the consumer.

In the back of the Papyrus prototype are three areas marked by calls to action for the shopper who might like to further personalize an item from the store. The messages read, "Choose A Unique Paper," "Make A Gift Beautiful" and "Create The Perfect Invitation."

Obata emphasizes the importance of staying true to the original founder of the store, Margrit Schurman, who opened the first Papyrus in 1973. "The person we worked with was Mrs. Schurman's daughter, Dominique, who really wanted to take the company into the next century," she says. "So finding the right design meant walking a fine line between respecting the tradition that Mrs. Schurman had set, while also talking through the idea of creating a warmer kind of place that really embodies a personal touch."

Warming trend Adding a touch of warmth to the store was an objective supported by all parties. "In the beginning, Papyrus stores were very cold and clean, and we felt they needed to be warmed up," Obata says. "We wanted to maintain a cleanness but still brighten it up a little."

Lighting gave the store a significant edge in all-around feel. "We wanted to use lighting to highlight merchandise and draw customers' eyes in," Obata says, noting that in the previous store the shopper's gaze often drifted to the area above the cards because it was the brightest part of the store.

"We definitely needed improved lighting, and needed the new store to feel much warmer than our previous store," agrees Berry. "The previous stores were teal and white and, at times, appeared very stark."

In the new design, shoppers' eyes are actually rewarded when they wander up the wall to the ceiling. Accented with recess lighting, the ceiling is complemented by modules designed as big sheets of paper floating like clouds.

"It's a very flexible system, because these stores can take any kind of form," Obata explains. "So the intent is to emphasize the shape of the store with these panels set off a bit from the ceiling. The panels lower the ceiling plane and create the image after the hanging paper, which gives customers the sense of things floating above them."

The use of exotic wood, both in fixturing and store-front fabrication, also adds a touch of warmth and sophistication to the store image. The store's predominant wood application is Afrormosia - a West African hardwood that resembles teak.

"We feel that maple and brushed aluminum is way overdone in retail today, so we wanted to get away from that," Obata says. "We wanted to find a distinctive look that had a lot of character. We also incorporated the Afrormosia as a display window feature, and it's intended to become a lifestyle element so people can imagine having all that stuff on their desk at home. The wood does have a very rich, warm quality to it."

Berry notes that Papyrus was pleased with the selection. "It really is a nice wood," he says. "It has a tone of yellow and gold, and it lives well within the other colors of the store."

Strategic light levels and exotic woods aren't the only ways to convey distinctiveness. While Obata wanted to give the store more selling space, she and her designers also wanted to give Papyrus a sense of originality through custom fixture work and creative graphics.

"We wanted to add the concept of handmade touches to the store," she says. Little touches, such as painted metal graphic icons denoting card categories, were added throughout the store.

"There also is this wire element throughout the store, and we had a company in Texas called French Wyres develop the fixtures for us," Obata continues. "It was a custom-designed fixture that is much more open than the standard postcard fixture with little curly-Q card holders on the top. Also, the store's square table was modeled after the big tables in papermaking places where they lay screens out to work on. So some of those fixtures have a more work durability."

The new fixturing program continues the store's design theme but also creates a more flexible in-store product system.

"We wanted to change the fixture package so it would be more modular," Berry says. "In our previous stores, the fixtures were very heavy. All the drawers were in the base of the floor fixtures, so they were not modular or moveable. We wanted to make sure that the new fixture package was presented in an elegant manner, but that it was also modular so we could change the floor fixturing on a seasonal basis."

Wrapping up the new brand The modularity and flexibility of the store design also lends itself to a better store experience for the customer, Berry says. The approach helps to strengthen brand perception among Papyrus shoppers.

With changeable fixtures and custom displays, the design and products constantly entertain the customer, Berry says. "The same customer can shop us three and four times," he says, "and they'll recognize or experience something different within that retail environment that they may not have seen the previous time."

For instance, in one visit customers may notice the icons that sign the bays, while in another visit they may notice the shelf-talkers or acrylics that hold the cards.

Obata notes that any new prototype design is, in many ways, a from-the-ground-up effort because so much goes into rethinking and repositioning the brand. "To us, any new prototype is a brand-new store rollout," she says. "It's all in how you reorganize or re-merchandise, because you've obviously got to have the merchandise to have a great store. We felt the (Papyrus) merchandise was great, and the store needed to come up to that level to really showcase it."

Obata adds that, through that evolutionary design reimaging, the cards remained the inspiration. "The presentation of cards along the wall is something that remained very consistent," she says. "We just wanted to put more light on the cards so it directs your eye there."

The new design has strengthened the brand, Berry reports, adding that there are nine new prototype stores on tap for 1999. "Our new packaging is done in the color palette of our prototype design - rich amethyst and fennel," he says "So there is consistency in color palette of the store, packaging and collateral material. The new design presents that in a very strong light, and has brought consistency to the brand."

In designing a new prototype for Papyrus, design firm Kiku Obata & Co. studied the history of paper and incorporated it into the store. The design includes exotic woods and handmade touches to give the feeling of warmth. At the same time, flexible fixturing allows for custom displays that can always be changed. Celebrating the art of papermaking, the store reminds customers of the personal touch of written letters.