A building's most unglamorous room is its basement. But not at Bergdorf Goodman's Fifth Avenue flagship. As the setting for the department store's new Level of Beauty cosmetics and fine jewelry center, Bergdorf's basement becomes a luxury spot more suited for $430 beauty cream than stock storage and alterations.

“Conventionally, cosmetics is always on the ground floor, right inside the front door of a department store. The feeling has always been cosmetics are an impulse buy. The notion that the client intended to put cosmetics on the lower level was met with a lot of skepticism — especially by the cosmetic vendors, who didn't believe it would work,” explains Glenn Pushelberg, principal and managing partner of Toronto-based design firm Yabu Pushelberg. Since the sale of cosmetics usually accounts for 10% of a department store's total volume, the vendors' fears were valid, says Bergdorf's senior VP and general merchandise manager, cosmetics Muriel Gonzalez.

The question is why go against the grain? Why not stick with what works — which is cosmetics on the ground floor? To understand, let's take a step back. Once upon a time, corporate owner Neiman Marcus decided to renovate the cosmetics and fine jewelry areas at its New York locale — what was once Cornelius Vanderbilt II's mansion. With the help of Yabu Pushelberg, its dreams of an elegant, underground destination soon materialized. Now called the Level of Beauty, Pushelberg believes this department encapsulates Bergdorf's philosophy to create a series of rooms rather than an open hall. “There is a graciousness which is the hallmark of Bergdorf's to incorporate a progression of spaces, much like a big mansion,” says Pushelberg.

Products are grouped into rooms as to whether they fall into new and innovative lines, such as Fresh and Mr. Mascara, or youthful cosmetics, or perfume — each in its own chamber. “I see it more like a story, there's a series of chapters where customers slowly discover the treasures rather than one impact full of ideas,” says Pushelberg.

In a nod to the French-American style of the 1930s and 1940s, the firm added its own twist to the overall design giving it “a modern and appropriate aesthetic for today,” says Pushelberg. For example, some jewelry and cosmetic showcases are made of glass and mirror while others incorporate traditional French materials such as parchment and ivory. All fixtures are seen as furniture — echoing the residential feeling once again.

Hand-painted dressing tables with mirrors and faux ivory punctuate Bergdorf's ultra-luxurious image. Antiquated-looking mirrored fixtures use distressed, curved glass. “It's really about searching and reinventing older materials and finishes in new ways,” says Pushelberg.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the renovation was creating a bridge that would connect the lower and ground levels, emphasizing circulation between the floors. “What we wanted to do was organize the elevators/escalators so they came into a common area in the middle of the floor. To accomplish this we turned the elevators inward, toward the middle of the store and extended the escalator well down. So, all the circulation came to the central room. Then we convinced the client — which took some doing — to take out the existing mezzanine so that the middle of the floor became a grand room,” says Pushelberg. In fact, a hole was punched through the basement's ceiling so customers shopping above could see that the Level of Beauty existed. To further strengthen the visual cohesion, a 21-ft.-long gesso chandelier designed by Belgian artist Idir Mecibah dangles between floors.

Another way Bergdorf's really pushes the traditional retail design envelope is by forfeiting the vendor's individual image. By restricting the vendor's urge for individuality, Pushelberg's unified design is successfully carried throughout the entire floor.

When all is said and done, has Bergdorf's bottom line had a fairy tale ending since the re-opening of these departments? Roughly a year and a half after conception and construction and 15,000 sq. ft. later, “Bergdorf's exceeded its projections by a good 30% — so it works,” says Pushelberg. “Bergdorf's is an institution. We designed it knowing it will last 20 to 30 years,” adds Pushelberg. “Through the use of aesthetics we have made the Level of Beauty fresh and modern without destroying the past.”

Contact: Glenn Pushelberg, principal and managing partner, Yabu Pushelberg, 416.778.9779.