At the core of the new La Maison Simons department store in downtown Montreal, a 30-ft. to 10 years colored-glass sculpture rises through a three-story cutout. The sculpture is a gleaming point of reference to shoppers from anywhere in the store. Created by renowned local artist Guido Molinari as the focal point for the flagship, it's more than a piece of art. It's also a fitting metaphor for the sculptural approach store designers took when creating the 70,000-sq.-ft. space.

Toronto-based Watt IDG (formerly International Design Group) had worked with the Simons family and its small chain of department stores for 14 years. When the Simons decided to venture from their hometown of Quebec City into the competitive Montreal market, they asked Watt IDG to take on the store design.

“We knew we had to create a spectacular shopping experience for Simons' introduction into Montreal,” says Donna Lawson, creative director for Watt IDG. The Watt team also knew of vice president Peter Simons' passion for art and architecture, and his growing fascination with sculptural architecture. So it seemed natural, says Lawson, to use Simons' interests as the basis for the store's design.

A sculptural, organic approach also helped the team address a space that was to be densely merchandised, adds Lawson. “Part of this client's success has been very high volumes of product in their stores, which requires very dense merchandising. At the same time, we wanted the space to be as open and fluid as possible. And most important, it needed to be engaging for the shopper every step of the way.”

Located in a historic building on St. Catherine Street, downtown Montreal's main shopping thoroughfare, the store covers two levels and includes a mezzanine between the floors. While there were restrictions on the changes Simons could make to the historic site, designers were able to obtain approval for a dramatic, two-story glass entrance, which provides enticing views of the store's first and second levels.

Inside, Watt wanted to keep the space as open as possible while encouraging shoppers to traverse all three levels. So the space was carefully sculpted using architectural elements such as ceilings and columns to add interest and guide shoppers through each department. Sight lines to all three levels were crucial to the open plan, says Lawson.

“Visibility means accessibility,” she explains. “Customers have to understand what's there in order to want to get to it.” With that strategy in mind, Watt convinced Simons to sacrifice precious floor space to cut large openings between the levels. Circulation paths were designed to encourage complete penetration. Aisles leading from all exterior entrances converge at the same point. Here at the center of the store, the Molinari sculpture rises through a cutout to the second floor. A smaller opening below reveals glimpses of the building's lower level, which houses a food court and subway station.

Throughout the space, Watt crafted eye-catching sight lines to lure shoppers further into the store. Transparent/translucent screen walls define volumes of space without hindering the flow. Articulated ceilings, feature walls, and custom flooring treatments create unique departments. In the space-age themed young women's department, for example, a back-lit acrylic feature wall changes colors every few seconds, pulling shoppers into the space. Round, suspended mirrors hang from the ceiling and custom carpet is accented with a poured-terrazzo medallion element.

While each department is its own unique environment, Simons wanted to ensure the store's overall color and material palette was neutral and relatively timeless. Therefore, departments abound with sandblasted and colored glass and acrylic, complemented by custom wood fixtures with metal accents. Flooring includes carpet and poured terrazzo for departments and limestone for circulation paths.

The design team also took a sculptural approach to lighting. Simons elected to go with high light levels and selected light sources with excellent color-rendering qualities to accentuate the merchandise. And Watt used lighting to guide shoppers through the space, adding extra punch to feature walls and mannequin pads. “Lighting is absolutely critical in keeping customers interested,” says Lawson. “It can make or break a store.”

This artful approach to design has paid off. The store was profitable within the first year, and its success has served as a springboard for the chain's growth. Simons' second and third Montreal stores — both in the suburbs — are online for this fall and for fall 2002.

Contact: Ron MacLachlan, managing director, Watt IDG, 416.593.7254.

Photography by Toronto-based Robert Burley.

Pat Matson Knapp is a Cincinnati-based writer.