It is only natural that a stone material be chosen in the design of a retail chain where merchandise is heavily connected to science and nature. In the case of Natural Wonders, the selection of stone sets more than just an earthy tone.

"Stone materials have always been an element of design for Natural Wonders and have become part of our store branding," says John Solis, store planning and construction manager for the Fremont, Calif.-based chain. "We feel cultured stone creates a natural, unique break among typical mall retailers," he says, adding that the company chose the material for its new prototype store program.

Natural Wonders selected its cultured stone from Stone Products Corp., Napa, Calif., where the product is cast in molds taken from selected natural stone, using a process that mimics real stone. Each color and texture uses its own blend of Portland cement, lightweight natural aggregates and iron oxide pigments.

According to Solis, Pro-Fit Ledgestone-style cultured stone is used as the featured material for the store front as well as for a background interior feature that lends support to the store's "lifestyle environment" merchandising program.

"Cultured stone adds life to the gargoyle figures," he says. "The stone also is used to help [set off] the five different lifestyle environments, which are patio and garden, home/office, apparel and accessories, kids and discovery, and activity and exploration."

The Vincent Association, the Dallas-based architectural firm that helped create the design, specified the stone-like material in particular areas because he wanted to create a "thick feeling," signaling, for example, that the store front had a history behind it. "It gives you a feeling of enduring through the ages," explains John Reese, project manager for The Vincent Association. "[It provides a] feeling of strength and stability."

Solis points out that the advantages of cultured stone are: a consistent color and shape, a readily available supply, easy installation and affordability.

The stone that Natural Wonders selected is manufactured in modular components, and every piece is designed in a 4-inch high module to speed installation and make piers and columns easier to create. Pro-Fit also incorporates the company's interlocking mortar groove that locks each piece to the mortar bed for secure adhesion without grouted joints.

The material is lightweight and will go over any wall preparation without additional foundation, adds Bob Heath, vice president of marketing for Stone Products Corp. And because it is designed in modular components for easy installation, he says, downtime in the store is minimal.

Reese explains that installed corner pieces of cultured stone, like those specified in the Natural Wonders prototype, give the impression of a much thicker material, unlike installed natural stone tiles, which have a thinner veneer look.

"[The corner pieces] look like they are carrying the weight of their own construction," Reese says. With natural stone, he continues, options are often expensive and not readily available. The Pro-Fit Ledgestone provides a strong, load-bearing feel to the store front and is available in various textures and colorations, he says.

Solis agrees, emphasizing that the stone installation helps reinforce the connection with nature in the minds of Natural Wonders' patrons.

"The cultured stone product has supported our objective in the creation of an exciting and unexpected customer experience," he says.