[Tom Biederbeck] All it took was 36,289 paper flowers and snowflakes, countless additional paper elements, three photo shoots for models and props, eight paper artists (including a master artist brought from Italy) and five vendors to produce the holiday displays in more than 300 Sephora stores for the 2011 season. It may be that no retailer has ever used the medium of paper to create a world of beauty on such a scale.
By their nature, holiday displays in retail settings are as evanescent as mushrooms, popping up to entice shoppers and suddenly disappearing with the season. The best holiday displays, though, latch on to the imagination so well they give rise to memories that last much longer. In 2011, the elaborate holiday décor created for Sephora, the high-end retailers of cosmetics and perfumes, achieved that memorably … and all with paper.
Theme & spirit
“I’m dreaming of …” was the concept selected for Sephora’s 2011 holiday campaign. Tom Sieu, design director for the retailer’s Animations group, which develops creative campaigns within Sephora stores across the nation, says the theme was intentionally aspirational. “Our stories are always about aspiration, however we interpret it. In this case, we were also searching for an ethereal quality we felt was embodied in the words.”
Researching the theme, Sephora’s designers found so many examples of creations on paper with the qualities they were seeking, they were inspired to focus the whole campaign on it. Sieu describes the resulting imagery as “fantasy-like and celebratory,” featuring both snowflakes and floral elements in forest landscapes. But it was important, he says, not to be obvious or overt.
“One of our initial considerations with paper was how we could pull this off in 300-plus stores: What kind of interpretations could we come up with to portray the concept in three dimensions? We didn’t want to approach this in a literal way. It needed to be interpretive to capture a shopper’s imagination and encourage her to dream. This gave us leeway in the types of props we used — for example, both poinsettias and roses. We weren’t strictly limited by the seasonal aspects.”
A small matter of execution
While other Sephora creative teams began adapting the theme for their own needs (catalogs, web content, ads, etc.), the 10 designers in Sieu’s Animations group were making sketches from which prototypes could be developed. A full set of prototypes — at least one of each of hundreds of elements — had to be produced for handoff to vendors for production.
Yet it wouldn’t do for the individual decorations to look mass-produced, Sieu notes. “In prototyping, we look at how we can mass-produce the forms and still maintain that handmade quality,” he says — and managing this trick became yet another factor in the design process.
Sephora maintains a full-scale “test” store — complete with fixtures, cash registers, lighting and pretty much everything you’d find in a real store, except shoppers — for just these occasions. Full displays were installed in the test store to ensure they made the desired impression.
And this was only the beginning. The overall plan had to work in each of Sephora’s 300 stores … every one of which has a unique floor plan. Drawings were made for each store, and an instruction manual was produced on how to install the project. Every store received a complete, personalized kit including everything needed to achieve the design.
Meanwhile, in Manhattan …
To decorate Sephora’s lead store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, internationally acclaimed paper artist Andrea Mastrovito and assistants were brought to New York and spent two weeks hand-cutting a completely different — and incredibly elaborate — set of decorations for that single location.
“Our Fifth Avenue store is a historical building, and there are limitations to what we can do there,” Sieu says. “For example, we can’t touch the façade, so we had to come up with ways of hanging the elements that looked completely natural.”
Sieu cites more fun facts to give an idea of just what kind of task transforming the Fifth Avenue store was:
• 700 sheets of paper were imported from Italy to make elements.
• More than 800 man-hours were spent cutting paper by hand.
• 15 models were employed in order to come up with the entire store scene.
• 30-plus hours were spent on installation.
• More than 22 pizzas were consumed over three weeks of work (Sieu stopped counting after 22).
Brief moment of glory
The cycle for creating a holiday campaign at Sephora begins in February. All materials have to be ready for installation ahead of the late fall shopping season. And by January, it all comes down. There won’t be much breathing room for Sieu and crew: It’s almost time for them to get busy on Sephora’s 2012 holiday campaign.
Tom Sieu is the design director for Animations at Sephora; manages R3, a collaborative that promotes sustainable design; and teaches in the School of Graphic Design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.