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If you love shopping and fashion, there are few places better to visit than London’s Carnaby Street. And if you love rock n’ roll, there are few groups that have had a bigger impact on the genre than The Rolling Stones. 

Rock and retail together in an immersive experience like none other

A project led by a Columbus College of Art & Design graduate brings rock and retail together in an immersive experience like none other. Jonathan Knodell (Product Design, 2005) is Design Director at Montreal- and Detroit-based GH+A Design Studios, which was responsible for RS No. 9 Carnaby, the newly opened Rolling Stones flagship store in London’s trendy Soho neighborhood. GH+A specializes in creating immersive branded retail environments and shopping destinations. The firm worked closely with Bravado, the merchandising arm of Universal Music Group, to design a store to immerse fans in the complete Stones experience. 

The resulting space is modern and engaging, connecting with Rolling Stones fans through music, fashion merchandise, and a video wall projecting the band’s history up to their most recent tours. The Rolling Stones brand touches every aspect of the design, from the materials used in the shop’s decor to such artistic elements as a soundwave sculpture that represents the opening to the Stones’ classic Paint It Black.

At a time when so much retail involves only a tap on a smartphone touchscreen or a click of a mouse, creating an engaging in-person shopping experience such as RS No. 9 Carnaby is more important than ever in engaging shoppers and driving sales. Below, Knodell, a native of Fremont, Ohio, now living in Chicago, discusses his work on the Rolling Stones project, the evolution of the retail shopping experience, and how his CCAD education prepared him for a successful career in design.

On the Rolling Stones project, the evolution of the retail shopping experience, and CCAD

What was the most challenging aspect of the RS No. 9 project? The most satisfying?

Aside from the obvious pressure of designing for The Rolling Stones, the biggest day-to-day challenge was the logistics of time zone differences, the client being in London, and COVID-19 which prevented the typical site visits and in-person work sessions that typically allow a design process to advance more smoothly. We had issues with vendors being stranded in Italy and Leicester, United Kingdom at various points of the global lockdowns. The creative process itself is usually the LEAST challenging aspect of any project.

What is the customer experience like?

The original inspiration driving the customer experience was wanting the customer to feel like they stepped on stage with the band. The Stones’ current stage set is composed of these four tall monolithic video walls, and we wanted that visual impact felt in-store. The second driving factor was the songs, and more importantly, the lyrics. At various touchpoints of the customer journey, they see large hand-written song lyrics on a glass floor, and covering mirrors. Customers have fun finding lyrics to their favorite songs. Overall, we wanted to pack multiple experiences into a relatively small store, from digital and high-tech experiences (customizing projects on touch screens) and the video walls, to analog experiences like getting up close to a 3D lips sculpture.

Rolling Stones project

Is this immersive retail experience part of a trend in retail? 

RS No.9 Carnaby is the only store of its kind in the world. But yes, I feel this type of experience-driven retail is the future. Online shopping has taken its toll on traditional retail, and many brands haven’t survived, but people still crave that emotional connection with a product or a brand that can only come from stepping into a real brick and mortar environment. Brands that take an omnichannel approach, blending the online experience with the store experience and then bringing in the human element, whether it’s customizing your own T-shirt, or getting a pair of jeans tailored on-site. These extra touches are what can make a brand stand apart.

How did your CCAD education prepare you for this and other projects at GH+A?

Because of CCAD working under-pressure is second nature! I was an Industrial Design major, but I like to say I “wandered” next door to the Interior Design studio my junior and senior years. That gave me a blended approach of looking at challenges from a smaller-scale, product design level but also the ability to step back and look at the bigger space from an interior design perspective. I think it gives me a unique point of view that has served me well. And even in the digital age, nothing beats a great sketch--so I have to give a big shoutout to Tom Williamson and Joel Gundlach for helping me push my hand-sketching skills to the next level.

What attracted you to CCAD?

Even though my only interest growing up was drawing or making art, being from a small town, I didn’t know “art school” was a thing until my junior year of high school. That year, I had a great art teacher who recommended I consider CCAD, and I had family in Columbus, so it seemed like the perfect fit. After my first college visit, I was hooked. I only applied to CCAD. Thankfully I got in! My hometown had maybe 20,000 residents, so downtown Columbus might as well have been New York City. I liked that it was a small school in a “big city.” I had a chance to explore and discover a wide array of art fields that I continue to reference back on to this day. 

What advice would you give to CCAD students to prepare them for life after college?

Commercial artists constantly have to fight the commoditization of their work. There is always someone willing to do the same job for cheaper, so what makes you different? It’s not always about being “the best,” it’s the human connection. Can you relate to your client? Are you easy to work with? Do you offer a unique point of view? Think about your personal brand, and how you want to be perceived in the industry. The work will follow.

What’s on the horizon for you, in terms of your work and any other outside creative practices?

When you work for a consultancy, you always have one eye on the horizon looking for the next challenge. I keep an open mind. A previous boss once said we design everything from “bras to bulldozers.” That’s the life of a design consultant. Outside of work, I’m looking to get back into pottery and ceramics, which I got really into at CCAD. In the chaos of today, it’s good to have something to get lost in for a while. I would also like to get back into teaching. I was an adjunct instructor at CCAD for two years and found it extremely rewarding.

What’s your favorite Stones song?

Wild Horses … or maybe Paint it Black … or Sympathy for the Devil. I don’t know!!

Want to hear more from Jonathan Knodell? Check out his lecture “How Immersive Experiences Can Bring the Magic Back to Brick and Mortar Retail,” presented as part of our CCAD Knows Retail speaker series.

Learn more about our Master of Professional Studies in Retail Design here, or check out our Product Design and Interior Architecture & Design undergraduate programs. Apply here.