The Ozark Mountain Range is a region rich with tradition forged by its early Native American inhabitants and the wanderlust of frontiersmen who followed. Regional pride and identity remain strong, as demonstrated in the design of the museum store in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Marlon Blackwell Architect, based in nearby Fayetteville, Arkansas, won a competition of local architects to design the store, as well as to solve some site challenges.
The museum itself, designed by Moshe Safdie, opened in 2011 with a permanent collection of American masterworks. Located in the same town as Walmart’s headquarters in northwest Arkansas, the museum was initiated by Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, and primarily funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
Within a 3,040-square-foot curved, concrete space in the Safdie-designed building, the museum store needed to be functional, tactile, and a clear extension of the museum experience. With consideration for the local artists who would be featured in the museum store, Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, and his colleagues began the store design process by drawing inspiration from the work of Arkansas basket maker Leon Niehues. His unique weaving style, which combines traditional splint techniques with contemporary construction methods, yields strong formal profiles formed from simple repetitive elements. “Our interpretation of [Niehues’s] methodology is how we arrived at our design,” says Blackwell, whose firm more typically designs an entire building, including the exterior. “We had to invert our thinking. The challenge was to provide the space with expressive character and particular form, to arrive at something that is sensible but sensual at the same time.”
With the Niehues baskets as inspiration, Blackwell designed an undulating ceiling of slatted wood, constructed from 224 unique pieces cut from locally harvested cherry. The ceiling replicates a lamella, or ribbed underside of a mushroom, and the vertical angle of the ceiling’s curve becomes a seamless soffit that shades the interior from intense sun through west-facing windows. Computer modeled, the wood slats were fabricated using a CNC machine’s precision technology. “CNC milling saved us a lot of money,” Blackwell says. “Our contractor estimated the same work by hand would have cost us double, so we’re proud of how we integrated that into the design process and used it as a way to economize construction.”
The undulating ceiling extends onto the museum’s back wall for a mycological profile within which glass display shelves are set. In addition to an elegant profile, the wooden ceiling’s porosity provides inherent flexibility for heating and cooling systems, lighting, and hanging merchandise, and softens acoustics to carry a quiet museum feel to the retail space. The shop’s north and south walls are finished in a textured green fabric that complements the warm cherry hues of the ceiling and wide-planked floor, and further absorbs sound. The polished wood also offers a pleasing contrast to a series of raw concrete columns original to the Safdie building that, in addition to supporting a green roof, help to define the aesthetic of the space. “We left the columns as they were for a sectional profile that adds character,” Blackwell says. “We were able to maximize space between them and organize visitor flow.”
The architects carefully considered merchandise organization as well. The fabric-covered southern wall defines the shop’s literary section and recessed niches contain shelves lit from above to spotlight books and art-related literature. Minimalist pendants softly illuminate freestanding vitrines constructed from Ozark walnut. Display cases draw visitors’ attention to merchandise within, and smooth finishing on the bases accentuates the wood’s distinctive graining while keeping the wares in the limelight. A children’s activity and reading area is nestled to one side, and the cashwrap is located between the children’s section and the central gondolas, just within sight of a jewelry display. Handcrafted basketry by Niehues in highlighted displays coincides with the interior, and an S-shaped wooden bench with moss-green upholstery complements the museum store’s shape and color scheme.
Crediting the museum for its high expectations of the project, Blackwell acknowledged his team’s efforts for the success of a museum store that supports Safdie’s architecture. “He liked it, too,” Blackwell adds.
: Marlon Blackwell, FAIA.
Architecture project team
: Meryati Johari Blackwell, Assoc. AIA; Michael Pope; Bradford Payne; Stephen Reyenga; William Burks; Jonathan Boelkins; Angela Carpenter; Casey Worrell.
: Meryati Johari Blackwell, Assoc. AIA.
: Milestone Construction Company.
: Ducibella Venter & Santore (security).
: Resource Design.
: HP Engineering Inc. (MEP).
: KnollTextiles; UDI.
: PPG Pittsburgh Paints.
: Cherry Hardwood.
: UDI (cherry veneer plywood).
: Bartco; Juno; Mooi; Roblon.
: Bentonville Glass.
: Bentonville Glass.
: UDI, Inc.