So I found myself in Ghirardelli Square this afternoon after a several year hiatus. Sure, I’d been there recently but in the evenings for ice cream so I haven’t wandered the shops in long while. As I had heard, there’s been quite a bit of development over the years, namely the conversion of the commercial space to hotel/fractional ownership condos by Fairmont Hotels (Fairmont Heritage Place) plus a few new retail shops. Though there were a couple of design driven stores (including the noteworthy Crown & Crumpet Tea Salon), one particular store caught my eye, Kara’s Cupcakes. Kara’s Cupcakes is a five store cupcakery based in the city with stores in SF (two) as well as stores in Napa, Sonoma and Palo Alto.
While Kara is primarily an expert at cupcakes, clearly she has a keen eye for design as well as her store is gorgeous. From the moment you walk in, you get a feeling of warmth and comfort from both the sights and smells. The strongest design element of the space is the pink translucent glass panels that serve multiple functions: colored backdrop for the store, menu board, and space divider between retail and back office (where I assume storage, office, bathroom and kitchen are). The glass is a great metaphor for the whole space and concept – it’s simultaneously cute, modern, and efficient. While I am sure some would like the store to be more “precious,” I think this store works because its attractive to both traditional and modern cupcake enthusiasts, meaning women and children as well as men, foodies, tourists, etc.
The next most visible material in the store is the great millwork, which appears to be a teak or pearwood (I think). The veneer covers both the walls that flank the primary glass wall as well as the cupcake display cases. This choice of wood works very successfully as the medium tones blend perfectly with the pink. The wood is also less common than the ubiquitous maple or wenge and bridges the light/airy and dark/sophisticated looks well.
What I like about the millwork are the details. For example, the cupcake display case is actually a cantilevered unit that is set off from an integral concrete base. Even cooler though is window cupcake display, which is also a cantilevered unit that doubles as the base for the counter seating along the store front. The result is a dramatic, landscape-shaped aperture within the casework, lined in Corian, to showcase cupcakes while also serving as a modesty panel for customers seated at the counter. To turn a typically wasted space into a multi-functional design highlight is great design.
Topping is the counters and work areas is Corian, which is a nice change from the quartz counters that are everywhere these days. I’ve always liked Corian for its warmer, softer, and translucent properties so I am happy to see this here as it adds to the sense of warmth while addressing the functional needs of a commercial space.
Also noteworthy in its design is the storage and display of cupcake boxes given to customers. A narrow band between the lower storage cabinets and the pink glass is lined in Corian and completely filled with pink boxes of various sizes and shapes. By stacking the boxes end to end, top to bottom across the this long and wide opening, the boxes take on an almost artistic element like a neat composition of photographs on a wall. From afar, the uniformity and careful editing of materials on that wall, and really the entire store, is modern and fresh as all you see are expanses of glass, wood, and pink boxes.
From a design perspective I really liked this store a lot. Aside from what I mentioned, I also liked the branding/mark, the typesetting and layout of their menu, the DWR Onda barstools (which don’t hold up well to commercial traffic by the way) and especially the map of local businesses / vendors / brands that Kara uses and supports with her business, which reads like a foodie’s shopping list on Thanksgiving eve. As a foodie and design guy, I am so happy and inspired when I see local merchants doing well, bringing together two things I love.