Grafik Paragraph
06/15/2021
By Monish Khara
Work by Blair Cooper
Interview: Blair Cooper
Blair Cooper's work is a bold masterclass in juxtaposition; the soft with the hard, the matte with the reflective, the new with the old, angular vs. linear.

Blair Cooper is currently Senior Experience designer at Nike in NYC as well as Creative Director and Founder of specialized retail design studio Noise Noise Noise.

Mon:

So how did you get into this industry, I seem to recall you actually used to work more in marketing?

Blair:

I studied Interior Architecture with a major in retail design at the University of Technology in Sydney, at the same time I was working at an Australian streetwear retailer called General Pants doing visual merchandising.There was something about the energy of retail that was exciting, and working in a retail environment meant I had a real understanding for the function behind a store – not just the aesthetics of one. My first job after my final year of University was at M&C Saatchi the advertising agency. They had a division called Brands In Space – which basically meant we translated the client’s brand into physical space to bring about the 360 degree connection.

A few different jobs later I decided to go from agency to brand side and worked in house for Australian retailer The Cotton On Group.This saw me travel the world opening stores in 19 countries across 7 of their brands. It gave me true insight into the holistic retail space – how product is created, logistics, campaign, sales… it was invaluable experience and really set me up for success.

Mon:

When did you start Noise Noise Noise? And what was it like starting your own creative business?

Blair:

I started Noise Noise Noise is 2017. I decided to take a risk, leave my job, with no real understanding of how to start a business- I knew how to create spaces but that was the extent of it. I didn’t even have a laptop to do any work on after giving mine back to my ex-employer. I started charging people GST when I wasn’t registered for it. I had no accounting process. I had a client just decide they weren’t going to pay me over $9K in my first few months of starting as I had no contracts. It was a mess, and was a fast learning curve on what to do and what not to do. I thought it would be like the movies, sitting in cafes sipping lattes doing fabulous creative work…. It was a rude awakening.

Once I got the processes and fundamentals of running a business sorted, things started to be much more fluid, less stressful and more secure.

Mon:

How did you go about building a portfolio and client base for Noise Noise Noise?

Blair:

The retail industry in Australia is very small. We have a number of major retailers who own various brands – so a lot of key stakeholders in the industry work between these big brands for their careers. I was very lucky to build great relationships with General Managers, Heads of Retail, CEO’s,  hence when they moved brands they would always recommend NNN for new retail spaces or activations. Key pointer here - invest in building strong, genuine relationships of trust and transparency and this will carry over through your career.

Mon:

You've recently started doing furniture design with Noise3, was this something you've always wanted to do?

Blair:

It started organically – each store I work on is custom designed with a full suite of fixtures and furniture. Some of the chairs and benches I designed I really liked, so asked my contractors to make me an extra for my house.

When Covid 19 hit, I had a bit of time on my hands, and thought why not design all the pieces I wanted yet couldn’t find in the stores. The key was bold colours and shapes that were statement making that were a feature in a space, an artwork in their own right.

The steel fabricators I have worked with for years loved the thought of doing something different so we worked together to fabricate a full range of items from TV units to shelving, fruit trays, to side tables.

It was a bit of fun and I really should hurry up and get these on the market to sell.

Mon:

I think what I notice most about your work is color and materials. Where do you gather a lot of your creative inspiration from?

Blair:

I love juxtaposition. Traditionally industrial materials such as steel contrasted with transparency of glass or reflectivity of mirror, and softness of textiles. I always push for statement making forms instead of generic shapes. In the concept stage, I normally feel a pull towards a certain colour depending on the brand. From there I start pulling together materials and textures thinking about how I can bring the colour concept together in a unique NNN vibe. The inspiration for this is fluid – it could be a piece of clothing someone is wearing, an old sign in China Town, or a colourway of a pair of sneakers. Sometimes you just see inspiration and your brain pulls the references together for you.

Noise 3 Furniture
Noise 3 Furniture
Mon:

How did the Nike role in New York come about? And how has the move to the US been?

Blair:

Back in March 2019 I did a workshop with Nike in Melbourne on a whim – called the Department of the Unimaginable for Air Max Day. I signed up for a fashion rework session for a bit of fun. Little did we know it was a recruiting tool for Nike and they had the recruitment teams for Portland WHQ there, film crews and all. I was super into the process – like a Project Runway style session where they had racks of deadstock Nike apparel, trims, tools, and we could make anything under the concept of Air within a 2 hour period.

When we presented our pieces at the end, I started talking to the Global Recruiter for Nike Design and we arranged to catch up the following day for coffee. His hotel was opposite the Subtype store in Melbourne I designed – and it was onsite being built at that time. I took him through the space – the concept and showed him I was hands on at every stage of the project.

Many months later, my wife and I were in LA and reached out to him to see if he was keen to connect. The next day we had an itinerary for our trip to Nike WHQ and flew to Portland to meet with other recruiters from our various fields (my wife is a Trend Forecaster). After the meeting, I didn’t hear from them for months. I was pretty bummed.

In November 2019 they reached out and offered me a role in NYC as the Senior Experience Designer. It sounded like the perfect role in the perfect city, but it meant putting my studio on hold. Being a risk taker I thought – why not? – not many times in life Nike will offer you a role in NYC – so I said yes. Then started the visa process which took a few months. We were supposed to relocate in March 2020, 2 days before we were supposed to fly out (house packed, fridge sold, lease ended, studio packed up, projects handed off) we were advised that the move was postponed due to Covid-19. It was another moment of being bummed, not really understanding what was about to happen in the world as Australia hadn’t really been that impacted at that stage. We figured it all out, I even did a few nights behind the bar at our local, until that got shut down too.

In October we finally made the move- we were 2 of 3 people in our section on the plane due to Australia’s strict border control, finally made it to NYC, and started work a few days later remotely (as I have been ever since).

NYC is definitely getting its vibes back, dancing, jazz, burlesque shows…. I can’t wait to see what this summer will be about!

Mon:

Are there any areas of design or types of activations that you'd like to see the Nike stores move towards next?

Blair:

Our team looks after retail experience (the NYC Nike stores such as Nike Soho and Nike House of Innovation), live events, and virtual events. I cannot wait to do a live event with Nike once the time is right. With retail we are also a bit limited with the Covid restrictions to what we can encourage in store eg. No trialing, workshops, makers spaces, events – but I can’t wait to bring these to life in the near future hopefully!  

Mon:

Where do you feel the future of retail design and brand activation is heading?

Blair:

We are working on integrating AR into each activation we do – as a way to further enhance the experience for the customer. Nike has been the leaders in terms of digital integration and experience for years now in the retail space, and I feel that more brands will pick this up in the future.

Mon:

Pandemic induced closures forced brands to come up with inventive ways to interact with stores virtually, like VR and video consultations. What are your thoughts on these new ways of shopping?

Blair:

My client Hype DC in Australia introduced Virtual consultations with a personal shopper who were actually based in the store managing online orders at the time – this was a huge success for them as they could see the product in live time, ask questions about colour, size, fit or suggested styling solutions. It gave a personal approach to the online shopping experience with a real face in store in live time on the other end of the line, something Gen Z was craving.

I am open to any new way of communicating and building brand loyalty – and having various options for this is the best solution – as we have to be mindful that not every customer is going to want to do it the same way. Trial and error, test the market, make it easy and seamless, and build brand loyalty is the key.

Mon:

What should brands be doing now to stay ahead of the game in regards to retail design and shopping experiences?

Blair:

Engage retail designers alongside digital agencies who can work together to build physical space with a digital experience and overlay that work hand in hand and bring a true O2O connection. It is more than just campaign posters in windows and 2 for 1 deals to drive sales these days – the customer expects more from retailers and we have to live up to the mark.

Mon:

Can you think of any store installations that have really blown you away lately?

Blair:

I can’t say the Nike installations we have designed as that would be biased haha….

Mon:

Any particular brands you see out there killing it with store designs lately?

Blair:

Gentle Monster is always my favourite from a brand experience perspective. Louis Vuitton is taking it next level with street vs. luxury fashion and making their stores less stuffy. On Running in NYC opened a beautiful new store which aesthetically I am a fan of.

Mon:

Any exciting projects for Nike coming up?

Blair:

We launched the latest initiative for Nike House of Innovation NYC a few weeks ago called Move to Zero Trash Labs. It is an experience that depicts the actual manufacturing process of Nike’s Move to Zero sustainable materials presented in an artful manner to educate the customer about the material innovations. Alongside the build space, we engaged a number of local designers such as Philllllthy, Defective Garments and ADIFF to rework Nike sustainable apparel with deadstock Nike fabrics we reclaimed from a warehouse in Portland into unique 1 off pieces to inspire customers to upcycle and rework their old garments at home. We created furniture out of the same fabrics and bio resin as key moments in the store, and created 27 custom shoes using old footwear components and trash for display. It was an exciting project to work on and very hands on. If you are in NYC – go and check it out!

Next up is a secret … :) Launching end of July though!

Mon:

I know you're into sneakers, favorite pair in rotation at the moment?

Blair:

Working from home – I haven’t had the Nike Offline mules off my feet for a while- they even have massaging insoles. I’m a fan.