Cadillac House lures the anti-car crowd with rotating art, fashion and tech (while also teaching them a thing or two)
At the intersection of cool technology, artful presentation and horsepower comes a newly realized vision by an unsuspecting player with the introduction of the hip, multipurpose space—Cadillac House. Strategically placed in New York’s SoHo neighborhood beneath the office of Cadillac’s new headquarters, the highly programmable, 12,000-sq.-ft. space—complete with a car “runway,” rotating retail lab, exhibition space and digital displays—represents the automaker’s significant move from Detroit into the heart of New York and its emphasis on connecting with and educating the “creative class.”
Since its official launch last June, the foot traffic has been impressive: it lures 500 to 800 visitors daily, many of whom are regulars, according to Cadillac, and that’s not including guests who’ve stopped by for the 73 after-hours events hosted there between opening day and the close of 2016.
“Those events span from long conversations with entrepreneurs and thought leaders to fashion shows to art openings for exhibitions that we have in the gallery space to long table dinners down the runway for 150 people,” describes Nathan Tan, Cadillac’s associate director of brand partnerships and experiences.
He says “enthusiasts and insiders” would be aware of the relocation to Manhattan, but the need to reach the public led to a push for creating street awareness surrounding Cadillac, while making it an integral addition to the neighborhood.
“The vision for the space started to coalesce around this idea that Cadillac wants to really make its mark as a producer of culture. We bring together the cultural areas of fashion, film, culinary and entrepreneurship and give them a home,” Tan says, calling it a “physical manifestation of the ways that we partnered to dare greatly in the world and move forward.”
“Dare greatly” is the brand’s fresh positioning, which Tan admits is, “a lot for a brand to live up to, because, really, what you’re talking about is moving the world forward in a positive way by challenging the status quo.” And in order to authentically back that sentiment, Tan says the brand believed cultural areas were the right place to do just that.
On the design and programming side, Cadillac partnered with design and architecture firm Gensler to rethink the typical white, high-ceiling “stark” environment of car showrooms into something warm and clad in natural elements, like leather, wood and cork flooring.
With the popularity of multipurpose spaces with concert line-ups, ping-pong tables and chef demos on the rise, Cadillac and Gensler had to take a long, hard look at how to create a destination that still honored the brand. “They saw the potential for this to really be a reinvention of what a branded environment could be,” Tan explains. “It was, in many ways, unchartered territory, but we were chartering it together.”
John Bricker, Gensler’s design director and principal who served as the creative lead, was armed with the mission to design an experience-driven climate, placing product in an ambitious way that would appeal not so much to “your father or grandfather,” but to the integral target audience of the “creative class.”
“We went through a process of developing these strategic profiles of different types of visitors, from the avid car fan to a tourist to a local neighbor, and trying to come up with programming ideas that would resonate,” Bricker says.
Despite the prevalence of online shopping, most people still buy cars—one of the most emotional purchases and biggest investments—in person, and Cadillac aimed to redefine the classic car dealership into an immersive and downright fun experience.
But at Cadillac House, the twist is that you can’t actually buy a car on-site, so employees aren’t incentivized to sell. This enhances the low-pressure atmosphere, where visitors are encouraged to grab a cup of custom-brewed Joe Coffee, play with art, browse fashion by designers selected in partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and lounge in plush leather seating.
The architecture of Cadillac House suggests “being bold and confident,” Bricker explains, while advert references to American luxury come through in the furniture and color palette. At the concierge station, a beautiful walnut-finish wood lends a nod to the wood paneling system that’s used in some of the car models, Bricker explains. “It was really through simplicity and richness of materials that we spoke to the luxury side, and trying to have it not feel like, say, other car environments or brands, which are usually just silver and white or black and white,” he adds. “It needed to feel cool and hip and downtown, but premium at the same time.”
Unconventional lighting choices help to create the fresh vibe, like exposed neon lighting over the runway that greets guests. “The intentional choice to use direct, stark lighting is tied to the idea that this is not a [traditional] retail environment, although the product is there,” Tan notes.
Referencing Cadillac’s vertical light signature of their headlights and tail lights, the lighting of Cadillac House is another connection to the product in a subtle motif, rather than literal interpretation. Similarly, door handles are wrapped in leather with an exposed contrast stitch to evoke the feeling of your hands on a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
In order to add some cool factor to the space, the design team maximized the challenging pre-existing structural columns of the old warehouse to create the processional runway concept. The dramatic, so-called “digital colonnade” is crafted of 72 discreet screens that make up the structural columns, plus a wall at the back of the runway (where cars can be removed to stage full-fledged fashion shows). Cool points also come through the digital integration of changing content, which “allows for this sort of brand sensibility, passion and spirit” and “leverages heritage imagery,” Bricker notes.
The screens can be programmed to display content that runs the gamut, Tan says, so visitors might experience brand content in a variety of ways on any given day, from snapshots of vintage Cadillacs twisted apart in a kaleidoscopic way to runway video footage from the latest designer to video about their latest concept car. The artful backdrop also can be used to display site-specific content for events and partnerships.
Perhaps one of the most vital of those partnerships is the car brand’s foray into fashion with a retail lab showcasing designs by Public School, for instance, and its runway, used by lines like J. Mendel, drawing fashionistas into the showroom.
“The retail lab really began with Cadillac’s commitment to wanting to not just associate with the fashion industry, but actually substantively invest (in it),” Tan explains.
Beyond luring the fashion crowd, Cadillac House wanted to inspire art aficionados, partnering on the art editorial side with Visionaire. After discussing the point of view of a Cadillac art gallery in New York (a city with no shortage of art galleries), Tan says they ultimately arrived at the idea of a space for immersive, experiential artists to fully takeover.
The rotating gallery works to interpret a motto Cadillac references in its design work: “The artistic integration of technology.” One fabulous way this played out was through an exhibit that used a programmed manufacturing robot arm, which sketched visitors using a camera and a writing utensil.
Another interesting collaboration was a four-part installation with the Warhol Museum that honored Andy Warhol’s love of Cadillac by reinterpreting four letters written to him “in an immersive, experiential way,” Tan says. This resulted in a film about dealing with fame, inspired by correspondence regarding Warhol’s obsession with Truman Capote; a Derek Blasberg-curated Polaroid wall and photobooth, influenced by a letter from Yves Saint Laurent on supporting his famous friend; a Mick Jagger-inspired VR experience where visitors can design their own album artwork set to an original Sean Lennon track; and a commissioned children’s book, written by fashion writer J.J. Martin, and illustrated by shoe designer Brian Atwood.
Connecting the worlds of fashion, technology and art, Cadillac House is an original experience, with discussions already underway to interpret the concept abroad.
“We are humans and connecting to the likeminded and like-tribes is really important, so using physical space as a destination for that kind of connection, we think, is incredibly important,” Bricker says. “The old model is sales per sq. ft., and we’re of more of the mindset now [that] there’s also ROE (return on emotions) in terms of being relevant to a brand.”
Some of the value of this marketing strategy reinterpretation remains to be seen as Cadillac lays the groundwork for a major product proliferation geared toward Gen Y “from both a price point and a segment perspective” coming near the end of this decade, Tan suggests.
And Cadillac, he says, is using this opportunity to “really lay the foundational brand work down, to pave the way toward those product introductions in the coming years.”
CONTRACT DESIGN FIRM/ARCHITECT
Shawmut Design and Construction
Fiskaa (electrical engineer), McLaren Engineering Group (structural engineer), AV&C (A/V software developer and integration consultant)
Gensler (digital media content design), AV&C (content management system), Clevenger Frable LaValle Inc. (consulting/food service), William Vitacco Associates Ltd. (code)
Information in the project file is provided by the retailer and/or design firm