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The Lab: An Experiment in Retail

January 14, 1994|ROSE APODACA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Picture this: stripped, wrought-iron patio furniture draped with tapestry fabrics and arranged over a large, worn Oriental rug, not in an enclosed space but al fresco . Cast-off junk, such as a yard-long ceramic fish, carefully exhibited as art. A few feet away, free-standing pillars support a gilded Madonna statuette and a vase of fresh flowers.

From deliberate cracks in the cement floor, stiff green reeds sprout, their base covered with gray pebbles. When not in use, a battered guitar leans on a stand, and nearby sits a pool table wrapped decoratively in yellow metals.

Young transient inhabitants come to this former factory and warehouse to hang out or peruse the alternative press publications. They listen to jazz, blues or alternative music ensembles that frequently perform on a stage next to a space known as the Gallery, where local designers show their wares on consignment.

Soon they will be able to screen premieres of music videos and watch foreign and art films. There are already classes in beading jewelry and events scheduled to meet cult artists such as pin-up illustrator Olivia.

Incidentally, these visitors also come here to shop.

Welcome to the Lab, a 40,000-square-foot experiment in retail, custom-tailored for the '90s and targeted at that most discussed, disdained and discredited group of the decade, lumped tidily as Generation X.

Anchoring the shopping center are Urban Outfitters, a chain that emphasizes comfort with cool; Na Na, the terminally hip retail end of a company built on once being the largest distributor of Dr. Marten footwear, and Tower Records Alternative, devoted to new music as long as it's not classical--rock or otherwise.

The Lab is embraced as a one-stop source by funky Orange County youth who have eschewed mainstream dress, music and living and who have either had to zigzag the area to boutiques selling unconventional and pre-trendy fashions or travel north to strips such as Los Angeles' La Brea Avenue or Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, which features both an Urban Outfitters and Na Na.

In the midst of its two-month-long grand opening, with a store or two set to open every week, the Lab is designed to be everything a traditional mall is not, according to founder Shaheen Sadeghi.

"Malls are homes to corporate America; they're very much homogenized," says Sadeghi, who has dubbed his innovative concept, in the shadow of mecca mall South Coast Plaza, an "anti-mall." The term fits the anti-Establishment, nonconformist attitude of many teens and 20somethings who, facing uncertain times full of economic and environmental troubles, believe they have inherited a Pandora's box chock full of previous generations' waste.

"Our approach to our customer is apropos to the times. We don't try to dazzle," Sadeghi says. "Malls don't like people to hang out. We do. The mall works with national brands; we don't necessarily. I don't want to bum the malls out, but anybody that's young and hip doesn't want to go to a mall. Once you do, you lose your cool."

Sadeghi, 39, is familiar with youth culture: Before beginning the project 14 months ago, he served a year as president of surf wear giant Quiksilver, preceded by five years as executive vice president at Gotcha.

"The whole idea is that this is not a perfect world," he continues. "People like (the Lab) because it's not perfect."

If the Lab is imperfect, it is by general standards in appearance, especially so near to planned cookie-cutter communities like Irvine. The former factory has been gutted, carved, acid-washed and transformed into post-apocalyptic remains that house 15 store spaces, ranging from Urban Outfitters' 12,000 square feet to the Collector's Library, a crammed comic book source, at 256 square feet.

Beams and pipes are exposed inside and outside stores, as are the structural metal tubes that once ran through a concrete wall. A few solid chunks remain as a reminder. Much of the wood and metal scraps that cover the walls were found in salvage yards.

The use of these "poor elements" within an existing structure fits the recycling mode so advocated by the Lab's target market, says Lab architect Ron Pompeii of New York-based Pompeii A.D.

"Rather than create a synthetic bubble where everyone is pulled in and air-conditioned and treated to Muzak, we cut into an existing structure, revealing what's there instead of covering it with some other kind of material," he says.

It was Pompeii's application of this naked, utilitarian architectural philosophy to several of Urban Outfitters' 15 stores that prompted Sadeghi to hire the designer for the Lab.

"What we're trying to represent architecturally with the Lab is a state of mind: one of discovery, experimentation, one of looking for an identity," Pompeii adds. "We're not trying to build, but expose something with all its imperfections in a very raw, unadorned fashion. It's a lot less pretentious, but more direct, honest."

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