Q&A with Alex Shapleigh


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Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background in design and retail?

Over my career, I've had the privilege of working with many well-known brands like REI, AT&T, Nike, and Nordstrom creating what I believe are relevant and engaging experiences that have positively impacted the customers they serve. This work has ranged from Flagships and Concept Stores to New Format explorations and Branded Prototypes. While my education and background are in Architecture, I’ve always loved the mix of ingredients—from branding and technology to graphics, lighting, interiors, furniture, and fixtures—that collectively create a great retail experience. I’ve always thrived in this space of blurred boundaries and feel it is more relevant than ever in today’s changing world.

My career journey includes roles as a Senior Creative Leader at international design firms and most recently leading REI’s internal Physical Design and Experience team, which has given me a broad perspective on the business, brand, and customer imperatives that drive design.

What drew you to join Graphite, and what excites you most about this new role?

After working for some of the largest design firms in the world for over two decades and most recently spending close to 4 years leading REI’s in-house Physical Design and Experience team, the time was right for me to shift to new opportunities and environments. While I was able to lead many career-defining projects and partner with wonderful clients and talented individuals at those larger organizations, I was craving a more intimate setting where I believed that big ideas had a better chance to survive and thrive. I’ve known Graphite’s founding Principals, Peter Krech and Martin Hill, for many years and was impressed by the quality of the work and the level of impact that this 45-person firm has had on their clients and the community at large since founding Graphite 12 years ago. After some initial discussions, we quickly realized that my aspirations to build a Brand Experience and Concept Ideation offering was aligned with Graphite’s desire to expand, evolve, and energize their organization.

What is your design philosophy, and how does it influence your approach to projects?

I believe that if you truly put the “customer at the center” you usually end up with an experience that will not only delight the customer but also benefit the brand and business. Working on the client side at REI and my decade-plus work with AT&T deepened this understanding, honing my skills to lead organizations during times of change and challenge, and navigate complex corporate structures to build consensus without losing sight of the “big idea.”

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Can you share some examples of past projects that you are proud of?

Certainly! I’ll start by looking back about a decade, at two projects for different brands, both delivered within a year of each other, that I believe made a pivotal impact on the brands they represented, as well as on my career.

First was REI’s NYC Flagship in the storied Puck Building in the heart of Soho, which acted as a brand beacon and REI’s first location to launch its East Coast expansion. The iconic structure built in 1885 served as a printing house and home of Puck Magazine for much of its early history providing a unique home for an outdoor brand coming to the big city.

Everyone involved felt a deep responsibility to respect, honor, and exhibit the rich history that lived within the bones of this old gem. Respect for place and environment were so integral to REI’s mission and values it became a guiding light throughout the entire project journey.

- Alex Shapleigh

At the core of the concept was an Integrated Brand and Experience strategy that considered how best to deploy, art, artifacts, salvaged materials, and found objects throughout the store experience to help guide a visitor’s journey, while merging REI’s rich history to their new home in the city.

Additional graphic and brand elements that connected REI’s love of the great outdoors were then thoughtfully layered throughout the 3-level store to encourage moments of pause, interaction, and education. This project will always hold a special place in my heart, as my first opportunity to partner with REI, beginning a decade-plus relationship with the brand, and ongoing collaborations with some of my most valued professional connections.

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Following close behind was an opportunity to create the first-ever Flagship Experience for AT&T, on the famed shopping promenade of Michigan Avenue in Chicago, IL. In this 10,000 sqft one-of-a-kind location we had an opportunity to truly turn the mobile phone shopping experience “inside out” while simultaneously recasting the image of the AT&T Brand for the future. In less than a year, a remarkable team of collaborators, builders, designers, technologists, dreamers, and strategists brought to life a digitally immersive, award-winning experience—one of my proudest career achievements.

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More recently, the projects and initiatives I helped lead for outdoor brands like Cotopaxi and REI allowed me to make an impact in an industry in which I have a personal passion, for brands with an enduring mission to give back to the communities they serve. During my time at REI, much of my work focused on developing new store formats to help REI serve and connect with customers they previously had not been able to reach with their traditional store format. A few highlights included REI’s first Small Format Urban Store concept that aimed to connect with its new community through careful curation of relevant products while digitally linking to the breadth of REI, in just 5,000 sqft in the heart of Cambridge MA.

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Up the road from Cambridge, we created another new concept store serving the needs of a different consumer: those that live and visit iconic mountain towns, like North Conway, NH, gateway to the White Mountains. This location had put “doing” at the center with an interactive guide hub serving rental and guide services, supported by edited product assortments tailored to the activities popular in the region. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to be part of REI’s evolution and expansion for so many years!

What are some key insights you've gained from your experience in the retail sector that you believe will benefit Graphite Studio 6B?

Well for starters, I’m in good company with existing Graphite leadership that have decades of deep retail experience and an impressive portfolio of work delivered over the last 12 years, particularly serving clients with high-quality and high-velocity delivery services! Built on that foundation, I believe my career experience helps brands rethink how to connect with new and existing consumers at times of change or evolution. This work is fueled by an insatiable curiosity and courage to ask ‘what if’ and ‘why not’ along the journey with our clients. We are introducing Graphite Studio 6B to partner with brands at this inflection point, in business, products, and consumers. We just might be the best-kept secret around; a small firm with big ideas, who believes in the power of design to solve challenges for brands of any scale.

What are some hopes you have for Graphite Studio 6B?

I hope that Graphite Studio 6B will be a place where new ideas, explorations, and client collaborations can thrive! I also hope that Graphite and Studio 6B will be a place where curious, talented, and dedicated design professionals can grow their careers and see their visions become reality. Lastly, I hope to get opportunities to continue supporting the evolution of Outdoor/Active brands as well as those in Technology and Food & Beverage, an existing area of expertise at Graphite.

What advice would you give to aspiring designers or those looking to enter retail design?

Get ready for a wild ride as our industry comes with ups and downs, twists and turns, and those with patience, an agile mindset, and a flexible disposition can chart their own path! Be a sponge early in your career to fill your quiver with as many skills and experiences as possible, before you start to hone a specific area of focus. Lastly, don’t forget to have fun as I believe this always leads to the creation of memorable work!