Nook, a new children's play and learning space in Ballston, VA, reimagines the "family-friendly" destination as a curated, gallery-like experience, filled with thoughtfully designed furniture and multi-sensory installations. No rainbows needed.
This is the third venue to open for the nascent modern family brand, and the most ambitious design and programming effort to date. The project was designed by Mickus Projects, who also fabricated and installed several of feature millwork pieces.
Much of the retail world is defined by how fast they can move: on move-in, on building out a store, on moving merchandise, on shipping goods to you overnight. For Nook we took the opposite approach. We took things slow, spending nearly two years on programming, research, design, iterations, prototyping, fabricating, assembling, installing and styling. The amount of attention we put into every detail is meant to translate into the quality and intention that parents will have with their kids when they come to experience Nook.
We have invested heavily in the process, labor, research and design, resulting in something so beautiful and minimal, wrapping around you and your child. We like to think of it as small-batch design, or single-origin design...a space designed with play in mind.
Ben Mickus, Maria Vogelei, Sy Yang, Barry Wells, Ricardo Fercovic, Custom Millwork Group
Background of Nook-Ballston
In late 2017, Forest City was in the midst of a redevelopment and rebranding of a dated shopping mall in Arlington, Virginia, transforming it into a modern, lifestyle retail center, called Ballston Quarter. The redesigned indoor-outdoor complex would be filled with restaurants, cafes and other amenities to attract the current generation of shoppers looking for experiences in addition to purchases. Forest City approached Nook, a modern family brand, with the proposal to open a children's play and learning space in the new retail center. The play space was a natural draw for the young family demographic in the area, and Nook's decidedly minimalist and refined approach to design was a good fit with the retail center's look and feel.
Nook's pilot play space location, designed by San Francisco-based Mickus Projects, opened a year earlier at a nearby strip mall storefront space in Arlington. From the start, the goal was to create imaginative installations, curated classes and high-end birthday parties taking place amid custom-designed play structures and furnishings, unified by a calming, neutral material palette. In a relatively short time, the start-up company built a loyal following of parents, with their mission of providing space for the modern family to play, learn and celebrate.
Nook and Mickus Projects have partnered up again on the design of a bigger facility with a more ambitious program in the new space at Ballston Quarter, which opened in February.
Design Highlights of Nook-Ballston
At Nook-Ballston, we set out to design the moments where parents can connect with their little ones in new and engaging ways; a curated and episodic experience, where the entire family can participate in each custom-designed activity.
The open layout, acoustically absorptive surfaces, and material palette of natural birch, grey textiles and white backdrops, are all deliberately chosen to offer a relaxing experience for all the senses, and allow the imaginative activities to come into focus. No rainbows needed.
With the open and glass-walled space, we strike a balance of visual connection (between parent and child) and layering of elements in the space (encouraging movement amid the diverse installations). The content of each installation builds interest through a measured amount of variety, without chaos.
One technique used to accomplish this is setting a datum at 4' high: freestanding bespoke panels, forming literal "nooks," are configured in clusters throughout the space. Parents eyes are above that datum to plan their route. Kids eyes are below that datum, immersing them in the content of a specific installation, allowing moments of focus without overwhelming them. A child in the restaurant nook can turn around and be in the garage nook, and sidestep into the library, while a parent is able to see it all from any vantage point in the space.
Visual connectivity extends to the changing area, where low wall discreetly accommodates a changing table, and leads to restrooms and storage in a niche directly adjacent to the main play space. Parents can step into to change an infant without losing sight of older siblings still playing.
The connections throughout the space are further developed with open-ended themes: each nook is programmed as a composite of visual, tactile and educational elements, with built-in, modular flexibility to update content over time. The panels act as open-ended scaffolds, allowing kids' participation to evolve and reshape them over time.
The clusters of 4-foot-tall nooks are interwoven within a larger field of millwork elements, each infused with unique functionality and a distinctly haptic sensibility; crafted by hand to be touched by many hands. The nooks are also the source of partnerships with forward-looking, digitally-native toy brands. The visitors to Nook are parents and kids willing to try before they buy, through experiential installations built around the curated selection of toys and products.
The entry experience is devised as a moment of calm, with a degree of separation from the main play space. Grid-like bookshelves line the wall behind the reception desk. They are part library, part display and part storage for guests. Directly opposite the bookshelf wall is a thick, space-separating partition, wrapped in felt, with an inset birch bench for two. It has affectionately become known as the "Buddy Box." A series of translucent fabric strands cascade between the bookshelves and buddy box to form a trellis above and frame the arrival area.
Helix Play Structure
A central focal point in the space is the helix-shaped play structure, stretching nearly fifty feet from end to end. The structure is essentially a segmented, tube-shaped tunnel, square in cross section. It is built out of birch plywood with steel plates reinforcing the connections between segments. The entire structure was engineered for safety, using the strength of the continuous helix tube to resist torsion and remain completely stable with kids or adults climbing all over it. The helix touches down at three points where entry and exit can happen. Between the touch-down points, the structure rises, twists, rotates and arches through the space in a figural double-somersault. Kids crawling through it experience a perspective-distorting challenge, as floor becomes wall becomes ceiling, with small portholes to peek out scattered along the sides of the tunnel. For parents, the science and math connotations of the helix shape are quite deliberate. This connects to one of the core concepts of Nook: to stimulate imagination and learning through experience.