Pearl River Mart

how good design can make sense of the chaos of a Chinese Emporium

SoHo Historic District, NYC      Size: First floor and Cellar:20,000 SF, 2002 2 FL Expansion: 10,000 SF, 2006-09   Type: Chinese Dep. Store    Photography: Luca Vignelli, Reven Wurman



Pearl River Mart

When Mr. Chen approached us, we were somewhat surprised. Pearl River was an “ad-hoc” built environment, very different from the modernist aesthetic we professed, but his statement that “the container does not need to be traditional or even oriental, the product is” won us to the project.

The new look, as requested by the client, is at “the threshold of” and maintains the mix of sophistication, order, eclectic chaos, simplicity, tradition and contemporary sensibility. It is the universal and truly oriental, inexpensive and luxurious mixture that made the store famous.

The two lower floors are designed employing the economy of few architectural elements. The merchandise is situated around interior courts similar to the Chinese Courtyard Houses, marked by large scale portal elements. The easy to navigate plan is mirrored on the ceiling pattern, the fixtures color-coding the departments.

The mezzanine teahouse is curiously a calming and quiet oasis in the building store. The waterfall made of metal panels modeled after Chinese roof shingles provides the background sound of nature. The landing of the new stair on which it sits is comfortable enough to stop and enjoy.

The Pearl River Mart expansion to the second floor faced us with several immediate challenges. Mr.Chen required a high degree of flexibility due to the unpredictable nature of the product displayed. The new floor needed to be at once visually connected but physically separated from the main floor, the new floor access being through the public building lobby and stair, both in need of complete reconstruction.

Interpreting the new storefront design was a critical part of the store design. The solution hinged on the redesign of the dramatic three-storey high building lobby where a 30 foot high fire rated glass slot visually connects the main and new selling floors.

The visitor is transported to his destination by the circulation path which, like a river flowing between its banks, connects a series of large abstract shapes. The platforms, simultaneously acting as viewing platforms and performance spaces, are intimate enough to display domestic furnishings.

The lighting system wire support has been designed to satisfy the technical needs while completely revealing the integrity of the historical envelope. The industrial loft aesthetic is reinforced by the use of exterior grade “green materials” for the fabrication of the fixtures: Trespa panels, commonly used for building siding, roofing concrete planks, aluminum, steel “tiles”, exposed brick, bamboo and steel light-wells retaining walls for the vitrines.


Robert Traboscia, Parsons RE:D, May 2005

New York shopping destinations, Roxanna Swey, DDI Magazine, December 2003

New York Times, September, 2003 

Pearl River changes its course, Marianne Rohrich, March 6, 2003, New York Times

The Asian Attraction, Gareth Fenley, Design Display and Ideas Magazine, July, 2003

Move to SoHo uncramps Chinatown store’s style, Pearl river’s success flows through design, Crain’s, Lisa Fickensher, October2003

New York Shopping Destinations, Design Display and Ideas Magazine, Roxanna Swey, December 2003

“New Yorker’s secret font of affordable Asian goods now has a SoHo address. Housewares and fashions are on the well-designed first floor”, The new York list,Melissa Feldman, June 2003

Paper Magazine, May 2003

New York Times, March 2003

New York Magazine, February 2003


AIA Architectural Tourism Committee, Mercer Street walking tour 2011