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Richard Altuna, Who Redesigned What Retail Looks Like, Dies At 70

Shoppers browse at a Williams Sonoma in Chicago, Ill., on May 22, 2003.
Shoppers browse at a Williams Sonoma in Chicago, Ill., on May 22, 2003.

Ever lingered over purchases at The Gap, Pottery Barn, Origins, Patagonia or the Nature Company? Or dashed in for a coffee at Starbucks? Then you've most likely basked in the work of architect and designer Richard Altuna, who stealthily shaped the consumer landscape for upwardly mobile families for decades. Altuna died at the age of 70, according to a funeral announcement posted by Saddleback Chapel in Tustin, Calif. His sister told NPR he had contracted West Nile virus.

Altuna designed the prototypes for a certain kind of store, one that infused shoppers with a sense of — there's no other way to put this — bourgeoise well-being. Stores like Williams Sonoma, Restoration Hardware and Esprit that created a shared experience for global shoppers: airy, light-filled and complacently luxurious, with a sense of discovery and an affirmation of their visitors' excellent taste.

A Restoration Hardware in Chicago, Ill., on Oct. 2, 2015.
Jeff Schear / Getty Images for Restoration Hardware
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A Restoration Hardware in Chicago, Ill., on Oct. 2, 2015.

"Richard is one of the greatest retail designers in the history of that discipline," exclaimed Don MacKinnon, the founder and CEO of Hear Music during an interview on the podcast When It Mattered. Altuna helped the former music producer design an innovative chain of stores in the 1990s that encouraged people to stand around listening to CDs. The two traveled to record shops in Paris and Frankfurt to research and develop what MacKinnon called "a sense of magic around using analog." In other words, re-creating the record store experience with new technology.

Altuna was born in Lordsburg, New Mexico on Aug. 6, 1950 and graduated from the University of Arizona's architecture college in 1974. Perhaps the expansiveness of Western landscapes and their boundless sense of potential helped inform an ethos of generously open floor plans with just a touch of ambient mystery, spaces easy in which to imagine oneself leading an idealized life. (No better space for that, by the way, than this Altuna-designed cliffside home in Malibu currently on the market for $22.5 million.)

A Pottery Barn in Chicago, Ill., on Oct. 24, 2012.
Timothy Hiatt / Getty Images for Pottery Barn
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A Pottery Barn in Chicago, Ill., on Oct. 24, 2012.

"I see him as an intellectual inheritor to Jon Jerde, the architect and mall developer," observes Antonio Pacheco, an architecture scholar and critic. But Altuna, he adds, was more interested in the intimate retail experience between individual stores and shoppers than developing huge expanses of land. "He honed in at the scale of the store. He sort of laid the way for the Apple store – you go there to buy things, but also to be there."

Inside a Williams Sonoma in Calabasas, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2015.
Vivien Killilea / Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
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Inside a Williams Sonoma in Calabasas, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2015.

Altuna's projects ranged from designing the (now closed) NBA store in New York City to helping Alice Waters make her beloved Chez Panisse restaurant more profitable by figuring out a way to use more space.

What he did was for the consumer. He was so interested in what they saw and how they'd feel about a place.

A tall, idiosyncratic figure whose sneakers were often left untied, who eschewed publicity and didn't run a traditional firm, Altuna was a beloved figure among other designers, says Stan Eckstut, the designer of New York's Battery Park City, who worked with his friend in designing and developing D.C.'s District Wharf. "I knew he would help me make it real and authentic," he told NPR. "What he did was for the consumer. He was so interested in what they saw and how they'd feel about a place."

Although his corporate clients reads like a Fortune 500 list, Altuna adored designing smaller projects — a cannabis chocolate store in California, a high-end barbeque joint near D.C., often the first endeavor of various entrepreneurs. He was "generous to a fault, fun loving, food lover, avid movie goer, book, toy, and tennis shoe collector," according to a statement from his family.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 25, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Richard Altuna died from the Zika virus, based on a statement from a family friend. His sister told NPR that Altuna had contracted West Nile virus. And the location of the funeral chapel was incorrectly identified as Lake Forest, Calif. The chapel is in Tustin, Calif.