Every year, DDI magazine, sister publication to Contract, presents one outstanding industry professional with the prestigious Markopoulos Award, an honor named after the late visual merchandising legend Andrew Markopoulos. This year, the peer-awarded honor goes to Denny Gerdeman, principal and co-founder of Chute Gerdeman Retail.
Gerdeman began his career working at an architectural firm in 1971. From there he went on to hold various roles across multiple companies, including The Limited, The Doody Co., Nexus, and Richardson Smith Fitch, before finally co-founding Chute Gerdeman Retail in 1989. At Chute Gerdeman Retail, he shared in the creation of iconic retail designs across the globe like M&M’s World in New York and Barbie Shanghai. More recently, Gerdeman’s firm created unique designs for The Flagship Powered by Reebok (the Jets/Giants team shop at the New Meadowlands Stadium), C&A Brazil, and a new concept for The Army & Air Force Exchange Service at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City.
How did you get started in the design profession?
Early in my professional career, I was working with an architectural firm, and we won the project to design The Limited headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. I then was offered a job as a store designer at The Limited in 1976. There I learned retail design over the next three years—planning, designing, and developing several hundred stores.
What inspires you as a designer?
That’s a big question, and one that doesn’t have just one answer. I love that design is about constant change, and I believe the best creativity comes when you have tough project constraints. I like large spaces that are well designed and feel comfortable, but I also really like to pay attention to how the small details are handled.
What is your design philosophy?
I guess this goes back to my early days as a space planner, but I firmly believe that it starts with a great floor plan that allows and encourages customers to circulate the entire space. Also, the brand personality needs to be designed in every dimension of the space, and the customer intuitively understands and feels the emotion and shopping process.
Who are your role models/mentors in the design field?
My first mentor was Les Wexner while I was working at The Limited. He was an amazing merchant, brand strategist, and visionary thinker. I really had no idea how much I learned from him until I left to go into retail design consulting. Then, I worked with Alton Doody, a brilliant marketing strategist who began applying strategy, design, layout, and merchandising to the fledgling mass channel industry. Those were my beginnings; now I travel and observe what’s going on in all aspects of design. I learn from our own studio. The beauty of this industry is that it’s always evolving, and that’s what keeps me energized.
What is your number one piece of advice to designers?
Travel, observe, keep an open mind, take risks, understand, and study your market. Be persistent, and always remember that you won’t win every argument, but be prepared for your presentation.
Why is visual important in the overall retail landscape?
At the end of the day, it’s about the merchandise. The store design is setting the stage for the merchandise, but the real storytelling is how the merchandise is presented and displayed.
What are some of your past accomplishments of which you are especially proud?
The most recent accomplishment was when Elle (Chute) and I were inducted into the Retail Design Legion of Honor, from the Retail Design Institute, for our body of work as Chute Gerdeman. The 20-plus years that we have had our company has been an amazing journey that I never expected. We have assembled a world-class staff of individuals that Elle and I are pleased to work with every day in our studio. I’m very proud of what we, as a total company, have accomplished since our beginning in 1989 with just the two of us.
Over the course of your career, what singular project has best defined you as a designer?
It’s never been just about me; it’s about what our whole team has accomplished. We’ve done flagship store designs in many capitals around the world, but the one that will always stand out in my mind is M&M’s World New York in Times Square. That project was just plain fun!
What does winning the prestigious Markopoulos Award mean to you?
I’m very humbled and honored to be selected for this by my peers in this industry and appreciate that this is a very select club. I had the opportunity to work with Andy Markopoulos on a project for Marshall Fields during the mid ’90s and just remembered him as being such a genuine man. I hope I can fulfill my obligations and maintain the standard of excellence that Andy represented.