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Wisconsin Jewelry Store Grows Up to Create a Lounge Experience

Schwanke-Kasten Jewelers boasts award-winning second-floor addition.

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Wisconsin Jewelry Store Grows Up to Create a Lounge Experience

WHEN TOM DIXON began considering an expansion of his suburban Milwaukee jewelry store five years ago, he saw great potential just overhead.

Whitefish Bay’s Business Improvement District had launched a grant program to help business owners create second-floor additions and rooftop gardens to add to the village’s tax base while encouraging nightlife.

“We’ve been on this street since 1940, and I needed more space,” says Dixon, who owns Schwanke-Kasten Jewelers with his son, Charlie Dixon. “It’s significantly more expensive to build up than out, but that was the only option I had.”

By the time pandemic shutdowns began, Dixon knew having a comfortable space upstairs was more important than ever. Half of his business is in premium watch brands, and he cultivated a privacy-seeking VIP clientele that included celebrity athletes. And of course, clients with COVID concerns valued elbow room and fresh air.

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Dixon had complete confidence in the architects for the project, James Dallman and his wife, Grace La, principals of the firm LA DALLMAN. Dixon had known Dallman since they were in grade school together. “Grace and James are world-class architects and were wonderful listeners when we talked about how we envisioned doing it,” Dixon says.

The design was driven by the desire for a calm, relaxing yet elegant space that supports a range of different interactions between people. “Tom’s desire for some outdoor space also offered an exciting opportunity to open up to views of the sky, extending this quiet space into a miniature landscape and giving the feel of a sanctuary, set back from the busy street, with large windows facing the garden,” Dallman says.

Wisconsin Jewelry Store Grows Up to Create a Lounge Experience

A lounge area is a versatile addition to Schwanke-Kasten Jewelers.

A prismatic skylight, slightly tilted to the north, means that daylight is always diffuse and even, without glare or strong shadows. North-facing windows (in the Northern Hemisphere) provide the most even and pleasing light. The degree of light coming in at different times of the day creates different moods, Dixon says.

The project won both the 2022 Boston Society of Architecture Interior Architecture and Spatial Design Award and the 2023 Merit Award from the American Institute of Architects in Wisconsin.

The AIA Wisconsin said the addition exemplifies how small-scale projects can have an outsized impact on their urban contexts, in this case by creating social connection as a counterpoint to digital commerce and big-box retail.

The project used local materials and celebrates craftsmen from the surrounding community as well as Wisconsin artists, who were commissioned to create original artwork for the interior.

The contemporary space includes a gathering area, kitchen, dining room and bar. There’s a full bathroom, including a shower. Dixon can grill a steak for a supplier’s rep or serve the staff lunch on the rooftop garden.

Since the lounge debuted, business has doubled. Dixon attributes some of the growth to the pandemic-fueled demand for jewelry in recent years and an interest in high-end watches. But the growth has continued at a time when many of his peers say they’re giving up those gains, leading the Dixons to give a fair share of the credit to the addition and how it’s transformed their selling style. “We’re shopping with our clients now, rather than selling at them,” Charlie Dixon says.

The lounge space is versatile. They’ve hosted an array of live music performances, small client dinners catered by premier chefs, trunk shows, and private events. It served as their main showroom while they remodeled the first floor and is an ideal place for staff training and supplier meetings.

For one anniversary, a husband had purchased his-and-her Rolexes, and Dixon helped him create a special and memorable event upstairs as a surprise for the client’s wife. They played her favorite music (Al Green) and poured her favorite cocktail (vodka).

“It’s taught us that we all become closer to our clients when we break bread and share a glass of wine with them, rather than stand behind a counter across from them,” Tom Dixon says.

Wisconsin Jewelry Store Grows Up to Create a Lounge Experience

Tom and Charlie Dixon

Q & A with Architect James Dallman

Q. How did you choose the shape and the color palette of the space, as well as the style of decor and furnishings?

A. The design was very much driven by the desire for a calm, relaxing yet elegant space that supports a range of different interactions between people. The space is first and foremost about the human experience of being together and offering different ways of interacting.

The specific geometry of the project was driven by 1) a desire to create shared space that offers a range of different seating and types of gathering, from intimate one-on-one interactions to larger collective gatherings, to shared meals 2) providing a counterpoint to the necessity to have solid walls on two sides (due to the two long party walls that must be completely solid, as we were filling in between two adjacent existing buildings) by strategically positioning windows, skylights and the shaped ceiling to bring in more light and create the sense of having arrived at something special.

The ceiling shapes are a reference to the precise geometry of watchmaking. And the space is also laid out such that the visitor experience is sequential, rising up the stair kind of clears the palette so that when one enters the main space it has a certain drama, entering under a low ceiling which then bursts open, rising up to the skylight that encompasses the space. The overall effect is meant to be serene, and not to distract from the experience of human interaction and looking at finely crafted objects.

Tom’s desire for some outdoor space also offered an exciting opportunity to open up to views of the sky, extending this quiet space into a miniture landscape and giving the feel of a sanctuary, set back from the busy street, with large windows facing the garden.

All natural materials were chosen to compliment the space, with a simple off-white background, and highlighted by a combination of natural daylight and carefully positioned LED cove lighting and a few lamps.

Q. Can you explain what a prismatic skylight is and how it works to set different moods throughout the day?

A. The skylight, lined in plywood is carefully positioned on the space to create a strong center, but the ceiling is sloped down to form a kind of canopy over the primary gathering space, such that the skylight gathers the entire space together in light. The skylight being slightly tilted to the north, and having the deep plywood sleeve around it, means that the daylight entering the space is always diffuse and even, without glare or strong shadows. This is an old trick taken from artists’ studios, in which north facing windows (in the northern hemisphere) provide the most even and pleasing light for painting or sculpture.

This also makes it the best most flattering lighting for interacting with other people and for viewing beautiful and intricate objects such as fine watches and jewelry. The LED lighting was also chosen a color temperature that closely matches natural daylight, so that the overall effect is one of natural light both day and night, which is both comforting, but also allows Tom, Charlie and their team to present their products in the most comfortable atmosphere that closely approximates how they will be experienced on a daily basis.

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Q. What are some of the materials used in the project?

A. The project materials include:

  • Dark stained polished concrete floors (at main space).
  • Dark stained beech wood floors (at stairs).
  • Charred Black Locust wood siding at the roof terrace and entry (the Black Locust is a locally invasive tree that is being removed to make room for more native species, and the wood was treated for durability using an ancient Japanese technique of Shou Sugi Ban, which treats the surface of the wood with a controlled burn, the charred surface adds a beautiful texture and color, and protects the wood from decay.
  • Baltic Birch plywood used for wall panels, lighting coves, cabinetry, skylight sleeve, and window surrounds. This kind of plywood is highly stable for cabinet-grade applications, is sustainable, and imparts a warm glow to the daylight entering the space.
  • Natural Quartzite stone countertops and wall panels, which were chosen for their coloration and natural veining that compliment the other materials.

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