The Best Buildings | Varyer

The Best Buildings are Forgotten

A brief history of Best Products Co. and how they subverted the landscape of conventional retail architecture

Our shared experience of architecture is often marked by the stores we shop, the places we inhabit. From the rise and fall of Follies to the never-ending reign of Walmart. Typically these places are benign set dressing rarely acknowledged consciously. That is until we realize what we took for granted. We collectively lament the loss of these places and many get lost in the sands of time. Others like Blockbuster become a hauntological poltergeist forced to live out its zombified last days as an Airbnb, TV show set piece, or even a novelty tourist attraction, gawked at like an endangered species behind zoo glass. Though in most cases some remnants of these places remain, whether that be in the repurposed yet distant façade of a Family Video—its once beaconing glass block pillar now holding up the corner of a Spirit Halloween sign—others live on in our hearts through a collective ennui. What if the Best of these tales has gone mostly forgotten and virtually scrubbed from existence?

Best Products showrooms poster (SITE)

Mostly removed from consciousness at large only to be uncovered on a 5th page Google search, or brought up as the topic of a 20-minute video essay (my introduction to today’s topic), let’s look at the Best store we completely forgot about. Oh Best Products, why have we forgotten you?

Could it be the generic, yet aptly post-modern name? ‘Best Products Co.’ - a name that makes them not only a hard topic to research but a blur of capital in our mind’s eye. Perhaps it was so good that those who experienced it wiped it from their memory in a bout of mass hysteria, some kind of subconscious amnesia because it was just that good, and no shopping experience can compare.

Buildings for Best Products, 1979 (MOMA)

On paper, Best Products founded in 1957 by Sydney and Francis Lewis had no reason to become the poster child of post-modernist commercial architecture, but it did, even having an exhibition with the MoMA. Best was the golden child of its day, don’t get it twisted, this isn’t a Mighty Ducks kind of story, yet 26 years later they’ve yet to be bested (pun intended). The catalog, then-turned-physical showroom all started as a modest encyclopedia sales business. However it was through sales of this catalog and the subsequent accessories within, that the lifeblood of Best Products Co. was born. Sydney and Francis were both art lovers, and it was through this love of art, and architecture; paired with their desire to pass that love on to the consumer via experiential retail design, that Best Products would get its wings.

It’s important to note that not every Best Products store was daring and experimental; at its height, Best Products had 169 stores, small compared to most companies 300+ but enough to be a memory in the heart of most Americans.

In fact, this is what most Americans would have experienced had they gone to BEST:

While Best Products isn’t often brought up, when it is they’re more than likely talking about one of nine stores designed by James Wines of the architecture and environmental arts studio, SITE

Tilt Building | Towson, Maryland

Tilt Building, 1976 (SITE)

Indeterminate Façade | Houston, Texas

Indeterminate Façade, 1975 (SITE)

What remains (Architecture + Branding)

What’s so interesting is that most of these Best locations still exist, built on the same concrete foundations, the buildings have just been stripped of their unique structural features.

Forest Building | Richmond, Virginia

Forest Building, 1980 (SITE)

The forest building is the only one remaining thanks to being preserved by the church that now occupies the lot.

Peeling Building | Richmond, Virginia

Peeling Building, 1972 (Richmond Magazine)

Rainforest Building | Hialeah, Florida

Rainforest Building, 1979 (SITE)

Notch Building | Sacramento, California

Notch Building, 1979 (SITE)

Inside/Outside Building | Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Inside/Outside Building, 1984 (SITE)

Anti-Sign Catalog Sales Center | Richmond, Virginia

Anti-Sign Catalog Sales Center, 1978-79 (SITE)

Nine buildings across six states, built in the span of twelve years, and a legacy that lasts a lifetime.