High End: Four design-forward cannabis shops

A design-led boutique experience is evolving in the new era of cannabis legalization, resulting in retail spaces that blend innovation with beauty.

In the days of yore—that is, the late 20th century—the interior décor of your illicit neighbourhood pot shop adhered to a consistent theme: dark, discreet, distressed. The interior ambiance reflected the legal and social opprobrium of the day: the grunge aesthetic reflected the countercultural target market. But not anymore! Since the legalization of cannabis sales and possession in 2018, the target market has expanded to potentially the whole of mainstream society, and the design paradigm has shifted to—what? For the first time in an eon, we have a brand new retail typology for designers to play with.

For the four outlets featured here, the respective design teams have each taken a different approach to this new retail typology, riffing on existing retail and hospitality themes while adhering to federal government rules and market predilections of this newly sanctioned consumer product. Recreational cannabis contains both cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the latter being the psychoactive compound that gets you high. And in the spirit of post-prohibition, the government still regulates what its citizens are allowed to see, touch and feel. For starters, the interior of any retail outlet selling THC-laden product must not be visible to the street. Inside, the products containing THC must be kept under lock and key, and follow a strict protocol for delivering from the locked drawer or storeroom to the point of sale. Designers that relish a challenge are having a field day.

The Vintage Wine Bar: FIKA

The Swedish word fika roughly translates to “coffee break.” As names go, that’s quite the understatement for the flagship store in Toronto’s Distillery District, which feels more like an exclusive European wine bar than a coffee joint. It even has a Vintages section, for its finest offerings. Led by Paola Marques, the GH+A Design Studios team drew inspiration from forests and earth, cladding wall sections with cork tile and walnut millwork. The products—or, rather, tiny photographs of the products—are presented on a canted plane of small transparent domes. The simulacra are necessary not only to address the restrictions regarding actual product display, but also for logistics: encased in glass and exposed to all-day lighting, flowers and buds and leaves would very quickly go stale. Each display is accompanied by a label indicating its provenance, CBD and THC strength, and “Tasting Notes,” in the manner of vintage spirits. So you peruse the encyclopedic display, make your selection, and in a ceremonial transaction that is now rare in this self-serve retail age, an agent unlocks a drawer beneath the display and retrieves your choice of intoxicant as though it were a precious artifact. The surrounding environment maintains the sophisticated narrative, with fluted millwork, stone countertops, plant art installations, and exposed brick walls of the 19th-century distillery warehouse in which it resides.

GH+A took a hospitality-forward approach, eliminating things like overwhelming menu boards and tent cards when designing the store for FIKA. The plant art that wraps the centre column is made with hand-painted gypsophila flowers and plumosa ferns by Jordana Massi of Toronto-based White Oak Flower Co. (Photo by Brennon Suche Photography)

The High-End Department Store: Cottontail Cannabis Co.

The team at Republic Architecture has transformed the interior of a 2,250-sq.-ft. building in a thriving mixed-use Winnipeg neighbourhood and rendered the requisite streetfront opacity into an intriguing outer-to-inner procession through a series of vestibules. Once inside, the fittings suggest a jewellery or couture store in the league of Sak’s Fifth Avenue. The floating circular display stands “get people to interact in a more organic fashion, rather than having something static against the wall,” says Thomas Langrell, who designed the space along with fellow Republic Architecture interior designer Cristina Bustamante. The luxe department-store theme continues with custom terrazzo counters and a diamond-grid glazing on the streetside wall. Overhead is the most delightfully fun and yet practical component: a pneumatic tubing system of clear acrylic that propels the selected product in its cannister, from the locked back-of-house storeroom to the point-of-sale counter.

The design concept and branding of Cottontail Cannabis Co. results in a stylized bohemian-chic scheme with unique moments punctuating a space filled with a variety of material and tactile experiences. The meandering path of the transparent pneumatic tube mirrors the curves of custom terrazzo counters featured throughout. (Photography by Stationpoint Photographic)

The Spa: Sensitiva

For Sensitiva, the Toronto firm Grey North has created something strikingly different from most other cannabis shops, largely due to the specific nature of the product. Focused on health and beauty rather than recreational use, the Sensitiva line-up contains only CBD—none of that high-inducing THC component. That distinction permits the outlets’ street-front transparency and open display of their products. And the “wellness” focus of the product line drives the spa-like feel of the design scheme, from the marble countertops and flooring to the arched doorways, rounded mirrors, plastered walls and curved edges of the inset shelving. The serpentine shapes of the two central display counters emphasize the curvilinear theme and encourage a languid circulation pattern. Where hard edges are unavoidable, such as in the cabinet drawers beneath the inset shelving, the design team has made them discreet to the point of invisibility, by precisely fitting the millwork into the wall and specifying fingerprint-resistant laminate by Polaris for the cabinetry. “We wanted to do away with as much angularity as we could, to keep everything flowing,” says Grey North co-founder Terence Sheard.

A Canadian CBD wellness brand, Sensitiva has two retail stores in Toronto’s Yorkville and Queen West (shown) neighbourhoods. (Photo by Nigel Dickson)

The Zen Temple: Edition X

As cannabis outlets become mainstream, designers must take extra care to create the sense of a safe and inviting ambiance, notes Andrew Hill, a member of the Studio AC design team. “For the people who may not have used the product before, we have to make them comfortable.” For Toronto’s two Edition X stores, Studio AC has taken a minimalist approach to generate a sense of visual calm. Devised on a shoestring budget, the two Edition outlets are lined with fibreglass-grid FRP panels, which are strong enough for warehouse and catwalk flooring, and can stand upright to serve as shoji-screen-like wall panels, as they do here. The design collaborative has created several public art installations, so it’s no coincidence that they call this project “retail sculpture,” a singular, monochromatic design gesture rather than a roomful of distinctive components. Best of all, for both the budget and the environment, the FRP panels can be easily disassembled and repurposed for myriad other projects in the future. Studio AC’s next cannabis commission will be in Los Angeles, for which they’ll devise a new design theme, but still with the same creative budgetary approach. “It’s a type of retail still in its infancy,” says Hill, “so we’re very excited about where we’re going.”

The Studio AC team employed a “retail sculpture” approach for Edition X, creating a long central form that draws the eye through the space. (Photo by Doublespace Photography)