Marijuana stores embrace an aesthetic of high design

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California’s recreational pot marketplace is open for business and sales are booming in stores that look upscale, trendy and clean.

A store in West Hollywood called MedMen has a floor-to-ceiling glass storefront, iPads on walnut display tables and cannabis strains displayed in transparent round containers that contain magnifying glasses for closer inspection. Owners have called it “the Apple store of weed” and their spokesman said they want people to feel like they’re shopping at Nordstrom’s, not a seedy, dingy dispensary.

Even when legalizing marijuana was on the November 2016 ballot, design companies were starting to gear up for the brave new world of legal pot.

The goal was to get away from the associations with dimly-lit head shops with bulletproof glass, bouncers and rasta imagery.

LA ceramicist Ben Medansky made pipes that didn’t sell in head shops; rather, you could find them in high-end boutiques like LA’s Lawson-Fenning.

Snoop Dogg brought in global design firm Pentagram to do the branding for his Leafs by Snoop. The design features pastel gold colors and imagery like palm trees, fish, birds and cloudy skies. Pentagram partner Emily Oberman said she wanted a departure from the “rasta, crunchy, hemp, outlaw” aesthetic of most cannabis products.

This is partly about appealing to a rich white clientele that does not want to be associated with the old ganja culture. But the industry is also looking to design for differentiation in a competitive business.

“The truth is is that all the oils are pretty similar and they’re all pretty good,” said WeedWeek newsletter editor and reporter Alex Halperin, speaking on a DIEM panel at WestEdge Design Fair in Santa Monica late last year. “So design is what folks need to catch the attention of consumers. The industry is sort of obsessed with changing its image from something used by sort of sloppy young men not living up to their potential to something else.”

You are seeing this happening across the board. For example, Bob Marley’s heirs have started a business called Marley Naturals. Their web site shows glossy pictures of trays and pipes made of wood and smoked glass. The caption reads, “Sustainably sourced woods are at the heart of Marley Natural’s Black Walnut Collection of smoking accessories.”

They have a Smoked Glass Collection that they describe as a “suite of richly tinted pipes, bubblers, tasters,” and other accessories that “effortlessly balances form and function for an elevated smoking experience.”

Marley Naturals also states that it is committed to helping people who have been imprisoned or otherwise impacted by the war on drugs. The company has a social justice arm called Rise Up which has put funds towards supporting non-violent offenders get their cannabis-related convictions expunged.

But generally what’s very clear is the industry wants to shed its image of being illicit.

One of those who is betting on a cannabis retail explosion is interior designer Megan Stone, owner and founder of The High Road Design Studio based in Phoenix, Arizona.

She began as a patient, then worked as a budtender in a dispensary, and now has blazed a trail in this business with a growing client list, including a fancy pot dispensary called Level Up.

“The cannabis industry is huge and there is space in the strata for the dumpy seedy shop on the corner and the Level Ups of the world. Just like in the coffee world, some people still love going into 7-Eleven… and will never step foot into these swanky coffee shops that write letters in the foam on the top of your latte,” Stone said at WestEdge’s DIEM design conference.

Thank you to WestEdge Design Fair 2017 for providing the audio from their DIEM design conference and to Josh Cooperman who recorded it and sent it to us from the road in Arizona.

(Inside the MedMen marijuana retail store in West Hollywood. Photo: Jenny Hamel.)