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Has anyone ever trademarked a store design before?

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Every once in a while, store design rises above the parochial levels of our own industry’s attention and becomes part of the larger cultural buzz.

I remember it was that way in the mid-1990s, when Calvin Klein opened a boutique on Madison Avenue in New York and everyone started talking about retail minimalism.

And it was that way when Nike opened its Niketown stores and a debate raged over whether it was a store or a brand museum. (It was both – that was the brilliance of it.)

More recently, Apple stores became everybody’s favorite topic of conversation with their cool architectural elements and the genius of their genius bars.

It’s fun for me when architects and store designers get the love of the general public that you so richly deserve but so rarely get. Everybody loves a cool, new store, but only occasionally does anyone bother to wonder how all that creativity came into being.

With Apple, it was mostly guesswork. Perhaps the most secretive retailer in a notoriously secretive industry, Apple had a strict zipped-lip policy about talking to the media, handed down by the all-powerful, all-controlling Steve Jobs. He let out just enough information to get his company written about – by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Consumer Electronics News and VMSD – but never divulged much.

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So perhaps it isn’t so surprising to hear that Apple has been granted a trademark for its store design.

According to the official records of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the approved trademark describes “a clear glass storefront surrounded by a paneled facade” and, within the store, an “oblong table with stools … set below video screens flush-mounted on the back wall.”

You might remember the fake Apple store in China last year, which featured the familiar Apple logo. The store looked and felt so authentic that even the salespeople thought they were working for Apple.

After a touring American blogged about it and Apple got wind of it, the Chinese authorities ordered the store to close. That’s Apple telling China what to do. That’s power! And also a high level of paranoia.

In 2003, shortly after Apple began charming the business world with its first iteration of retail, the company was granted a design patent on its floating glass staircases. Chairman Jobs listed himself as the inventor on the patent, according to the Patent and Trademark Office. Those who worked with Apple on those stores always told me that Jobs was fervently hands-on, involved in every decision – no matter how minor – with a thumb’s up or down.

And now, even from the grave, he’s making sure nobody will rip him off.

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