, by Daniel Margunato

Designing a Concept Store, with Substance 3D Assets

Daniel Margunato discusses the process of designing a concept store, and how the use of Substance 3D Assets boosted his efficiency.

  • Architecture
  • Fashion

In June 2021 the Substance 3D Assets team released a collection of around 2200 models, complementing the more than 8900 materials that were already available on the platform. A large selection of this massive release were assets dedicated to retail and interior design, intended to help professional creatives to save time staging retail scenes in 3D. The team was eager to test out and showcase the use of these assets in a demanding, true-to-life professional scenario, and started searching for an artist with the skill and experience to provide exceptional quality work within such a context.

The team had previously worked with Daniel Margunato, co-founder and Lead Artist at Oneblock.city, on his archviz scene detailed in our article Bring the Outside In. It didn’t take long to select Daniel as the ideal artist for such a task. The Substance 3D team – for this project, specifically Nicolas Paulhac, Anaïs Lamellière, Pierre Maheut, and Marine Kim – sat down with Daniel to discuss the creation of a concept store that would be populated by assets from this latest release. Here, Daniel recounts his approach to the project.

Defining the brief

Every project begins with a brief. For this collaboration, the overall objective was to reproduce the working relationship between client and artist (or studio) for a somewhat large-scale luxury design project, with a particular view to exploring how the Substance 3D Assets resources, and the Substance toolset overall, could prove advantageous to that project. More specifically, the Substance 3D team challenged me to step out of my comfort zone and create a concept store . It would be a luxury, pleasant showroom, and very neutral in tone. I’d populate the store with the newly released 3D models; these would remain to a large degree customizable, with store clients able to select the exact materials desired. The concept store would have to be a place that could really, physically exist, so I needed to stay away from ideas that were too fantastic or implausible.

The idea of creating a concept store was very carefully deliberated: notably, this would allow us to stray somewhat out of the ordinary in terms of the models and materials chosen. As the project was in essence a showcase of the versatility of the Substance 3D models and materials, this was an ideal solution.

With this brief in mind, I began to concretize my ideas around this notion of a luxury, exclusive-feeling showroom. The kind of place that you might find as part of a priority airport lounge. The conceptual aspect of the space would derive from the materials of the products sold there: building from the initial brief, I imagined a place where the client could select the particular product they want, and then choose between different possible finishes. So let’s say, for instance, that someone loves the shape of a pair of shoes, but they want a specific leather. In this case, they just need to check the materials available to order their own version.

Building from this concept , it seemed a natural progression that the space would be circular; it would essentially be a carousel that would display items that are either wholly finished, or still somewhat raw.

I drew upon two main references when creating this space: the Galleries Lafayette in Paris, particularly their famous, wondrous Christmas displays , and the Gentle Monster store , where the team creates crazy interior designs.

Colors and materials: creating the palette

My organizational setup for this project was quite typical for when I’m working with clients in the field of architecture. That is, I essentially worked alone, but maintained regular check-ins with the Substance 3D team (in this case Anaïs, Marine, Pierre, and Nicolas) throughout the process.

With the brief decided, we defined a mood board. Nicolas and Anaïs provided art direction on the design of the space. Specifically, Anaïs designed the main color theme and CMF selections. Working together, we chose a palette of colors and materials that would work well with this subject.

The key challenge here was to give the products on offer a raw, unfinished look, while still making them attractive. We rapidly realized that we were in danger of the hero assets simply looking as if they were untextured; given that the whole raison d’être of the project was to showcase the quality and versatility of these assets, this would have defeated that purpose. So we decided to customize some of the products; some products within the store would serve more as inspiration for potential clients, while others would remain more neutral, and customizable.

Some of the elements of the scene – the curtains, the central stand, the pillars, and so on – are intended to accentuate the hero assets present; they aren’t themselves the main focus of the scene. And so I didn’t need to go into detailed texturing here. Yet they still play a significant role in making the overall scene credible, and so the quality of the shapes for these elements was important.

For these non-hero assets, most of the textures were a direct drag-and-drop from the Substance 3D Assets platform. I only detailed the central pillar to guide the customer’s eye to the center of the scene. I also added geometric shapes to the carpet to help with this composition.

With these assets textured, I began to consider the hero assets more carefully. And this is the stage at which things become more involved. The concept store is set up as a carousel; each step around that carousel brings customers to a new part of the store, and a new alcove around the store’s perimeter – and so I decided to make this a conceptual journey for the customer; each new scene within each new alcove brings with it a different story. Each new story helps to bring the magic within the scene to life.

Populating the store: clothes, footwear, accessories, luggage

Coming to the more technical aspects of the scene, I was conscious from the start that I’d be using the new models from the Substance 3D Asset library; I’d use Substance 3D Painter for texturing, and I’d assemble the scene in 3ds Max.

Substance 3D Assets provided a lot of possibilities for models. I made a quick selection of the models I wanted to use , looking for the most appropriate clothing items and accessories that you’d be able to find in the store.

Using models from Substance 3D Assets proved very straightforward. The models are detailed, and already unwrapped – in other words, they come ready to texture. No preparation is needed; you can just open them in Painter, and start painting. I did adjust the UVs of the hero assets a little bit, however, in order to scale the models up.

I preferred to create some of the models myself, such as the earrings and the necklace, in order for them to appear more harmonious with the overall look of the scene . I didn’t spend too long on these, though. Given the context of the project – that is, the true objective here wasn’t to convince anybody to actually buy these products – I was more concerned with overall presentation rather than with the products themselves. And here, the most important aspect was the texturing, to showcase the individualization possible for each product. For this aspect as well, the Substance 3D asset library proved to have outstanding materials.

And, as was the case previously, as I was setting up the scene, some assets were present just to help the overall composition of the scene – such as the glasses, the collection of dresses, the flight case, and the hangar and seats . In these cases, I didn’t spend a great deal of time on texturing; I just dragged and dropped textures from Substance 3D assets, and that was sufficient for that particular task.

Really, the production phase moved forward very quickly – the tools I was using provided a great deal of flexibility, and allowed me to iterate very rapidly. To be honest, at this stage I spent more time talking through the project with the Substance 3D team, and discussing any changes necessary, than actually sitting in front of the software, making those changes.

The center of the carousel

Once the concept and the blocking were accepted by ‘the client’ – the Substance 3D team, in this case – it was time to add some detail.

One important consideration that came through in various parts of the scene was the effort for it to be a realistic space, that could potentially really exist. In the central part of the scene, for instance – at the heart of the carousel – I added a metallic tube to act as a support for the central display of bags, to avoid any appearance that they might be pleasingly levitating on top of one another. Yes, such a thing is possible in 3D, but that won’t fly in the real world.

Showing closeups of shoes

You also have various items of footwear displayed on that central section. When it came to these, I knew from that start that I wanted to do some closeups (I’m a big fan of sneakers!). This meant that I’d need a good level of quality on each element. To achieve this, I separated different parts of the model into material IDs, and added a different shader on each one. This helped me to create crisp 8K textures that provide enough detail for quality closeups.

An alternative approach here would have been to use UDIMs – but, in that case, I wouldn’t have been able to control each element as effectively, or been able to work on them separately.

There are some cool details on the shoes. Modeling isn’t one of my strengths, so here I used displacement in Painter to add some details onto the rubber soles of the shoes. Working like this also provided me with a lot of flexibility – if I had to tweak those details at any point, I just needed to edit the appropriate mask.

I didn’t model the stitches on the shoes. I used the Stitch tool in Painter for all the stitching.

All in all, because the original model from Substance 3D Assets was very simple , I really leveraged Painter, particularly displacement, to add details and personality to these shoes.

Sequences

As mentioned above, my intention was for each of the alcoves to have a different identity, and to tell a different story. Balance was important here; I wanted each alcove to be individual, and yet for the scene as a whole to possess a collective harmony.

I began work on each of these smaller sequences, giving each one a back curtain of a different color, to provide a different visual tone – here, again, very much influenced by the Christmas displays at the Galleries Lafayette, in Paris.

Giving new life to the bags

The first sequence was the one containing the bags. In this alcove you have a very distinct contrast between the hard, marble pillars and the soft, padded range of bags atop those pillars.

For the bags, I started out by choosing a simple model from Substance 3D assets. Then I used Painter to alter the displacement of the model; like this, I reshaped the original bag to become something that had more of a luxurious feeling. I also used Painter to create the label on the bags.

The padded material and the leather are both Smart Materials; I created these in Painter too. Once I’d established these Smart Materials, I could also apply them to some of the other 3D models – and, voilà! Like this, a collection was born!

The idea of the broken pillars was a detail I brought in a little later on. Breaking the pillars like this adds an interesting, rough texture to the scene, and it reinforces the overall storytelling – the idea here is to create a connecting thread throughout the scenes, by bringing in elements reminiscent of Ancient Rome.

Making the dress move, in Mixamo

Then I moved across to the sequence with the dress. This second sequence is all about lightness and movement. The final result with the dress gives the impression gives the impression of motion, and you have a lot of flowers flying about. In the ensemble, it’s kind of like the sensation of a car hurtling along a leafy road.

Some models in the scene did require a bit of reworking; this was because I wanted to make them more elaborate, so that they’d pop out a little more, and better fit the scene.

The dress in this sequence was one such case: the original model was too static in the context of my design, so I wanted to provide it with some dynamism. I opted for a very simple workflow to make this happen:

First, I used the unwarp to extract the sewing pattern, and imported it into Marvelous Designer.

Then, in Mixamo , I selected a ‘ready-to-use’ model with a dynamic position. I imported that position into Marvelous Designer, and placed the dress on it.

And that was it. The posed dress was ready to go in Painter.

Bringing organic life into the store

During the blocking out phase for the scene, I had the impression that it was missing a touch of vibrancy. All the granite and metal in the scene seemed very cold and hard.

Discussing this with the team, we decided to add some life. The alcove containing the dress gave the feeling of air, and of movement; it seemed the perfect part of the store to add some plant life.

I grew up in the south of France. That’s a part of the country known for its bougainvillea, a type of climbing vine with very delicate flowers. These flowers really resonated with me as a good fit for this part of the scene. I began thinking about how I might incorporate them.

Maxtree has good 3D models of plants. These work especially well because you can get the GrowFX file for each model, which is completely modifiable. Instead of starting from scratch I reworked one of the models from the Maxtree collection, bending the general shape of the plant around the arch present in this alcove.

Once the shape of the plant matched the environment, I reworked the texture a bit in 3ds Max to suit my taste; I changed the thickness of the flowers, and their color density.

As I mentioned previously, it was important for the scene to be a realistic, credible place. And, initially, the addition of the bougainvillea kind of undermined that – the flowers of the plant were great, but it needed an element of roots, and of earthiness, in order to feel like a real plant. So I added a plant pot, and created some fine plastic wires for the scene; like that, I could credibly hang the flowers of the bougainvillea around the dress.

Go Glam

The next sequence I worked on was the alcove containing the flight cases. The key focus here is on the sunglasses, and the earrings; I had to find an interesting, artful way of presenting these items. As this is a concept store, I was able to get a little rock and roll here. I opened up the flight case and placed a bust inside; I positioned the sunglasses and earrings on the bust.

The model of the bust comes from a cool website that provides scanned 3D models from museum collections. It’s a real statue, somewhere out in the world. The makeup on the bust is of course inspired by musicians such as Kiss, and particularly David Bowie . It very intentionally matches the color of the sunglasses – it gives the impression that the color from the glasses is glitching out, drawing a shape on the face. The earrings provide modernity, bringing this section of the scene into the modern day.

These are scanned, highly detailed models. To simplify them, I retopologized them in 3ds Max to get a mid-poly model. From that, in Substance 3D Painter, I started a new project with the mid-poly model;
Painter has the option to bake the height poly onto the mid-poly to create the details as a normal map, and ambient occlusion. This makes the file lighter and optimized for painting.

A sidenote on this section: the bust in my final renders was not my initial choice. At first, I planned to use a bust of Nefertiti , the legendary queen of Ancient Egypt. I did a lot of tests on various makeup looks – the results of which did make their way into the final scene. But, along with the Substance team, we ultimately decided that Nefertiti wasn’t a good fit for the overall mood of the concept store. So she had to go.

Melting Metal

The final alcove I approached was the one with the necklace. After trying out some initial concepts, I settled on wanting to bring a sense of fluidity to the scene. Molten metal seemed the right way to go, here; you can see this in the shape of the stand containing the necklace – it’s shaped like an inverted droplet of liquid metal. The lights here were also significant – they suggest flying sparks of metal, the kind of thing you’d see coming off a metalworker’s welding torch. This whole part of the scene projects a feeling of light, and dynamism, and warmth, I feel.

And, like this, the difference alcove sequences around the room were done. At this point I still made some modifications to the colors around the alcoves – to the back curtains, notably. This was partly to more closely match the moodboard initially provided by the Substance team; Anaïs in particular provided a lot of guidance here. And it was also to lend a certain balance to the whole scene, and to maintain harmony between the difference alcoves, the various objects in the room, and the overall surrounding.

Lighting design

For the lighting in this scene, I feel I was fortunate right from the start. In every part of the scene I dropped in some lights that immediately seemed to click. I’d like to say that this was because of some skill on my part, but really it was just down to luck. Sometimes you have to work through a lot of possibilities to find a lighting setup that works for your scene. Here, it just happened right away. As I say, that was largely due to luck.

In my first versions of the scene I had a glass ceiling, but I decided very early on to remove all the windows. This helped to give the impression that the scene could be anywhere in the world – it might, as mentioned previously, be found in a VIP airport lounge area – and it also gave me complete control over the light in the scene. I didn’t have to worry about, say, daylight intruding into the scene.

The lighting in the scene was intended to convey a theatrical feeling – you have spotlights overhead, and curtains at the back of the scene. Each space has its own individual lighting, as well as being lit by the global lighting present in the scene. In fairness, the lights you can see in the scene, such as those two rings of spotlights overhead, aren’t the only light sources here; I confess that I exploited the possibilities presented by the 3D environment, even when these weren’t 100% realistic. But, viewing the scene, that unreality doesn’t show through, I feel, or at all undermine the credibility of the scene. It works.

For the individual shots of the alcoves, I carried out a light mix in Corona, to create an individual mood for each part of the overall story. Again, here, this is representative of a carousel or merry-go-round; you have parts lighting up individually to reveal the magic within. The global lighting was intended only for the 360° shots – for the sort of experience you’d have if you were walking through the store.

Creating a 360° render

I’ll add a brief sidebar concerning my thoughts on the applications of the technology at work here: this sort of 3D space is increasingly being used in a range of sectors – notably in architectural visualization, real estate, and retail – to provide a number of advantages. 3D simulations like this can massively improve clarity and communication around a project and/or enhance the aesthetics of a project or space, improving its overall appeal. Moreover, to my mind, they make such a space much more immersive. In the best cases – perhaps where such 3D simulations are used as a part of an AR or VR presentation – a potential client isn’t merely observing the scene, they’re inhabiting the scene. That’s a very significant, and very cool, distinction.

Daniel’s 360 render. Explore the scene!

When an artist has created a full scene – as opposed to designing a render, in which elements outside the view of the camera might not be especially detailed – it’s worth letting people explore that scene with a 360° render. This way it’s possible to enjoy every detail of the scene from several points of view. As the concept store was a full scene, that was the route that the Substance team and I wanted to explore. This would often be the process involved, for instance, if we were planning to put our products online, and sell them through an online retail process.

And this was the end; everything was done.

Substance 3D Assets, Discoveries and Takeaways

A key objective of this project was to explore how the resources available on the Substance 3D Assets platform could benefit a creative project of this nature. The results were conclusive – from the first draft to the last render, this project took a little over two months – though, as mentioned above, much of this time was spent discussing and refining ideas with the Substance team. This rapidity was possible entirely thanks to the ready-to-use assets available in the Substance 3D Assets library; if, for instance, I’d had to model from scratch every object in the scene, I would easily have spent four months rather than two on this scene . The recent addition of models to this library has provided a huge amount of flexibility – I was able to test out ideas easily, as I wished (placing glasses on the Greek bust, for instance). Frankly, the benefit from a purely monetary point of view is quite evident too – a subscription that includes access to the 2000+ models within the Substance 3D Assets collection works out as far more cost-effective than buying individual models.

Overall, the asset library has been an enormous boost to the efficiency of this project. More broadly, it strikes me as a massive time-saver for all sorts of staging and kitbashing uses.

Thanks to everybody in the Substance team, with whom it’s always a pleasure to work!

Meet Daniel Margunato

Daniel Margunato is a 3D artist with well over a decade of experience. Coming from a video game and animation academic background, he was later drawn to archviz. After several years working for different companies, he decided to create his own studio called Oneblock.city. As a co-owner and artist, now he works on many types of projects including architecture, product design, and retail.

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