Sometimes, expectations are a comfort. When you walk into a strange hotel on the other side of the world, you might be relieved to find a lobby with overstuffed armchairs and a mahogany check-in counter, just as you'd pictured in your mind's eye. Or at the local grocery store, on the hunt for every ingredient in molé sauce, the straight, regular aisles could seem reassuring in their predictability. And often, people want that most tradition-grounded of building types, a house of worship, to reflect not current styles but the traditions they grew up with (and their parents, and their parents' parents).

The problem is that comfort shades by imperceptible degrees into tedium. Which is why we need to challenge prevailing expectations once in a while, as the designers for the organizations profiled here have: fast-food restaurant Chipotle, grocery store Central Market, aloft (a new hotel chain), and New York's Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist. All are recreating stale interior typologies with inspired, pragmatic design solutions.

Of course, it would be wrong to overstate the revolutionary aspect of their work: These multimillion-dollar (or multibillion-dollar) ventures wouldn't be taking place if their backers weren't sure there is a receptive market out there, waiting to be surprised. And a cynic might add that the bloom could well fade from these “fresh” concepts faster than stainless steel appliances went out of fashion.

Still, they're proof that design has the power to transform or elevate a brand beyond what anyone had imagined 10 years ago. And even today, when $15 and a visit to Target buys you the Michael Graves name, design has more boundaries to break down. Knee-jerk traditionalists who eat at Chipotle might conclude that, hey, this polished concrete and corrugated metal actually look pretty good. And the jaded Manhattanites walking past the new Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist, may stop long enough to wonder, “ That's a Christian Science Reading Room?”

We asked readers:

Which retailer (a national or regional chain) does the best job of designing—and branding—its store interiors?
  • Which retailer (a national or regional chain) does the best job of designing-and branding-its store interiors? Based on 170 responses. Nominations for “Other” included Target, Apple, Crate  Barrel, Nordstrom, Winn-Dixie, and Nike.
    Which retailer (a national or regional chain) does the best job of designing-and branding-its store interiors? Based on 170 responses. Nominations for “Other” included Target, Apple, Crate & Barrel, Nordstrom, Winn-Dixie, and Nike.