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Gwenaël Nicolas: ‘Interior Design Is a Choreography’

Gwenaël Nicolas has a problem with gravity, likes to present industry leaders with mysterious boxes and is on a mission to make people curious. He is also increasingly sought-after to design luxury retail spaces that shine with intelligence.
Gwenaël Nicolas | Source: Courtesy
  • Suleman Anaya

PARIS, France — Deep behind the orderly Flemish-style front of a 19th century brick building on London's New Bond Street, an unexpected architectural drama unfolds. A geyser-like chandelier seems to erupt from mid-air, shooting up the cavity formed by a travertine spiral staircase all the way to the ceiling, where it culminates in what appears to be a frozen splash of crystalline liquid.

Made of 5,600 rectangular pieces of Murano glass in shades of blue and grey, the sculptural lighting piece both commands and diffuses attention, first drawing in and then redirecting the viewer’s focus toward the varied material textures and sumptuous products that surround it.

But it’s another element that the visitor to the space — Fendi’s London flagship — will register in her memory and forever associate with her visit and the Italian brand: the so-called ‘Baguette Wall,’ a resin-based installation coated with champagne gold metal, designed to display variations of the brand’s most iconic bag style, like trophies that float in front of thousands of backlit, bronze spikes.

Fendi store, Avenue Montaigne, Paris | Source: Courtesy

None of these theatrics are incidental, as is readily admitted by the brains behind the space, French-born designer Gwenaël Nicolas, who is responsible for some of today's most talked-about retail interiors in London, Paris and the city where he is based, Tokyo. Since founding his multi-disciplinary design firm there sixteen years ago, Nicolas has created everything from watches, perfume bottles and logos to business cards, restaurants and private residences.

Yet, in recent years the kinetic Breton has become best known for the hypergraphic, often asymmetrically organised retail spaces he creates for leading luxury brands, in which elements are disclosed like surprises in a pre-programmed sequence that involves movement and time, as well as a variety of materials. “Of every project I design, people should always remember one thing. That’s why every time you go into a boutique I created, you will find one element which is iconic,” Nicolas tells BoF.

A few blocks away from Fendi's luminous funnel, at Louis Vuitton's multi-storey shop-in-shop 'Townhouse' at Selfridges, Nicolas' most high-profile project to date, the element designed to be unforgettable is the revolving elevator that pierces the three levels of the concession, smartly providing a panorama of the brand's universe and wares.

Meanwhile, on Paris’ staid Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, at the boutique Nicolas designed for Berluti, it is a rectangular void in the middle of the store that functions as a focal point and imprints itself into the visitor’s mind, a design gesture he explains with mischievous pride. “In these very old [protected] buildings in Paris you’re not allowed to touch anything, but at the end of the day, I broke everything and purposely left a big hole in the centre.”

Berluti Store, GInza, Tokyo | Source: Courtesy

Standing on the edge of that void “is the key to understanding the entire space,” the designer adds. “You look up and you see these rooms that seem to be suspended, then notice you’re hovering directly above a bar. There are all these possibilities where you can go, and right away, your curiosity is triggered.”

If the store's Escher-like construction and canny alternation of floating planes and plunging voids seem straight out of Christopher Nolan's Inception, it's hardly surprising. When he was a teenager, Nicolas dreamt of one day working in films as a graphic artist, just like one of his older brothers, a computer graphics designer who worked for George Lucas.

Another brother (Nicolas grew up one of seven siblings) was an architect. Both of his brothers’ professions fascinated the young Gwenaël. “I wanted to put the two together. The magic of computer graphics, where you could create the world you want, and the real-world contextuality of architecture. Watching Star Wars I realised that [in a movie] anything can be imagined and realised, but I thought, ‘What if I did it for real?’”

As a kid, Nicolas was also obsessed with airplanes and he still seems to think that the weight and natural downward pull of things are among the world’s most pressing plights. “I have a problem with gravity, I think that’s the problem here. Everything should be light and able to fly.” Yet, it was sport, and not his aversion to the laws of physics, that unexpectedly kick-started Nicolas’ design trajectory. “One day, I started windsurfing and fell in love with it. So I decided to build my own surfboards in the garage, which I converted into a studio. I built 80 or 90 boards. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was pure product design. You draw it from scratch knowing exactly how it works because you use it yourself.”

Even with this early homemade project, Nicolas’ perfectionism and entrepreneurial streak were evident. “I didn’t want to make a surfboard that looked hand-made, I wanted to create something that looked like a product, perfect. So I painted my board white and put a little mark on it. Effectively, I had created a brand.”

Nicolas claims his surfboards were all he showed during the admission interview that got him into design school, E.S.A.G. in Paris, where he received a broad, old-fashioned foundation education. “The school was super difficult. You had to learn everything, including painting and drawing, regardless of what you will actually end up doing. You had to make things that seemed totally impossible and to keep trying till you got in right. It could drive you crazy, but it was also fantastic,” he reflects.

To prove the benefits of such an education, Nicolas points to the carpet in the Berluti store he designed. “People will say, ‘It’s beige,’ because they don’t know what grey is. Is it a purple grey, a warm grey, a yellow grey? I learnt there were 50 different shades of grey,” he quips, seemingly unaware of his statement’s unwitting pop-culture reference.

I wanted to put the two together. The magic of computer graphics, where you could create the world you want, and the real-world contextuality of architecture.

Next, Nicolas got a master’s degree in Industrial Design from London’s RCA, a renowned school in a city known for the excellence of its design programmes. What changed his future forever and put him on the path to his current success, however, was the decision he made, shortly after graduating, to leave Europe for Japan, where Nicolas arrived at the age of 25.

Nicolas says he went to Japan because he sensed that the country’s design culture would afford him opportunities that would have been harder to come by had he stayed in Europe. He landed in Tokyo, in 1992, with the firm intention of meeting “three or four people who I thought were doing incredible things. I had to meet them so I could learn from them.”

One of the figures he admired was Naoki Sakai, an industrial designer known for his futuristic car designs for Nissan. Determined to meet his professional hero, Nicolas sent Sakai a letter stating all the reasons why the two simply had to work together, as well as his portfolio, repeatedly. Instead of being discouraged when he didn’t hear back, the persistent young designer resorted to the type of original, bold move that can’t be ignored and is a bit of a Nicolas trademark.

“I bought a box and put some [plant] seeds in it. I sent it to him with a little message, ‘Please accept this as a token of my work.’” Needless to say, the seeds were a not-too-subtle metaphor for the growth prospects of the collaboration he hoped for, and it worked. The next day he got a phone call from Sakai’s office. “He was so surprised by my seeds, he could not help but being curious.”

In return for his unconventional overture, Sakai’s first assignment for Nicolas was a curveball. “Here I come expecting to design cars and digital cameras, but instead he asked me to design a Butsudan [a Buddhist shrine found in some Japanese homes]. It was a nightmare to have to design this super-classic piece of furniture, the most traditional object possible. I had escaped Europe precisely to get away from dealing with historic references.”

Yet, accepting his mentor’s challenge, in a way, allowed Nicolas to find his voice as a designer. “I said ‘Okay, this is a chance. You wanted it, you got it. What are you going to do with it?’ And in a few weeks I designed this beautiful Buddhist box, which came to define my design philosophy concerning how every project should be approached.”

“Within one year of leaving school, I was designing cars for Nissan or Toyota, which would have been impossible [in Europe],” Nicolas recalls. “And [thanks to Sakai], soon I was in Seoul giving a presentation for a new mobile phone to Samsung’s board of directors. So very quickly I had no choice but to develop the techniques I needed."

Indeed, his early years in Japan and fast involvement with high-profile projects provided the young designer with the real-world skills he had been hungry for. "I didn't want to learn more about design, I wanted to learn how to sell design, how to get projects. What interested me was how to get my ideas heard and realised, I was very impatient."

The elaborate presentation methods Nicolas developed in Japan endure to this day. “I think what is very important when you want to work with someone — and what a lot of young designers don’t know — is that you don’t just present who you are and what you have done. That’s your past, and a little boring. Instead bring something about them, an idea that projects you into their future, ‘This is how we can build something together,’” he asserts.

"I work a lot on presentation, because it's incredibly important that people feel your intention. The first impression has to make people think, 'Okay, this is interesting and different.' I believe when one goes to a presentation one should actually bring a present, so I always bring a box, which I put on the table. It makes people smile. It shows that I am not here to get a project, but to offer something."

Louis Vuitton Townhouse at Selfridges | Source: Courtesy

But what does Nicolas do once he gets a project, and what makes his work special?

“Interior design isn’t really about which wallpaper you use or what the finishes are. What it is, above all, is a choreography. It’s about how people move in a space, what they do,” the designer explains.

Indeed, when Nicolas is designing a store, he constantly has in mind exactly what the person moving through the space will see, and every design element is calculated to direct a person’s eye toward what matters most: the products.

As enticing and rich as the retail spaces he creates can be, Nicolas says they should effectively recede so the spotlight is on the products. The designer achieves this by strategically layering and sequencing focal points throughout the space. “The point is not for people to be attracted by the space, because the space is wrapped around you. But as you progress through the store, your eyes capture details as if they were pixels, and you start to build to an image of the brand by seeing different products.”

While Nicolas’ retail interiors often read as a symphony of textures punctuated by strategically placed splashy elements, underneath the visual opulence (Nicolas refers to his own style as ‘textured minimalism’) lies a rigorous composition that follows a scrupulous, long-honed and almost mathematical methodology.

Nicolas begins every interior design project by composing a base logic. “When people enter, they need to understand how the space works. Their eyes need to be drawn to something, a focal point, which provides the key to understanding the dynamic and the architecture of the space. So from the beginning, curiosity is triggered.” (So central to his work is the mission to stir a sense of intrigue in those who experience it that Nicolas named his firm Curiosity.)

"At the end of the day, every project is based on a simple idea. Designing a boutique is like writing music. Ryuichi Sakamoto [a well-known Japanese musician and composer] said that when he is writing a song it consists of five to ten second components that form a rhythm. Based on this, he can play a three-minute song or a three-hour movie. Similarly, for every project, I find codes. I don't use a piano, but for each project I find an element, usually a motif, that will be repeated, twisted, elaborated and eventually grow into something complex.”

In addition, Nicolas submits all his projects to a sort of self-imposed litmus test. “Just like a perfume, every successful design needs to have three notes,” he says. “The first is an element of surprise — ‘Wow, what is this?’ A boutique doesn’t need to look like a boutique, a chair doesn’t need to look like a chair, a Butsudan doesn’t need to look like a Butsudan.”

In the second stage of Nicolas’ ideal user experience, a discovery takes place. “While the first step was to get people to respond emotionally, the second ‘note’ appeals to people’s intelligence. They should think, ‘Ah, I understand what is going on here,’” he says.

The third and final stage is when the person experiencing a space or product he designed feels comfortable in or with it and, in some way, falls in love with what he is seeing. “This is where you say, ‘I like this and want to spend time here,’ or, ‘I want to have it in my home.’”

Nicolas applies this template throughout the broad range of his designs. “Whether it’s a store or a watch, I try to stick to these rules and they help me define my ideas, because sometimes you have so many ideas and you don’t know how to choose. So I always ask myself, will this idea facilitate one of those three steps.”

Crucially, however, Nicolas says for this gradual unfolding of a design to work, it has to be as precisely timed as it is sequenced. ”Time is a super-important element of how I design. These three moments need to happen at around five seconds, fifteen seconds and one hundred seconds, respectively.”

Nicolas describes his relationship with his clients as that of a savvy consigliere. "My job is to give an opinion and to define possibilities within a certain timeframe and a certain budget. You come to me and tell me what you want. I tell you how much can we do with the situation you have, which often is more than what people expected to get."

The beneficiaries of his advice have ranged from Bernard Arnault, who commissioned Nicolas to reinvent the visual identity of Moynat, to Tadashi Yanai, founder of Uniqlo's parent company Fast Retailing. Nicolas claims his work is contingent on personal relationships with these influential figures. "I don't work with brands, I work with people."

Maison Moynat, London | Source: Courtesy

Having worked for clients on opposite ends of the retail experience spectrum, Nicolas has an unusual knowledge of how to design an effective store for a range of different brands. Uniqlo, for instance, required absolute immediacy and a direct interface.

“When I asked him what a good store would be for him, Yanai-san, the president of Uniqlo, replied, ‘This!’ [Nicolas claps his hands]. People enter, there’s a product, there’s a customer — one second, even one second is too much. People should see the product in a snap, there can be nothing in between customer and product.”

“Luxury, on the other hand, is about creating layers between [the customer and the product]. You want to send messages on different levels and create above all a unique experience filled with elements of surprise and connection,“ Nicolas explains. The rotating Vuitton elevator at Selfridges is about putting “a smile on someone who has seen everything,” he says.

Working with heritage luxury brands poses its own set of challenges, one of which is the need to strike a balance between past and future. “The paradox of my work is that I have to figure out how to make an [old] brand relevant today, and [at the same time] bring it into the future. My job is not only to visually define where the brand is today, but to project what the brand could be years from now. I have to stretch history and create new perspectives."

What Nicolas loves most about his job is that it is the ultimate fulfilment of his geekiest, Star Wars-induced dreams. “To me, the whole process of designing a project is fantastic because it’s all imagination. You start with one line, then a perspective with two lines. Which then become three lines and eventually become the space you see. It’s mind-boggling, everything started out as pure imagination. And the finished product is always overwhelming to me.”

Accordingly, Nicolas’ advice for young designers is simple: stop dreaming. Because in his view, every dream can be reality. “Reality is much more exciting than dreaming. You can do anything you want — from a creative standpoint, absolutely nothing is impossible. Read more, don’t just absorb images,” he continues. “Learn how people who came before you thought, why they did what they did, what their attitude toward their specific reality and their time was.”

For someone who believes in the limitless powers of creativity, Nicolas’ own dream project is deceivingly humble, until you realise it is everything but. The designer would love to design a church. “I always make spaces where something is already there, where people come and discover something. I want to make a space where people come and discover nothing, just themselves.”

The Creative Class is supported by CLIO Image, an extension of the CLIO Awards. CLIO Image recognises the most creative work in fashion, beauty and retail advertising. The deadline for submissions for the next CLIO Image is January 30th 2015.

Clio has no input into this editorial content.

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