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Icons & Innovations: Louis Vuitton: Art House

Jean Bond Rafferty

Paris has a new landmark. On its opening day last October, the newly redesigned Louis Vuitton flagship on the Champs-Elysées drew lines of spectators worthy of the Eiffel Tower. A year after its 150th anniversary, Vuitton celebrates both past and present in a grandly expanded store with a lavishly renovated decor that singularly combines art, architecture, and design in a futuristic vision.
 
The two men who masterminded the transformation of this stronghold of Gallic savoir faire are American. New York architect Peter Marino is renowned for prestigious retail and residential projects (including Vuitton’s U.S. flagship on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue) and was the author of Vuitton’s original store that opened on the Champs-Elysées site in 1998. Architect Eric Carlson cofounded the company’s architecture department and worked on the innovative Tokyo and Seoul stores before opening his own Paris office, which he named Carbondale after his southern Illinois hometown.
 
The new store layout takes cues from the Champs-Elysées, the favorite Parisian promenade since the Second Empire in the 19th century. The street’s sidewalk paving is echoed with brown and beige limestone interior flooring at the store’s entrance, which is framed dramatically framed by pyramids of scarlet, grained leather Epi trunks. The traffic flows down three spacious terraces that gently descend, much like the avenue slopes downward from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde.

Carlson created a stylish promenade that spirals through the store, transforming four floors into a series of graduated terraces spread over 10 levels that manage to create the impression of a single unified space. The concept, a larger-scale riff on the design of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, provides fluidity of circulation and creates inviting, intimate display spaces.
 
Preservation laws prohibited the modification of the 1931 landmark Art Deco building’s facade, so Carlson devised a metallic monogram “skin” (a curlicued grille modeled on the brand’s famous monogram insignia). The grille is principally positioned behind the windows, unifying and identifying the exterior facade as Vuitton. Inside, it serves as an orientation device, demarking particular areas in the store: Porcelain insets in the grille signal women’s shoes; wood, titanium, and leather inlays denote men’s sections; and ruby-red glass accents the fine jewelry area. Natural daylight floods in through the metal skin from plate glass windows that offer views of  the trees and surrounding buildings. “We want you to understand you are in Paris,” notes Marino.

The new design more than doubles the previous retail space. For Marino, the massive scale of the project called for “a new way of merchandising, new materials, new excitement,” he says. As we walk throughout the store, he points out the imaginative couture details. Flooring may consist of custom designs in white aviana and gray picture stone, or marquetry combinations of precious woods. Dark wenge wood chairs have textured chocolate-colored seats made of custom-crafted strips of leather. “Each one of the strips is cut with a knife and resealed,” explains Marino. “When I work in luxury, I don’t pick something, I develop things and the company gets a patent on them.”

Original works of contemporary art further emphasize the artistic detail of the architecture. Riders on the traveling staircase (Vuittonese for escalator) that spans the lowest to the highest level are entertained by Tim White-Sobieski’s “Alpha,” a 65-foot-long video installation comprising 720,000 fiber-optic points that project constantly mutating abstract patterns and colors. “It’s one big, very Warholesque happening,” says Marino, an alumnus of Andy Warhol’s Factory. “We wanted to give the customer an artistic experience, one of 10 million reasons to come back.”
 
Shortcuts through the store are available via elevator or staircases, but all paths lead to the throne room, the soaring glass atrium that houses Vuitton’s famed luggage. In a nod to the avenue’s Rond Pont fountains, 1,900 stainless steel rods hang from the dome, shimmering with an icelike effect.

From here, a pitch-black elevator whisks you up to the top floor in total darkness. The 20-second trip is actually an art installation called “Lost Senses,” which is intended to offer a Zen experience. “I wanted the opposite of the voluptuous, sensuous shop,” explains the Danish-born, Berlin-based artist Olafur Eliasson. “I carefully planned an empty space of nothingness, which we all need from time to time.” Starting in January, the top floor will house an art gallery.

Ultimately, the store’s striking art exhibits distinguish it as much as its progressive architectural design does. When contemporary art collector Marino proposed art as art, not as a product support, it struck a chord with his contemporary art-collecting patron, LVMH (Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton) chairman Bernard Arnault.
 
Marino confides that the installation of James Turrell’s “First Blush,” a beguiling light show of evolving colors, is intended to thank shoppers for visiting. “People smile when they see it,” he says. “They seem happy, and that’s what I aspire to in creating a shopping experience.”

Louis Vuitton
+33.8.108.10010 (Paris)
866.884.8866 (U.S.)
www.louisvuitton.com 

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