Isn't It Romantic?
Nothing could be more flirty and feminine than Milan's Luisa Beccaria boutique, a confection by architect turned jewelry designer Nathalie Jean
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 4/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Canadian-born Nathalie Jean originally went to Milan for only five months, to intern at Sottsass Associati. That was back in 1988. "I just ended up staying," she says. "It's such a wonderful country." Although her initial training was in architecture, nine years ago she added another string to her creative bow: jewelry design. It's more or less consumed her existence ever since. "My husband says it's not a passion—it's an obsession," she says with a laugh. "I work 14 hours a day, seven days a week." In Milan, her limited-edition pieces can be found at the trendy 10 Corso Como. One of her necklaces is in the permanent collection of the new Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Oh, and Donna Karan is a huge fan.
That said, the ebullient Jean does still find time for the odd interiors job, especially for an old friend. When it came time to renovate and expand Luisa Beccaria's fashion boutique, designed by Nathalie Jean Architecte in 1992, she naturally returned. "There's a symbiosis between Luisa and me," she says.
For starters, both designers believe in the importance of memory and continuity. Jean's own apartment is full of flea-market finds. "I love the idea that people have lived with things before you. I think it's so much richer and deeper than having something brand-new," she says. Likewise, for her professional projects, she's not a fan of the tabula rasa. "I've never liked the idea of wiping out everything and changing styles completely."
At Beccaria's shop, Jean was especially keen to preserve a number of the original elements. Ask her what the old boutique was like, and she'll tell you it was ultrafeminine: "Luisa's fashion is the most romantic thing you've ever seen, so the store had to go with that." To capture something of the spirit of a Parisian couture atelier, the walls have always been the palest of pinks, with delicate classical moldings.
Jean retained the niches where the clothing hangs but raised them and backed them with mirror. She also stuck to the floor plan of the existing part of the boutique but modified the facade. Previously, the five windows were just over 6 feet in height, barely enough for a mannequin. "It was sort of cramped and sad," she recalls. With the glass extended upward to the structural arches and radiators removed from the floor right inside, the windows now measure 12 feet high. To expand the boutique from 1,600 to 2,700 square feet, she ripped out the ground floor's workshop and storage rooms and the mezzanine's office. In their place today are four wonderfully airy spaces where decorative elements almost seem to float. "You go from feeling enclosed to something extremely light," she says. "I think it's important, in such a big space, to alternate sensations."
Overall, the shop sparkles, she says, like a "crystal palace." Glass is present everywhere: glass shelving, back-painted glass wall panels, and lots and lots of crystals. Door handles look like an enormous chandelier's oversize drops, 10 different types in all. There are also numerous actual chandeliers, some of them antique. To make the new, custom ones as ethereal as possible, she insisted that their armatures also be glass, rather than metal. When glass couldn't be used for handrails and clothing rails, because of strength reasons, she substituted acrylic. And when the span of certain rails was too long even for that, she painted steel rods in the shop's wall color and encased them in acrylic tubes.
Mirror clads the display stands and the cash desk as well as appearing to striking effect on faceted walls both outside and in all five changing rooms. "It's an incredible effect. Because of the endless reflections, you don't really understand what's going on," Jean says. Equally magical is a wall studded with mirror inserts shaped, again, like drops from a giant chandelier.
Jean admits to being "fanatical about every single detail." She not only designed most of the furniture but also developed incredibly complicated, unpredictable finishes. For the floor, she mixed pale red and blue pigment, silver powder, and flower pollen in resin. "When we started pouring the floor, we didn't have any idea how it was going to turn out," she recalls. For the walls, she added the pigments to transparent paint and applied the result over a white ground. "It's really subtle, a glossy surface that seems to move," she enthuses.
Jean calls the look a contrast to "all the white, chrome, and wengé you see today. The hand of the craftsmen is truly evident everywhere. For our job, Italy is the best place on earth."