A Brand New Bag
Sarah Maud Powell -- Interior Design, 4/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
It makes perfect sense that Judith Leiber, one of the country's few producers of couture handbags, should commission a made-to-measure flagship boutique on New York's tony Madison Avenue. What's perhaps surprising is that the job went to Gensler, the venerable contract firm associated more with corporate office spaces and airport lounges (albeit decidedly high-concept ones) than glittering emporiums that cater to socialites.
According to Judith Leiber creative director Frank Zambrelli, however, the firm was a natural choice. "The Gensler team got that the store isn't the star of the show," he says. "It's the backdrop for the real stars—the collections."
The 3,200-square-foot, split-level shop is located in the landmark Helmsley Carlton House and is the former site of the original Maxim's restaurant. "We talked a lot about how to make the space welcoming without being overly precious or cozy," recalls Gensler principal Mark Morton. "To invoke an element of timeless old New York," he continues, "we landed on the idea of creating the feeling of an art deco Park Avenue apartment."
The patrician bones of the original 1940's structure required only the most subtle of face-lifts. "We added some minor stepping in the ceiling to accommodate the recessed lighting," Morton explains. "Otherwise, there are few bells and whistles."
In fact, the shop's sense of sleek understatement allows the company's luxe wares—crystal-encrusted minaudières, strappy crocodile sandals, chinchilla-trimmed nappa-leather gloves—to take center stage. The sumptuous, tone-on-tone backdrop of the main salon and lower level, reached by four steps down, is marked by wool wall-to-wall carpet in a deep champagne. Curvilinear built-in display cases are lined in silk and trimmed in European oak. Desks and freestanding displays are veneered in warm rosewood. Drawers and cabinets all lock magnetically, so no hardware interrupts the flow of the clean-lined surfaces. To maintain a sense of luminosity, what Morton calls "whiteness," 1 1/4-inch-thick clear acrylic resin was used for display shelves in lieu of glass, which at that thickness can read green. Chairs adapted from an original art deco design and upholstered in cream kidskin leather and a custom ottoman covered in taupe silk mohair enhance the well-heeled ambiance.
A 30-foot-wide Shimmerscreen—a brass ball-chain curtain—runs the entire east wall of the main salon, opening at strategic points to expose either street-facing windows or mirrored panels between them. "We were dealing with a space that's 18 inches below street level," Morton says. "So we had to 'organize' the wall for customers inside the store with a bit of optical illusion." All the better to focus their attention on the season's must-have open-toe python Tess pumps and satin Bean pouch.