Year Of The Chic
Lisa Selin Davis -- Interior Design, 4/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
There's no red lacquer, no gold leaf, and not a single calligraphy character at Blanc de Chine, New York. Introducing itself to the U.S. market, the Hong Kong company was very clear on what kind of environment would best complement the aesthetic of the merchandise, an update on traditional Chinese women's and men's clothing and home accessories. "The challenge was to incorporate Chinese elements but not be cliché," says the namesake principal of S. Russell Groves. So he concentrated on the two themes that reflect the client's culture: a reverence for nature and a sense of mystery.
To accomplish this, Groves had the freedom to reinvent the prime corner location. But size was a limitation—just 5,700 square feet, split among three levels. "Because the space is small," he explains, "we made careful gestures for drama."
One such gesture is the staircase that spirals its way from the ground level to the third-floor balcony. The structure was existing, but Groves extended it, then sheathed it in white plaster and installed treads and rail caps of ebonized black walnut. Viewed from the street, the stair looks like a ribbon winding ever upward. "The softness of the spiral contrasts with the interior's overall boxiness," the architect explains.
Groves concentrated visual interest at floor level. The flooring itself is ebonized Douglas fir, which he chose for its subtle grain. Along one sidewall on the first and second levels, a 45-foot-long walnut plinth with a natural edge floats just 3 inches above the Douglas fir. In the center of the floor, rectangular stained-oak platforms support mannequins dressed in Blanc de Chine's exquisite silk and linen clothing, also shown on low fold units of stained rift oak and hang bars of polished nickel.
Natural elements stand out against the hard edges. Reinventing the classic bamboo screen, a richly ebonized 38-foot-high one runs floor-to-ceiling in the store's front atrium, while two smaller versions separate the women's and men's sales floors from their respective dressing rooms. To reach a dressing room, customers must proceed first around the screen, then around a wall lacquered deep blue—a nontraditional color for a traditional Chinese finish. What's more, the serpentine path creates intrigue.
Organic touches also include the gray palm seeds that fill a trough lining the other sidewall on the women's level. Behind the new front window, a double-height wash of solid glass, mannequins pose in a bed of the same palm seeds, which serve here as a transition between store and sidewalk. The indoor-outdoor effect intensifies at a certain point in the early morning and afternoon, Groves says: "When the light is right, the whole facade dissolves."
For Blanc de Chine's side windows, Groves rendered the bamboo screen in vacuum-formed translucent acrylic, hanging from a sliding track. "The light comes through, but there's still that mystery," he says. Not to mention practicality: The screens slide away to facilitate display changes.