Studio Sofield creates the architectural equivalent of Tom Ford's lean, sexy fashions for Gucci's New York flagship.
Julia Lewis -- Interior Design, 4/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
THE MESSAGE WAS CLEAR at the much anticipated, celebrity-studded re-opening of Gucci's New York store: Gucci is back and better than ever. A seamless interpretation of Tom Ford's sexy, hard-edged designs for clothing, accessories, and housewares, the sleek new Fifth Avenue flagship represents the apotheosis of modern luxury. Conceived by Ford and interior designer William Sofield, the store is part of a continuing global rollout that debuted with the opening of Gucci's London shop (Interior Design, April 1998), followed by stores across North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The rollout not only represents a newly unified brand identity for the 80-year-old company, but also reflects the modern sensibility of its creative director. "The general blueprint for the Gucci stores is inspired by my love for 20th-century architecture," explains Ford. "They have a similar feeling to my L.A. home, designed by architect Richard Neutra in the '50s. This inspiration is in no way a copy of any one thing; it's sort of an interpretation of many things. Basically, what I wanted to create in architecture is what we are about as a company."
With five selling and three non-selling floors totaling 35,000 sq. ft., the New York store is Gucci's largest and most ambitious to date. Located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street, the store previously comprised two adjacent buildings with unaligned slabs. This condition made the renovation particularly complex, says Sofield, who worked on the job with project coordinator R. Douglas Gellenbeck and executive architect Gensler. Existing conditions ultimately necessitated the store's temporary closing and the demolition of the innermost edifice. The remaining corner building was extended to create an integrated structure with a unified storefront. Clad in a random mix of chat sawn and sandblasted limestone with expansive, rectilinear display windows, the store's four-story façade is unapologetically modern. Nostalgia for the iconic travertine storefront was "more in spirit than in reality," says Sofield. "Ultimately, Tom felt that the chat sawn limestone from Indiana captured all that we loved about the original facade but brought it into the 21st century." At the same time, the designer points out that the textured stone is part of the neighborhood vernacular as it is the very same material that was used for the nearby buildings at Rockefeller Center.
While the redesigned stores undoubtedly convey a consistent global message, Ford believes firmly that they should also reflect their respective locations. "As our global references become more united, it is important to seize opportunities that are more culturally or site specific," says Ford. "Each store is architecturally distinct and unique." This strategy, says Sofield, is an integral part of the larger project. "Tom is extremely committed to the architectural integrity of each shop," he says. "Within the global rollout, each store is city specific. In Milan, for example, we preserved the store's palazzo architecture. Here, we designed a store that responds to its New York location." As a result, while the Fifth Avenue flagship features the same signature elements that have appeared in previous stores, in this venue, he says, "there is a sense of exaggeration." Ford agrees that the design has evolved since London. The New York store, he says, is "much more dynamic and deconstructed—much less formal and more adventurous."
One enters the store on Fifth Avenue through a small vestibule with illuminated walls and ceiling panels and a stainless-steel welcome mat. This glowing light-box mediates between the mundane reality of the city streets and the rarefied world of Gucci. Inside, one immediately perceives an extraordinary sculptural environment where luxe materials meet striking architectural forms. "We wanted to capture a feeling of drama, theater, and luxury in a modern and sexy way," says Ford. The ground level, which is devoted to Gucci's most coveted offerings, including handbags, small leather goods, luggage, eyewear, and jewelry, is dominated by a dramatic, double-height space. The extreme verticality of this volume is offset by a proliferation of Neutra-inspired horizontal and cantilevered forms. Balconies, bridges, and glass balustrades on upper levels accentuate a visual interplay between the five floors. "New York is a vertical city—simultaneously social and very private—and the store reflects this," says Ford, referring to the store's sequestered spaces as well as the calculated views from one department to another.
A palette of signature materials—rosewood, Lucite, lacquer, travertine, glass, polished stainless steel, and mohair—are applied throughout the store in alternating combinations with tonal shifts differentiating the men's floors (2 and 5) from the women's (3 and 4). Cool, slick surfaces are softened by warm, luxuriously textured materials, "which prevents the store from looking too hard and forbidding," says Ford. "We wanted to incorporate a number of the sensual experiences you feel when you walk into a great space." Sofield agrees: "The store is truly the architectural equivalent of the clothing—modern but not minimal. It is an incredibly sumptuous experience." A combination of sleek materials and angular profiles, furniture and fixtures mimic the store's architecture. Clothing hangs on a delicate, adjustable system suspended from the ceilings. Compared to conventional hanging rods, says Sofield, "the new system is more sculptural and abstract, and allows for more dynamic visual merchandising." Clothes are silhouetted against illuminated wall panels which, according to the designer, "show the subtleties of fabric and detailing to great effect." A mix of metal halide, fluorescent, incandescent, and halogen lighting creates a theatrical mood.
"We worked for years to create a vocabulary, and that's what the stores are about—architecturally, physically, and conceptually," says Ford, summarizing the project. "It's a language that says Gucci without the logo. It is the Gucci philosophy."