History for Sale
Randall A. Ridless constructs a Francophile fantasy for Bergdorf Goodman's Fifth Avenue store
Maria Shollenbarger -- Interior Design, 9/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
"Do you know what Bergdorf Goodman's top floor used to be?" asks Randy Ridless, interior designer and architectural-history enthusiast. "When the store was constructed in 1928, the Goodman family used to live there, right over the shop!"
Don't let this charming anecdote's implications of modest circumstances give the wrong impression, though. Thanks to a renovation encompassing part of the ground floor as well as the second-floor shoe salon and corridors, the store is more than ever Fifth Avenue's ne plus ultra of fashion retail, awash in opulent materials and exquisite detailing and permeated by the themes of history and home.
In fact, the firm of Randall A. Ridless won this job precisely because of the namesake president and founder's experience with residential projects. "Retail requires technology skills, which rules out lots of designers who don't have strictly contemporary sensibilities. Randy has all the engineering chops—but also a wonderful sense of the past," says Linda Fargo, vice president of image and visual presentation.
After a year and a half of researching and drafting, as opposed to the customary six months for renovations of this scope, Ridless presented a theme he calls a "19th-century interpretation of French 18th-century residential architecture." The concept envisioned architectural bones that remained intact but surface elements that had been periodically updated.
In his 9,000-square-foot portion of the ground level, Ridless demolished walls, expanded doorways, and raised the ceiling 6 feet in places to create a light-suffused enfilade. Associate Brandon Matthews oversaw detailing, based on Ridless's childhood obsession with the Wrightsman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Brandon and I snuck around for days, taking pictures of door frames and moldings," says Ridless. "And the ceiling in the Bergdorf's Luxury Room was taken from the fabulous coffering in the Met's Greek hall."
The ground level's ceiling and walls are all painted the ' same shade of rich cream. "It's how you'd do a quick update of an older family home," explains Ridless. Flooring is artfully aged oak parquet de Versailles. "I'll take credit for that, actually," Fargo says with a laugh. "I got it into my head that it should be like the floor of the beaux arts buildings of Europe, like it had just been hiding under the carpet all these years." Flooring was "eased" by hand to replicate the look of natural wear.
Within the quiet luxury of this envelope, furnishings are more explicitly luxurious. And virtually all are by Ridless. "We realized that, to honor the 'history' we'd created, the furniture should allude to the great French designers of the mid-20th century—André Arbus, Jean-Michel Frank—who themselves were looking to the 18th century for inspiration," he says. Shapes are stripped down, but materials certainly aren't.
Handbag vitrines are lined with bone and mother-of-pearl. Display niches are surfaced in capiz shells pounded flat and lacquered. Ivory-colored bone strips, thin as floss, edge display cases, cubbies, and jewelry trays covered in shagreen, bone, and/or goatskin parchment. Macassar ebony—a Ridless signature—is everywhere.
In an oval rotunda, a bibliothèque with palm-wood marquetry wouldn't appear out of place in the decorative-arts gallery of a world-class museum. In modern bags, cabinet drawers boast ingenious nickel fittings that conceal locks. "For every single display, we had to think about security," says Ridless. "Then it was: How will the scarves be lit? Where will the back stock be stored? We absolutely killed ourselves to hide all the engineering."
If the ground level constitutes the mansion's reception rooms, then the second floor's 4,500-square-foot shoe salon is akin to a lady's boudoir—inviting and intimate, thanks in large part to the 9-foot ceiling. "The ground level's themes wouldn't have made sense here, so we referenced another great ' French 19th-century tradition, couture upholstery and passementerie," says Ridless. Again, attention to fine workmanship and luxe materials is unerring and ubiquitous.
Associate Beth Martell covered side chairs' backs in silk damask, then had similar motifs hand-embroidered on the mohair seats of slipper chairs finished with 8-inch silk fringe. (Durable but "still quite sexy," notes Ridless.) Leather upholsters ottomans; sofas are covered in a variety of velvets. Individual shoe risers sit on lacquered tables.
Just as Frank incorporated Japanese 18th-century painted panels into walls to dictate the palette of a room, Ridless and Fargo commissioned Japanese-style panels for niches in the shoe salon. Other mid-century references include lacquered display cabinets that evoke Eileen Gray screens.
With his vision of history-within-history fully realized, Ridless is moving into the future. His design for the shoe salon has already yielded a flurry of phone calls from Bergdorf's customers wondering if he could take on their house or apartment. "Suddenly," he says, "Bergdorf Goodman is my ad hoc showroom."