Eric Carlson from Carbondale found his niche as a luxury architect after his first rousing store design for Louis Vuitton. Still riding the wave of success, he exclusively tells Upscale Living magazine that 25 years on, he still feels like a kid in a candy store.
When and how did your journey as an Architect begin?
I have always loved to draw and ever since I can remember, I’ve been aware about how places and spaces feel, but it’s when I began to design in university I knew that the Architecture profession was for me.
The story of becoming a niche luxury Architect all started when I first began working with Louis Vuitton in 1997. The store designs were composed essentially of standardized display counters and to be honest, I was doubtful that good architecture could be achieved because of the commercial constrains and the long tradition of a decorative and thematic approach. However, with the LV’s timely product expansion into Ready-to-Wear, and the need for bigger stores and buildings combined with an inspired, open-minded President at the time, Yves Carcel, I found myself in a fertile environment for motivated individuals with ideas.
After designing the first “flagship store” in Osaka with a multi-level exterior façade and large interior volumes, the flood gates opened, and the thirst for architectural ideas allowed me to establish an internal Architecture studio of 30 people and a multitude of interesting projects every year. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I still feel like that today!
The other luxury brands took notice and soon followed with buildings by Rem Koolhaas and Herzog de Meuron for Prada and Renzo Piano for Hermes. Luxury retail Architecture began to be considered “Architecture” with a capital “A”.
After seven years as Founder and Director of the Louis Vuitton Architecture Department in Paris, I wanted to continue to grow and expand my expertise in Luxury Design to other types of high-end projects. I opened my office CARBONDALE Paris in 2004 and Sao Paulo in 2011 and since then, we’ve designed a rich diversity of works including private homes, office headquarters, museums, restaurants as well as stores.
What / who do you draw your inspiration from?
The short answer is EVERYTHING. I think “perceptiveness” is the common thread that weaves through all creative individuals. Of course, for me the client is a fundamental source of inspiration and their attributes and essence are catalysts to an inexhaustible spring of ideas. For example, we are currently working with Dolce & Gabbana, the Italian fashion brand. The influences from the renowned filmmakers Visconti and Fellini have been important in shaping the brand’s attitude and values. And subsequently the films “The Leopard” and “La Dolce Vita” have been important sources of inspirations for us in the development of the architectural designs.
You have been instrumental in many incredible luxury retail stores, urban developments, residential projects, museums and showrooms to name but a few. What does your creative / work process involve?
The secret to creating a successful design in Luxury Architecture begins with a real and profound “understanding” of our clients and their contexts whether individuals, a family or a company. After having realized luxury projects across the globe for over 25 years, I have refined a very unique process that begins with an extensive research and analysis that results in a “design strategy”. This phase assures the project’s success by pointing the creative process in the appropriate direction with designs that are inherently customized to the client.
What are / have been your biggest challenges in your creative process?The biggest challenge to creativity is the ability to suspend judgments and avoid preconceptions so that truly innovative ideas can be discovered. To begin the design process with a “vision” is a sure way to end up with architectural imitation.
Have you ever turned down any projects and if yes, why?
We are regularly asked to work on projects that pursue the adequate or satisfactory. For me, every project is special. Each project we accept at CARBONDALE, we invest ourselves fully to create exceptional architecture.
Important lessons along the way?
For me, an important lesson came from my first job in Architecture. It was a 6-month internship in Washington D.C. for an office whose work was ordinary and unimaginative. After that experience, I promised myself that I would only work where I was inspired. The most important lessons seem to come from failures and mistakes.
The favorite part of your job?
Watching people interact with a recently completed project is very fulfilling for me. After months, sometimes years of reflections, I finally get to see how everything comes together. This is pure pleasure.
What do you think sets your designs apart?
There is a fundamental choice when designing in Architecture; should the project express the identity of the client or brand or should it express Architect’s personal style? Most Architects choose to blanket their own style over all their projects. At CARBONDALE, we are specialists in “Luxury Architecture”. This means that we customize each project to correspond to the unique characteristics of each of our clients and never repeat a formal language or apply predefined style to any projects. We don’t not follow styles, we’re leaders. My goal is that people visiting one of my designs remark how it captures the brand’s personality. If my projects are recognizable as “Eric Carlson building” or “interior”, then I have failed. Each of our works are completely different … and quite frankly, it would be a boring to apply the same “style” to each and every project.
What is the best thing about being an architect?
I dislike being boxed-in or categorized as it can be very limiting. I enjoy being able to shift and change, to be; creative, practical, extravagant or efficient, technical, understanding, decisive, intense, subjective, objective, the list is vast. Architecture is one of the rare professions that embraces this kind of multiplicity where every project is a new experience.
What has been your favorite building to design? I know, it’s like asking who is your favorite child, but there must be a special one?
All of the projects we complete are hugely satisfying, but one project which I will always remember is the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs Elysées. I had just opened my Architecture office CARBONDALE in Paris and my first Client, Louis Vuitton simply requested that we design “the Best Luxury Store in the World” without limits. This of course was a dream project. First, we completely demolished the building’s interior structure to create a three-level spiral of ramping terraces that leads visitors on a 1,800 square meter enchanting brand voyage. The retail travel experience culminates with an 18-meter high central atrium space of polished stainless steel and 2000 suspended rods to create a magical hovering dome sculpture. Our finished design is composed not only of quality materials and details, but also of quality ideas. The project is the 7th most visited tourist destination in Paris and subsequently became the inspiration for many future LV’s stores, as well as inspiration for projects such as jewelry, handbags and clothing collections. Although I am very proud of the design, I am also pleased that the project is an enormous economic success.
Talk us through your latest projects for Dolce & Gabbana in Venice and Monaco.
I was invited to Milano to meet with Domenico Dolce to discuss Architecture and Luxury. I discovered that Dolce & Gabbana were strategically pursuing something that has never been done before; that is to create completely different designs for each of their stores. This the ultimate in luxury and perfectly aligns with our expertise in customizing designs for each of our clients.
For Dolce & Gabbana in Venice, we sought to use qualitative Italian craftsmanship, contrasts, the historical & contemporary, tradition & innovation, expressive emotions and sublime beauty. A good example is the High Jewelry room. In Venice’s Piazza San Marco adjacent to the Doge’s Palace is the remarkable Basilica San Marco. Nestled into the façade of the cathedral’s pediment, stands a golden lion (the symbol of Venice) against a backdrop of dark blue sky with golden stars. I was inspired by this motif for the High-Jewelry room, because of its strong Venetian identity and the sparkling, glimmering, magical reference of both stars and jewels. The Jewelry room is wrapped in glass mosaics of blue and 24 carat gold stars, handmade by the companies Friul and Orsoni, Venice based family artisans dating back to 1889. I love this space because it represents a rare fearless contemporary beauty without relying on austerity or minimalism … it’s sumptuous. For me, this could also perfectly describe Dolce & Gabbana.
The Monte Carlo store is 750 square meters divided over 3 levels, situated near the famous Casino de Monte Carlo and the Café de Paris with views out to the Mediterranean Sea. Here, the inspirations derived from the overlapping characteristic with the Dolce & Gabbana brand were glamour, exclusivity, opulence and a touch of James Bond inspired humor for a jet-set clientele. For example, the long narrow lower level space with its discreet VIP entrance architecturally interprets the famous 007 swirling gun-barrel with dynamic spirals of polished black marble and pink quartz stone wrapping the floor, walls and ceiling.
How did you manage to juxtapose both historical and contemporary elements into the building?
The Venice project includes 800 square meters over two level projects and is composed of two adjoining structures, a historical building facing the street and a modern structure behind. Dolce & Gabbana is not about “Balance,” they are about “Contrasts,” so I decided to create a striking contrast between a decidedly contemporary design and the 1880 Neo-Venetian Renaissance style architecture, which was methodically restored to it’s original extravagance. Upon entering the warm richly ornate historical accessories room, visitors are immediately confronted by a fascinating time-portal-like doorway that leads to the contemporary volumes beyond and seems to sharply mark the separation between the past and present. This sets the stage for what follows.
How do you approach the design of a project with such a strong brand heritage? How does the project speak to both the brand and your style as a designer?
For me the ultimate luxury is customization, creating something original by capturing the unique qualities of each of my clients whether I’m designing a private residence, office headquarters, and museum or flagship store. An “Architecture of Luxury” that is truly customized must do the hard work of considering every aspect anew. So, the shortcut approach of copying existing architectural styles or following design trends is out of the question. This is essential for luxury brands that strive to convey their identity and the authenticity in their products, services, and architectural experiences. My projects must speak to the client, brand and the cultural context of each place and if they are recognizable as “Eric Carlson Architecture” then I have failed.
Describe your designs in three words.
Quality, Quality, Quality … Quality of materials, Quality of construction, and most importantly Quality of reflection.
What exciting projects are in the pipeline for the rest of 2018 and 2019?
We are currently working on a variety of projects in different places in the world including a Villa in Mexico City, a luxury hotel suite in New York, a special events building in Sao Paulo and a Dolce & Gabbana flagship store in Rome.
| Photos courtesy of Eric Carlson Architecture