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There is No Space for Compromise | Interview with Eric Carlson

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Defining architectural strategies tailored to his clients, American-born architect Eric Carlson designs and creates some of the most iconic luxury retail stores around the globe. Based in Paris, Carbondale –internationally acclaimed architecture office– aims at customizing each project to the uniqueness of its clients.

After working for Louis Vuitton, Eric Carlson started his own firm fulfilling first-rate customers’ needs and requests. The architect unveils and explains his “architectural strategy” to MiND emphasizing his goal to capture the brand’s identity within the design of a unique project.

Carbondale for Louis Vuitton at  Champs Elysees, Paris. Photo by J. Cohrssen.

How did you get your start from America to Paris, staring Carbondale?

I was working in California with an American architect, Marc Mack, on an important housing project in Japan –one of these late 80’s projects where a bunch of famous architects works on together. Working in Japan was a paradise, I got to meet some of the other architects and see their works. After I finished my project, I asked Marc if he would introduce me to Rem Koolhaas so I could go work in Holland for a year –and I did it.

Then, before going back home to California, I wanted to try Paris for a year to see what happens. With no papers, no French language and just two bags, I knew I was going to get a job –I was super confident. I knocked on many, many doors and then started working with different architects on competitions. France is a very competition driven country. You work like a dog for 3 months with no sleep and then you look for another job. You do it over and over in a sort of cycle.

Carbondale for Louis Vuitton Roppongi, Tokyo. Photo by Ano Daici.

One day the phone rang, and it was a headhunter asking me if I wanted to work for Louis Vuitton. So, I went to meet the people who run the company, but I was very skeptical. Keep in mind that it was 1997 and everything was very commercial –there was no good architecture in retail. Commercial architecture is considered by architects as compromised work, because the dollar kills the idea. It was kind of a scarlet letter –as the saying goes– in terms of retail and I was a firm believer that was true.

I figured I would try it for a while, and it happened to be a moment when luxury retail was expanding in a very significant way. For example, Louis Vuitton was introducing ready-to-wear, which required these otherwise small boutiques to become big stores. Big stores meant that they had an urban context and façade. They started to have architectural issues to deal with such as space, stairs –things that before were delegated to decoration– and everything was very thematic.

“All of a sudden there was this need, unbeknownst to retailers, for architecture. I happen to be the guy who walked in at that moment. I felt like a kid in a candy store.”

Carbondale for Louis Vuitton, Nagoya. Photo by J. Cohrssen.

We built an architectural department –we were both the client and the architectural designers– and we did 80 stores a year in which 5-10 were extremely significant pieces of architectural projects that really started a wave of luxury architecture and luxury retail.

We were just at the beginning of that and it was very energizing. It was the right place, at the right time. We cared about the product, the customer, the image, the operations… We need functionality not just good architecture.

You need to go to the brand or the client and draw ideas and inspiration from there. If it has nothing to do with the brand image or relationship with the brand, then it is a disconnection. There has to be meaning.

“We are able to bring architecture to retail in a significant way and this has to do with us being the client and the architect at the same time.”

Carbondale for Louis Vuitton Roppongi, Tokyo. Photo by Ano Daici.

Luxury retail – what in your opinion makes a store or architecture, luxury?

I divide it into two categories. You have collectively agreed upon things that are luxury like Rolls Royce is luxury, caviar is luxury, and diamonds are luxury. And these are established norms about what luxury is and they have a connotation of what it is. And then you have a different type of luxury which is relative luxury. Customization is also luxury. And your parameters of luxury –if you have lots of things vs. having nothing in life. I don’t want it to be one thing because once it is one thing, how boring is that? That is what we are trying to get away from, we want to make things different. We don’t want to repeat the same style everywhere. We don’t want to go to China and see the same thing we saw in Paris. We want to create difference.

“What is luxury to you is not necessarily luxury to me. So we cannot box luxury in.”

Carbondale for Dolce & Gabbana Montecarlo, Monaco. Photo by Antoine Huot.

What’s your process of approaching a new client?

In 2004, I left to start my own firm –Carbondale– to do other types of work. I was back to be an architect but with a different mentality than before. When I meet my clients, we do an enormous amount of research before finding out who they are. For example, for Dolce & Gabbana, we spent two or three months with 15 members of our team collecting information, taking notes, interviewing people within the brand, trying to understand about the window displays, the store design, the lighting, the operations, etc. We took an inspirational trip to Sicily, watched Italian movies that inspired the brand, looked at their competitors. We asked questions and devised a plan as to how we could have made the store better while staying true to the brand.

“This is our architectural strategy, and we try to understand who the client is and where its core values lie”

Carbondale for Dolce & Gabbana, Venice. Photo by Antoine Huot.

For Dolce & Gabbana, our idea was not to design a store concept –in fact it was the opposite. It was to design a unique project every time. And this is radical because it is expensive and risky, but with great benefits if it succeeds. Therefore, we designed three stores and they are all completely different from lighting to furniture and even the products. The idea is customization of course to a brand and to the place. They are very sophisticated. It is one of the last fashion companies where the creative source of the brand is also the owner. Like Chanel or YSL used to be. For Dolce & Gabbana, the appreciation of ideas is foremost.

Carbondale for Dolce & Gabbana, Venice. Photo by Antoine Huot.

How would you define your way of doing architecture?

We do custom architecture. We do architecture that is unique each time. It is customized to our clients. And we do architecture with a capital ‘A’ – meaning we don’t compromise on design. We don’t compromise either on financial objectives or image objectives of our clients. This means if you come to us you are going to spend a lot of money to hire us, and you are going to spend a lot of money to build your house or your store and you don’t know what you are going to get –you are going to be afraid.

“There has to be understanding and trust between an architect and his clients”

Eric Carlson at Villa Valguarnera in Sicily, 2016.

What should be taken into consideration when hiring an architect?

There are two approaches when you hire an architect. You can hire an architect that has a style and a definite approach, and you know you are going to get that. The mystery is gone, and you feel safe. Did you get a custom piece of architecture at the end? No, you got something that has already been done before –using the same tools they always use. Eventually, it is not really yours. It isn’t as bespoke. We don’t do that because it is a little boring and it is not challenging for us.

When we do a project, our clients have to feel like: ‘yes this is it.’  This way it is much more pleasurable. It is just the first hurdle of risk that is the biggest challenge. The clients that appreciate those values come to us. It is a self–fulfilling prophecy because we don’t want to work on a project where the client isn’t happy or feels like we gave them more than they need. That is not the goal.

“We never do a project two times because we get it right the first time.”

If you had to choose a store experience that you like in this contemporary time, which one would you choose?

It is a difficult question for me because I spend my time asking that question to other people. I learned to appreciate all the different experiences and different stores. Minimal, maximal –I can really appreciate all of it. I pay attention to every single detail, especially when I go to a store and I see it as a highly tuned machine.

By: Elena Parise & Lisa Zanon
Carbondale for Dolce & Gabbana, Montecarlo, Monaco. Photo by Antoine Huot.