Spontaneously Original | An Interview with Werner Franz
The unexpected journey of Werner Franz dates back to 1996 when he arrived in Berlin after studying in Munich and living in New York for 7 years. This is the year he and his friend, Alexander Plajer founded the brand architecture and design studio, plajer & franz.
Over two decades later, the brands they work with and the stores they design are not only inviting and unique but inspiring. Their secret? Werner says “not planning.” This broad-minded attitude coupled with fascinating projects and a great team has landed them on the list of top 50 global design agencies. As a curious MiND we talked to Werner about this secret. He gave us an inside look to their enviable reputation in the architecture and design world.
How would you describe your design philosophy?
Retail architecture is approximately 80% of our business which requires us to be compatible because it is not only about our choice. Especially when you think about architecture, your point of view has to accommodate with the brand you work with. For instance, BMW needs different materials than Timberland, Puma or Galleries Lafayette. It’s all based on the needs of the client.
“Every client tells a different story and you need to get to the core to find the DNA of the brand. Then it’s all about creating an appropriate story.”
Talking about design philosophy, it’s not hand-written. We use different approaches and materials for different clients. Working closely with a brand gives us the core idea about what customers do they want to reach, how old are they, what do they do; all those details influence our design.
Your latest store concept for Karl Lagerfeld gives customers a chance to walk inside his world with the details taken from his own office and home. Tell us more about it.
For the latest store in Munich, all of the inspiration for the design was based on Karl Lagerfeld. The client asked for warmer atmosphere because their target is mostly women and therefore the environment had to be a little bit cosier. Thus, we decided to design the store taking his home into consideration. For the men’s concept –which is separated- we created a story inspired by his work studio. We brought some elements that he likes into the store. His apartment in Paris is completely distinct; on one side he has this almost baroque style, on the other hand he is really clean, tidy, conceptual, and wants everything in order. So that is the story behind Karl Lagerfeld’s store concept. Lagerfeld is the center of attention, of course, and everyone –at least in Europe- knows something about him. It is easier to create something about such a well-known person than an abstract concept or a brand.
What makes a store innovative?
We went through a lot of discussions with many clients about the future of store design. There is a lot of uncertainty in the market which raises questions about shifting to digital and causes the fear whether brands can handle or afford it. Considering their concerns, I think the technical aspects alone are not merely enough to make a store innovative without a trained team behind all these strategies. Most brands don’t provide a good in-store service; they don’t even know if the pair of shoes I’m trying on is available in my size at their other store located just a few km away. They are thinking about omnichannel presence but they can’t even handle providing the product. There is a certain level of innovation that customers can expect from every brand. Nowadays, it is not even considered as being innovative but it is a minimum standard.
Innovative means using the technical aspects for organizing the store to provide better customer service. Having that human aspect and training your sales team; that is innovative since it solves the problems of brick-and-mortar stores in the time of debate about shifting completely to digital. However, I don’t think it will ever happen, at least in the next 50 years. People really enjoy touching products.
plajer & franz Studio works with a wide range of brands in different continents. How do geographical and cultural dimensions affect your design concepts?
It absolutely affects our concepts. For instance, people in Indonesia have a different background and culture from people in Europe, and we have to design in accordance with their expectation. When we designed Galleries Lafayette in Jakarta, Indonesia, our client told us many stories based on their experience in department stores; it is better to have a curtain rather than a door in dressing rooms because if you use a door people will take a nap inside. All those stories, based on different cultures and people, influence our ideas in design.
Talking about big department stores, people are totally sales driven in Indonesia. They come to the store from one sale to another. Therefore, there are a lot of promotional areas throughout store, with different brands and special offers in every week. This is a situation which works in Indonesia but would not necessarily work in Europe. You can’t apply the same sales approach to the whole planet, it’s based on the given culture.
Global location also refers to the difference in the way people communicate with each other which differs from culture to culture. For example, Korea is very structured and you can’t just talk to everyone. Someone from a lower status would never give his or her honest opinion to their boss but in contrast, that is quite acceptable in Europe. There is that separation between people’s status and it limits their communication. It might also affect your design approach for a store in such a country.
The crisis of bricks-and-mortar stores is a subject of debate. How does this affect plajer & franz’s approach to store design?
You cannot just put the products on the shelves without telling any story, if you do, you will end up with the disappointment of not selling anything. This is what the change in retail has brought. You have to be distinct, you have to focus and tell a story. If you have no story, you will fail to sell your product unless it serves consumers’ basic needs in a non-competitive market; but I can’t actually imagine a situation like that.
@ Ken Schluchtmann
What is your source of inspiration?
I always find travelling very inspiring, seeing new cultures but also discovering new colour and new material combinations. In this case, I think Bangkok is really on the edge with certain things; very distinct in terms of fashion and store concepts. Many local brands use their own designs with their own approach. I like seeing the twist of Bangkok. It has the creative power. People build something out of nothing. They can come up with interesting ideas which are very good to apply in fashion, architecture and also the food industry. When you travel around and take some time out of your agenda, there are always so many things to discover in every city.
Is there a specific project that you are most proud of?
It is continuously changing. When we won many retail awards for the Puma Flagship in Osaka and Karl Lagerfeld, those were my favourite projects. They were brand-new and everyone was talking about them. However at the moment, my favourite is Galeries Lafayette in Istanbul. This is one of our nicest projects. In the meantime, 2 weeks ago we just opened a new luxury concept for Heinemann as a duty free department with several concepts. They are pushing into luxury fashion, a very interesting new client for us in the near future.
Of course it’s not just projects that make me proud. Retail trend specialist Insider Trends recently listed us as one of the top 50 global design agencies. It is like unifying all the projects we’ve done so far. This gives me a very good feeling.
In your years of experience, what is the most important thing you have learned?
Rome was not built in a day! Sometimes it is better not to plan. We have never had a specific business plan as we never planned to go definitely into retail design, but we were always very focused on our projects. We moved forward, discovered our surroundings and landed where we are now. It all happened very smoothly.
“Being so stubborn never gets you somewhere, so be patient and enjoy good food!”
Can you tell us about some projects plajer & franz Studio is currently working on?
We are working on the second Galeries Lafayette in Istanbul. The first one was on the Asian side of the city and this one is on European side. Apart from that we are doing many different concept stores for Heinemann duty free. We are also working on five different stores for Istanbul’s new airport including big players like Heinemann and Unifree. Some new stores for workwear brand Engelbert Strauss are also in progress. Lastly, we might design a new department store concept in Indonesia very soon!
By: Merve Durmus