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June 7, 2006

Thomas Heatherwick takes New York by storm


His just-opened flagship store for Longchamp (above) has everyone swooning with amazement and delight.

Here's Claire Wilson's story from the June 4 New York Times.

    Undulations in Light and Steel

    When Heatherwick Studio of London was commissioned to create a sales emporium in Manhattan for Longchamp, a French producer of high-end handbags, leather goods and luggage, it didn't make a shop; it made a work of art.

    Display fixtures resemble sculptures. Ribbons of steel and wavy transparent panels make for a striking stairway to the sales area, on the second floor of the three-story building, giving an air of a theme park attraction and the promise of something fun to climb.

    The 9,830-square-foot store and showroom, at 132 Spring Street in SoHo, opened on May 24 and serves as Longchamp's flagship store in the United States. It is "a place you want to go to," said the project architect, Louis Loria, a principal at the Atmosphere Design Group in Mount Kisco, N.Y.

    "It could be a museum," said Mr. Loria, who has also designed stores for Gucci, Louis Vuitton and L'Occitane.

    The undulating staircase, which serves as the store's signature, is anchored on the 1,500-square-foot ground level that has deep reddish maple wood floors and exposed brick but houses only a small amount of merchandise.

    The staircase is built of 30 ribbons of steel, 11¾ inches wide and 1½ inches thick. Lined with rubber in a shade of burnt orange, the ribbons move in the same direction, from the street side to the rear. There is also a panel of steel ribbons that extends up the back wall of the three-story atrium.

    The ribbons are fashioned into 30 flat steps and two platforms, but the forward and upward motion is never interrupted. The stairway is attached to the wall, although it looks as if it is floating on air.

    "We hoped you would lose the sense of it being a staircase, that it turned into a waterfall of steel ribbons," said Thomas Heatherwick, a principal at Heatherwick Studio who designed the structure, which weighs 55 tons.

    Mr. Heatherwick also developed glasslike panels that were secured to the handrails. Created for the Longchamp project, the panels were made from polycarbonate, a material often used for airplane windshields and headlight lenses on many luxury cars. They were cut to size and fitted into frames, then heated to melt into something that draped slightly, according to Mr. Heatherwick.

    "There are 46 of them and every one is unique and reflects light in different ways," said Mr. Heatherwick, whose staff of 37 architects and engineers has designed projects from shopping malls and apartment towers to foot bridges for an international roster of clients.

    Ordinary, flat glasslike panels were out of the question. "It is so common now, it looks cheap," he said.

    The maple floor boards found on the ground level are used throughout the building, running back from the street to mimic the motion of the steel ribbons. Two maple counters on the ground floor do likewise; one is at the back, illuminated from below, and one is along the right-hand wall.

    Small groupings of merchandise, hanging from long hooks attached to the ceiling or high-powered magnets on adjustable shelf fixtures, break up the lines and the sparse ground-floor space. The magnets allow groups of handbags to be attached at any point along the network of steel ribbons, including the very front, where they support what is on display in the window to the street. Bags also "float" underneath the steps.

    Merchandise on the ground floor is only for display.

    "If the store is nice on the ground floor, why would I go up to the second?" Mr. Heatherwick asked rhetorically. "If we have no store on the ground floor, then everyone has to go up."

    Built and installed by Shawmut Design and Construction of Boston, the monumental staircase is awash in natural light, thanks to the skylight at the top of the atrium that cuts through the ceilings of the first two floors. The atrium is also incorporated into a third floor that was added to the 58-year-old building. The addition, measuring 1,700 square feet, houses executive offices and a wholesale showroom for the Longchamp line, which is sold in 200 stores in the United States, including seven company-owned boutiques. There are 100 company-owned boutiques worldwide.

    Like the ground floor, the third level has an exposed brick wall on which steel shelves, each a different shape and scattered unevenly, display merchandise for buyers coming in from across the country. Maple flooring is placed to meet the deck on a landscaped terrace, making the whole third floor look like a vast outdoor space.

    The play of daylight is also important in the 4,500-square-foot second-floor selling area, which has walls of windows looking out over Spring and Greene Streets. Jean Cassegrain, the president of Longchamp, which is based in Paris, said the windows, along with the busy location, were what sold him on the site. It once housed an architecture studio.

    "Corner windows on both streets give us a lot of daylight, and that is one of the great pluses," Mr. Cassegrain said. "A street-level store would have had much less light."

    Light flows unobstructed onto the sales area from Greene Street, illuminating 46 vertical floor-to-ceiling fixtures staggered along the north and south walls. Cut to various widths to hold different types of bags, each is made from multiple layers of pale American ash.

    Thomas Beyer, Shawmut's project manager, said the fixtures were built by laminating fine sheets of veneer on a curved form, then installed to look like parts of the ceiling had been cut out, peeled down and attached to the floor at an angle.

    In turn, shelves for merchandise peel out from them, the blond shade of the ash highlighting the handbags and contrasting with the deep reddish maple of the floors, the paneling on the back wall and the low glass-topped fixtures and benches at the center. Pipes, beams and electrical fixtures are exposed as part of the design. Shelves along the Spring Street side are spaced to leave windows exposed and let light filter around them.

    The new SoHo store — more artistic than commercial in design — is a radical departure for Longchamp, which has had a retail store on Madison Avenue for seven years. "We wanted something spectacular and striking that would become a New York landmark, and I think it will be," Mr. Cassegrain said.


Want to see more?

No problema.

Here's a link to a slide show with more views of the store as well as a look at some of Heatherwick's other work.

The store is at 132 Spring Street in Soho.

Heatherwick's signature Folding Footbridge in Northwest London is located in Paddington Basin, spanning the mouth of a small dock off the Grand Union canal in front of the new Marks & Spencer headquarters.

June 7, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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