Nook 2023-1: Express yourself! Celebrating exuberant interiors

22 mei 2023

Minimal gestures, maximum impact: A synaesthetic explosion concocted by Amsterdam-based Random and a fine example of behavioural engagement by Berlin-based Sub illustrate how to say more with fewer gestures.

The bigger the impact

This may come as a bit of a shock, so let’s just get it over with. To – bang! – influence people’s behaviour in a space, start with acknowledging its restrictions. Only by seeing and embracing what is already a given, can we start creating relevant gestures to end up with a space where elements become performers. Amusingly, the more you notice, the less you add, the bigger the impact.

Working with the space, says architect Andrea Faraguna of Sub, is always the starting point. “What can I say here?” should be the primary question. Once you’ve mastered that answer, your tabula rasa is ready to be coloured. Although in the artistic hands of Sub, the appearance of a space is the manifestation of it, not the aim.

Objects become actors

Sub’s obscure portfolio inhabits the worlds of art, fashion, and the metaverse. The studio is probably most widely known for the brutalist tour de force that is the Balenciaga flagship on New Bond Street in London (2022) and their ongoing collaborations with artist Anne Imhof. At there is an in-depth story on the scenography that Sub created for Imhof’s solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam earlier this year. The concise version of their spatial approach would read that they converted the museum’s subterranean level into a rather eerie and overwhelming, urban-inspired microcosm where spectators become participants. Visitors had to navigate where to go and were constantly confronted with choices, forced into this by tall, repetitive ‘building blocks’ made from materials like car tyres, stacked plastic crates, and imposing steel structures. “The repetitive elements become performers themselves; they come alive,” says Faraguna. Underneath the crushing visual experience, amplified by red light, a swelling beat pulses. Upon exiting the space, the feeling lingers of having been part of something big, something radical, something very essential. The effect is fleeting, yet permanent. It sticks with you, in your head and in your bones. “The materials are derived from the discourse about the narrative,” says Faraguna. “It needed to look like a city.”

The same design methodology applies to their formidable design for the Balenciaga store in London, where decay and competing against time recite stories in the subdued space. Deliberately unfinished, with excavated areas visible behind glass and concrete, the store – which feels more like an art installation than a shop – aligns with Balenciaga’s concept of ‘Raw Architecture’, ideated to instil a sense of temporality and permanence in the present experience. Fixtures, an old staircase, an empty elevator shaft… everything is left exposed, and subsequently paired with cracked concrete, oxidised steel, distressed textiles, stabilised dirt, mud-like encrustations, polished aluminium racks. “Time becomes the material,” says Faraguna about the minimal gestures.

One could ask why a luxury fashion brand would opt for such a strippeddown environment. But for Faraguna, the resulting aesthetic is part of a bigger picture. The studio’s approach is driven by political, anthropological, and behavioural incentives. “We think we ‘like’ what we like, we think we know what we like. But it’s not about liking, it’s about an aesthetic extension of your body. How our bodies relate to the space, how we’ll use it.” Moreover, in the case of the Balenciaga store, the idea of working with ruins stems from Demna Gvasalia, the fashion brand’s creative director. “A bare space inhabited with ephemeral objects. Ruins, suspended in time, that seemingly become actors themselves, in part because there’s nothing to be distracted or confused by,” explains Faraguna.

Inside outside

Also in London, albeit from a different trajectory, Amsterdam- and Paris-based experience design studio Random sculpted an abstract, curvaceous pop-up of an elegantly reclining woman at the Selfridges department store. The temporary space, which was installed for the course of one month last November, was conceived in celebration of the 30-year anniversary of the brand’s Angel scent, from the late fashion designer Thierry Mugler. Remember that crystal-shaped bottle and feminine, sweet, somewhat intoxicating fragrance? Part labyrinthine exploration, part sculptural experience, part olfactory symphony, the pop-up is hard to miss, yet contains few – visible – gestures. “Both the past and present of the brand are about inclusion and an appreciation of the body, hence the large body,” explains Frédérique Albert-Bordenave, creative lead at Random Studio. “We wanted a metamorphosis of space, emphasising the distortion of space and body through the brand’s signature material, chrome. Mugler’s design aesthetic bears a minimal, futuristic look and feel, so it was important for the space to reflect and mirror that.”

Random gained widespread acclaim for its progressive design approach, infusing spatial design with high-tech triggers in order to, in their own vocabulary, bridge the physical and the digital in unexpected ways. In the Selfridges Corner Shop, the studio borrowed inspiration from Mugler’s exaggerated and empowering take on the female form. Giant fragments of a woman’s body break up within the space into a multisensory retail experience. “Visitors are tempted to journey through the female body. The curves, crevices, and folds of the body are rendered in a reflective material that mirrors the viewer’s gaze,” says founder and managing director Daan Lucas. It’s the clear narrative, limited variety of design choices, and the daring loyalty to just a few ingredients that allow the pop-up to stand out so conspicuously. “Our focus was on the execution of the body at an architectural scale, which, in gesture, isn’t minimal,” says Albert. “A bold view from the outside, with intimate experiences when inside the sculpture.”

The most tantalising area is the Synesthesia Chamber, where light, sound, and fragrance create a feast for the senses. “A polyphonic soundscape of siren-like voices coaxes visitors into the space and towards a scent sculpture. Voices overlapping, harmonising, distorting, contrasting, and building on each other to create the voice of Angel. Shifting tonality and texture, and cadence,” says Albert-Bordenave, who led the project. “The voice emanated from the scent sculpture but also traveled around the space using spatial audio, to react and comment on the situation in the space and the visitors’ whereabouts. As the visitor approaches, the lights intensify and the sculpture emits a short burst of fragrance while a projection lights up the space.”


From control to co-creation

These projects raise the question of whether such minimal design choices are befitting of today’s narrative among luxury brands for making a big impact, a sort of antidote for decoration and surplus, a space for finding our own meaning and new values. Lucas disagrees. “I don’t think minimalism is a luxury trend. It can be maximal, too. What I do think is that brands are interested in a new relationship with people. Inviting people, in a more personal way, to create together. Brands are moving from control to co-creation.”

It’s easy to depict how design will play a significant role in that scenario. And, let’s not forget the power of play. “Sometimes interventions and decorations can work really well,” says Lucas. “One thing to look out for is leaving enough room for people to create input themselves. Don’t direct it to death.” [AO]

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