The art of effective retail design
Italian architects, Lino Losanno and Lorenzo Perini, speak to CID about the art of effective retail design
Lino Losanno and Lorenzo Perini met 14 years ago, and have worked together ever since, initially as associates at architecture and design firm, Nardi Associates, and then as partners in their own Firenze-based firm, PLS Design.
At Nardi, they were responsible for the retail sector, and worked with the biggest names in Italian fashion: Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino, Gianfranco Ferré, Malo and Iceberg, to name but a few. They travelled the globe opening up stores for fashion’s most fabulous, and even came to Dubai to open the emirate’s first ever Dolce & Gabbana store.
Residential projects in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait followed, and the pair have kept in contact with the region ever since. Last month, they were back in Dubai to mark the opening of their latest project, the new Western Furniture showroom on Sheikh Zayed Road. CID caught up with them to find out more about the world of high fashion.
How have you seen retail design in Dubai evolve since you opened that first Dolce & Gabbana store here?
Lino Losanno: We were walking through Fashion Avenue in Dubai Mall the other day and said, ‘Wow, you don’t need to go to Rome or Paris or Milano any more. You can just come here and you get everything – from new concepts to new designs’. That’s mesmerising.
It’s a different kind of feeling, of course, then walking on Sloane Street or Bond Street in London, or Avenue Montaigne in Paris, or Via della Spiga in Milano. But in Dubai, especially with spaces like the big malls and hotels,
you have more of a chance to express yourself, because the spaces are totally empty. When you work in old cities, you have to deal with old buildings and sometimes the design is led by the nature of the building. But, in this case, you are totally free.
It is a different kind of creativity when you deal with an existing structure. In Europe we are sometime overwhelmed by the power of existing buildings. It’s a different kind of thing here; you feel free to express yourself 100% and that’s very interesting as a designer.
How did you become involved with the new Western Furniture showroom?
Lino Losanno: One day we received a phone call from the contractor who was working on this project and he said that the client was asking for an Italian architect. We sent him our resume and two days later I was here. Two weeks later the design was on the table.
What did you do with this design?
Lino Losanno: We came here and we found a totally empty box with very high ceilings and big windows.
The client told us they were going to sell home furniture, but it is kind of difficult to put home furniture into a warehouse. So I thought we should build a house within this building. And that’s how we came up with the idea of a box inside a box.
We then fragmented the space into several different kinds of atmospheres. We have the entrance area which is more ‘monumental’, with a big water feature and a big staircase, but the rest of the space is divided into what could essentially be a home. The ceilings are lower; the lights are lower; the colours are combined in a way that makes you feel like you are at home. You feel comfortable.
That was the first idea. The other element was communication. We thought that the logo needed to be seen and recognised. You have a big ‘W’ on the outside, and we also had a set of columns on the inside of the building, so we wrapped corten ribbon around the column and created a big ‘W’ over the cashier’s desk. Corten is a naturally rusted steel. It changes with time because it becomes more rusted, so it will be even nicer in a few months. It is an evolving material, which was very interesting for me.
And then you had the staircase, which is the second element. It had to attract people to go upstairs and see what was there. It is always difficult to get people to move to the second floor of a space.
In this case, we have a big part of the collection upstairs so it was important to attract people up. People will look at this steel, mirror and glass staircase and think: ‘I want to go up there’.
Of course, there is also the fountain, where we are bringing natural elements inside, especially in the area where they display outdoor furniture, upstairs on the deck. They have outdoor furniture and tables, so I have tried to make people feel like they are outside.
What kind of materials did you favour for this design?
Lino Losanno: We tried to work with environmentally-friendly materials. The floor, for example, is made of a material called fibre cement. It looks like stones but is made of a compacted powder consisting of natural materials like concrete and wood, pressed together. It comes from Italy and is very durable.
You do both architecture and interior design. Do you have a preference?
Lino Losanno: We have a background in architecture, so we like to build buildings. But, of course, a building has its interiors and that’s all part of it. We don’t really have a preference. Of course, working with interiors in an existing situation means you have more limitations. Having totally free rein to build a complete building is nice.
Lorenzo Perini: And even when we do interiors, they have an architectural feel.
Do you think it makes a difference? Will an architect approach a space differently to an interior designer?
Lorenzo Perini: I think it’s a bit different. You can tell when an architect has created an interior, rather than an interior designer. It is a different approach. I think it’s because of a difference in background and attitude.
Do you still do a lot of retail work? Is this what you specialise in?
Lino Losanno: I wouldn’t say that we specialise in retail. But we do do a lot of retail work, especially with fashion. In Italy this is one of the best resources, so we work a lot with fashion. We do a lot of restaurants as well.
When it comes to retail interiors, what are the key trends right now?
Lino Losanno: In the 1990s we had this explosion of very minimalist spaces. This really went to the root of the space, so you had concrete floors, gypsum walls, no colour and everything was very plain, which I loved, and it led to some very beautiful spaces.
But then, at a certain point, clients started to need something more. They wanted that ‘wow’ factor.
So we started to introduce very strong elements – in a very modern space we would put a baroque chair or a Venetian chandelier. Of course, this was linked to the history of the brands. For example, Domenico Dolce of Dolce & Gabbana is from Sicily, so we used Sicilian baroque chairs and tables and mirrors in their spaces. It was a very interesting mix.
In the 2000s, the focus shifted very much towards decoration. You had modern spaces with a lot of decoration. So we started to use wallpaper, colour, LED lights, screens, special materials like Perspex, and very technological materials, again.
I think that at this point in time we are trying to reduce what happened in those two worlds. We are going back to minimalism, but I would call it a more ‘design’ minimalism, so minimalism with some design touches. That could mean architectural elements with a very strong design impact. But also, materials are very important now. There has been a very important evolution in the use of materials.
Lorenzo Perini: Every brand wants to identify itself in a different way, so they have to find something that sets them apart. It could be a material, or a special design element, sometimes a colour. For example, Prada is always green-ish.
Lino Losanno: Another thing that is very important nowadays is attention to the environment, so it is very important to use environmentally-friendly materials.
Has the economic downturn impacted interior design, particularly when it comes to the big fashion names?
Lino Losanno: A little bit. I think people are more attentive to cost now. They are trying to save money when they are building their new boutiques.
Design-wise, for us, it is more challenging because you have to get the same results, or better results, and better impact, with fewer resources.
What are you working on right now?
Lino Losanno: Our next opening will be a Japanese restaurant in Firenze in April. We just started a new corporate concept for an existing Italian fashion brand, and we are working on a very interesting new building in Italy. That is something that doesn’t happen very often – opening a new building in Italy. It’s a showroom for a distributor of fashion brands, located on the Adriatic coast.
We have just started work on a residential resort, also on the Adriatic coast, and we are doing a boutique in London, and another one in Venice. We are also doing a beautiful restoration of a very important historical building in Florence that dates back from the 15th century. It’s a private palazzo on the river. We are also doing a restaurant on the west coast of Tuscany.
Apart from shrinking budgets, what are the other major challenges that designers are facing right now?
Lino Losanno: Being recognisable is one of the main goals for our clients, especially in fashion.
They like it when they are recognisable, when people see the space without any branding and know it’s theirs. But at the same time they want every store to be original. They don’t want it to look like anything else. That’s always a big challenge.
Lorenzo Perini: Often, different designers can arrive at the same ideas. Because it makes sense. So the real challenge is creating truly original work.