For example, at Aesop’s North Melbourne store, an oak archiving drawer that originally belonged to the Art Gallery of New South Wales was rescued from the back of a junk shop to become an elegant product display and storage counter. In the US, reclaimed copies of the New York Times were used as a primary construction material at its Nolita store in NYC, while in Tiquetonne, France, handmade wrought-iron nails are set into the walls for product display in homage to the street’s traditional trade stores.
Successful collaboration between Aesop and the distinguished architects and interior designers it appoints is key. The company’s microsite ‘Taxonomy of Design’ hosts a series of short films by Brazilian film-maker, Pedro Kok in which many of these architects are interviewed and celebrated. They include Snøhetta (Winner of the WIN Interior Practice of the Year 2015), Architecture Outfit, Ciguë, Schemata and Six Degrees to mention just a sprinkling of names.
With his innate instinct for detail and design, we were fortunate indeed to number Rowan among our esteemed judges for last year’s World Interiors News Awards, an experience he has told us he was thrilled to be a part of. Here’s more…
You recently joined us in London for the judging of our Emerging Interior Practice of the Year award – for which Aesop was our official Partner. We wondered how you found the experience – what was the calibre of the entries you saw like? And what was it like working with the other judges?
I enjoyed that each judge came from very different practices and also from academia, allowing for a fresh, considered review of all submissions. Although there were over forty practices in the first round to look at, the final shortlist was determined with consideration and thought, but with a high level of collaboration amongst all judges.
Although Aesop is primarily a leading skincare brand, it takes an exceptionally active and intrinsic interest in the interior design of its stores worldwide, going to painstaking lengths to make each store harmonise with its own unique locality. Why is design of such fundamental importance to you as a brand?
We first started designing Aesop stores in 2002. We went from zero to three stores in the first six months and have continued to grow since. Our thinking from the outset was to celebrate the neighbourhoods and streetscapes that we inhabit. Wherever possible we have tried to retain original store façades - or improve ugly gestures that we have inherited - so as to add something of aesthetic merit to the street in the case of street-front stores, or to malls where this is applicable.
Our interiors have always been designed by architects of distinction and have been treated as serious projects engineered to communicate and interact with our customers. Our desire and measure of success is to connect to communities and we do this through our superlative product, our stores and the service that we offer.
Can you give us two or three especially thoughtful - or quirky - examples of how Aesop’s stores have integrated into their particular setting in terms of interior design?
In seeking new locations our first consideration is always to work with what is already in place; we tread lightly with respect to the past, present and future. It is our sincere intention to weave ourselves into the fabric of the street and add something of merit. We do try and avoid the quirky as such, but at the same time I am always attracted to certain stores that members of the local community embrace as their own. Stores of note to me are those where, when we start construction, the first stage involves removing and revealing; stripping the ugly clutter and additions that have heavily layered the space over the years. These stores - like Madison Avenue in New York, or our recently opened Milan store in The Brera designed by Vincenzo de Cotiis Architects - are stores that fully reflect our desire to remove and reveal, in a most poetic and beautiful manner..
Out of curiosity, what’s in the name, Aesop? What does a famous storyteller have to do with skincare?
Aesop is based on the ancient Greek storyteller and slave. We are certainly not a brand that looks to the past, but we are interested in stories and the celebration of word. Aesop is indeed a skin care brand, however it extends beyond this sector alone. Aesop’s Fables are also timeless and continue to be reinterpreted in these modern times, and therefore this attribute is certainly what we align with at Aesop.
Aesop’s first ever store, which was in Melbourne, comprised a ramp down to an underground car park – an unusual inaugural venue! Can you tell us a little about the whys and wherefores of the choice?
Strangely, this store opened where I was living at the time. I was not working with Aesop then and when we were informed that the car park entry was being converted to a retail outlet, we were most intrigued and almost baffled. This intrigue and repurposing of the long, thin, narrow space is still an integral part of who Aesop is today. We seek architectural ambition, and this store - however challenging - demonstrates that if correctly sited and located in a community of thought and similar curiosity, then there is a high level of success in the reward.
You work in close collaboration with different architects for each store around the globe. How do you chose the architects – that is to say, what qualities do you look for – and what are some of the first things you discuss when you sit down around the table with them?.
Generally, our partnerships with architects of distinction come from a courtship over time. More often than not this courtship is initiated by us. We seek architects who understand the neighborhood of the site, who share our desire for intellectual design that is based on three actions: to simply, reduce and refine. Certainly a shared passion for fine food, inspiring music and excellent red wine are often the ingredients that will make for a successful partnership!
Of all Aesop’s fabulous flagship stores around the world, do you have one or two standout personal favourites?
My most endearing and favourite store is always the next one. We have a considered and organic new market and store programme, and I am fortunate enough to be a part of these sustained growth plans. If I had to single out any stores in our portfolio, it would have to be those that are designed in-house by our incredibly talented team of designers. Stores such as the two recent openings in Paris at Passy and Condorcet - both designed by our Paris team - are sublime and beautiful; striking representations of all that is Aesop.
Aesop doesn’t stop at a passion for interior design. As mentioned, it has made a series of short films featuring some of the architects it has worked with, which are shown on your Taxonomy of Design microsite. It also issues a bi-monthly ‘literary gesture born from the enjoyment and intellectual nourishment’ it derives daily through the written word called ‘The Fabulist’, featuring work by writers the company admires. Again, how does this broader love of creativity link back to skincare?
Our design aesthetic has been directly influenced by the book 'In Praise of Shadows', written by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. We also enjoy 'Undesigning the Bath' by Leonard Kohren and finally, Ilse Crawford’s important foreword to 'Sensual Living', which extrapolates her studio’s approach to humanistic and emotional design.
We seek design solutions that are sincere, authentic and timeless. Intellectually engaging ideas communicated without pretension, expressing the necessary details - these ideas can be expressed through our retail design or through our respect for the written word. We seek out quality and cultural platforms that we find interesting and of merit. Creativity is what keeps myself and the Aesop retail design team engaged. Our Taxonomy of Design microsite allows us to acknowledge the partnerships we have with our architects, whilst ensuring that the communication is accurate and reflects who we are, and not what an alternative blog or other platform may think we are.
Aesop’s website features many quotes from famous minds such as William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Victor Hugo and Frederic Chopin to name only a few. Of all of these, which quote strikes the most resonant chord with you and why?
Quotes have played a part in the Aesop history for the last 28 years. They provide us with words of wisdom or - at the very least - disruptive idiosyncratic touches to our daily activities. The quote that I do resonant with is that of Yongme Moon: “If we only pay attention to things that we can measure, we will only pay attention to the things that are easily measurable.”
It captures the need to innovate and be different, and this certainly is my driving ambition as I enter the office each day.
You have a deep understanding and appreciation of the way in which spatial quality, built elements and visual merchandising influence customer experience and behaviour in retail environments. How do you think this particular flair has come about in you?
I suppose it is difficult to isolate the single factor that has provided me with some of this understanding. As the son of an architect I have been immersed in architectural discourse from a very early age. Successful architecture embraces its site, respects the scale of the street, and respects the individual. My father certainly provided these lessons, and I am pleased that I can bring these essential attributes to life within the retail environments that I am involved with.
Your work with Aesop seems to involve a great deal of globetrotting. Do you enjoy being on the road so much, and how do you handle the pressures of always being on the move? Do you think you’ll ever put down permanent roots?
Travelling is certainly a part of my role, and it is often tiring and places many responsibilities on those that remain at home. However; designing and selecting sites via Skype and emails is not how successful design can evolve. It is essential that there is an understanding of the street so that we can weave ourselves into the fabric of the location. Understanding traffic flow, how the sun works with the site, the neighbourhood, will be the measures of successful design. I very much enjoy and celebrate when this combination is achieved, and it cannot be done from my home in Melbourne. The reward is too great to be permanently rooted in one spot.
Gail Taylor