INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

Jaime Oliver is a founding Director of OHLAB architectural practice, working alongside fellow founding Director, Paloma Hernaiz. Their busy office in Madrid is a hotbed of creativity, interpretation, re-interpretation and questioning of accepted paradigms to find fresh, and meaningful, new approaches to design. Their work not only looks striking, but also challenges the norm.

In 2012 OHLAB scooped the WIN Awards Retail & Leisure Interiors category with ‘Precious Boxes’ – a retail project for luxury jeweller, Relojeria Alemana in Porto Adriana, Mallorca. This year, they’ve entered the WIN Awards again with two highly original new projects: the first another new store for Relojeria Alemana in Born, Mallorca, the second an ultra-modern new restaurant in Madrid, Sala de Despiece.

We speak to Jaime about this year’s entries – the things that most please him and Paloma about them, and the things that tested their problem-solving skills to the maximum. We also take a journey through Jaime’s career in architecture and interior design - from late night discussions about all things creative in his brother’s art studio in Barcelona, to valuable lessons learned in New York and China...

Firstly, your designs seem to be uncompromisingly contemporary - almost dreamlike and surreal at times, playing tricks with the eye. Who and/or what have been the influences behind this distinctive style?

Our influences come from everything that we find around us: movies, food, exhibitions, travels. We are interested in storytelling and multiple interpretations, how we can perceive differently a space or an experience depending on how you look at it.

More generally, what would you say are emerging trends in Spain with regard to interiors? Is contemporary very much the way things are going?

After the global trend of a certain vintage look, it seems now the trend is less uniform with more eclectic responses towards the specifics of the program. But it is hard to say for us, as we are not so interested in the latest interior design trends. Our references can be found in older designs or outside the field of interior design.

Can you give an example of that?

When we were working on the concept for Precious Boxes we were thinking about the work of Robert Morris or James Turrell. We were also inspired by the distorted mirrors of a house of fun.

Going back to Relojeria Alemana Born and Sala de Despiece, can you tell us what you like most about each of them now that they are fully realised?

Behind both projects there is a strong and clear concept, carefully developed, that makes them work. Both projects are similar in the sense that they are both commercial, they portray a strong image, and fulfil a brief and a target very efficiently. They also have to be effective in selling a product.

At the same time, at another level, both projects challenge the brief, commenting on or questioning the fundamentals of the client’s business. This is for us where it gets more interesting because it makes them accept different interpretations.

Relojeria Alemana Born questions and reflects on the concept of luxury, proposing a game of make-believe and appearances where things are not always what they seem; the outcome is a collection of sculptural and abstract pieces that reflect a delusional image.

At Sala de Despiece, which is the brainchild of restaurateur Javier Bonet, the commentary is on the relationship between food and client. In this project the client is always underneath the product, he needs to show reverence, bow to the product. There is a notion of sacrifice that we like.

So, conceptually, the double interpretations are what we enjoy most about these projects. Apart from this, we love how they are both very carefully detailed - Relojeria Alemana Born in an intensely delicate and exquisite way, Sala de Despiece in a raw, pure and back-to-bones kind of way.

And, most importantly, on both Relojeria Alemana Born and Sala de Despiece, the clients have been really good to work with. We have no doubt that a great project stems from a great client.

And again, taking each in turn, what were the greatest challenges?

There were many challenges in terms of construction, materials and details. For instance, for Relojeria Alemana Born the structural solution was extremely complex. We completely removed the existing slab replacing it by a three level steel structure that has an exhibition space hanging from the ceiling or a bar that is floating on the space cantilevered from one of its sides... A very complex structural solution that required 25 tons of structural steel.

But probably the biggest challenges come at the level of program. It is not easy to defy the conventions of luxury retail. In this store, as well as in the previous one we designed for the same client in Port Adriano, the relationship between customer and seller is questioned; it is no longer separated by a counter but instead joined around a lounge setting.

We think the biggest challenge of Sala de Despiece also comes at the level of program and concept. There is a notion that you as a customer are less important than the food served here. It was difficult to establish this relationship with the customers and be faithful with the concept, while at the same time making sure they enjoy the space.

The project had to be done in a short time and within a tight budget, so we had to be agile and smart with the solutions. New questions and challenges were constantly posed, solutions were quickly researched, proposed and immediately approved in what turned out to be a highly productive process.

What have people's reactions been to Relojeria Alemana Born and Sala de Despiece now that they are open for business?

People seem to like both projects very much and, at the end, it is a great satisfaction that both projects are doing very good business - even way beyond their original expectations.

We're intrigued by the name of your practice, OHLAB (Oliver Hernaiz Architecture Lab). Is it because you take a scientific approach to designing? What's your method of working when a new brief arrives?

We like to think of our practice a little bit like a laboratory. Every project starts with thorough research to then test countless options in order to find answers that could not be imagined originally. But at the same time we believe in gut reactions and naive intuition as a shortcut in our search for interesting solutions. This is why we like the ‘oh’ in our name, as an expressive exclamation of surprise, pain, pleasure.

Going further back, did you always want to be an architect? And if so, why?

Architecture always interested me, in general all creative processes.

But where did that interest come from? Was anyone in your family or close circle of friends an artist or an architect? Or was it just something you were born with?

My older brother is an artist and we discuss art, architecture and creative processes quite often. When I studied in Barcelona I lived opposite my brother's studio and I would spend many nights with him there discussing his work. These discussions have been a strong influence later on.

Also, we grew up in Mallorca in a house with very interesting architecture and when I was a kid I used to observe every detail of it. Looking back now, that house probably made an impact in my childhood.

You studied architecture in Barcelona. What is your favourite example of architectural design in that amazing place? (You're allowed more than one if you like!)

Many. But the old amusement park in Montjuic is a special place.

What makes it so special to you?

Its romanticism and decadence.

Both you and Paloma took your Masters degree in Advanced Architecture Design at Columbia University in New York, and then some years later you both worked in Shanghai and Beijing at the Office of Metropolitan Architecture. But where and how did you originally meet?

We met in New York. I had been working in New York for a few years before going to Columbia University and we just met there; we were classmates and earned a grant from the school to do a research project together. When we finished the Masters degree and worked for some more time in New York we decided to move to China.

Can you share with us the most memorable things about your time working in China? What did you learn there, and how do you apply that knowledge to your work now?

The speed and intensity of the projects in Beijing and Shanghai amazed us. We were lucky to live a pre-Olympic, pre-Expo period, and we could feel there was an optimism and an ‘everything is possible’ kind of attitude that gave us a lot of confidence and allowed us to test many things. We learnt so much but maybe most importantly the importance (and risk) of confidence.

And what finally made you and Paloma decide to set up practice together in 2005 - what was your vision for OHLAB, and what are your shared values?

We informally started OHLAB in Shanghai with a competition, some essays and a series of experimental projects. It was more of a research period. It wasn't until 2007 that we established the office in Madrid with a clear focus on architecture and interior design.

OHLAB is currently working on a variety of professional and academic projects in Spain, New York and Ho Chi Mihn City in Vietnam. Are there other countries you'd especially like to work in? Any other markets you'd like to break into?

We are working on several projects in Spain, a house in Brooklyn, a resort in Argentina and a research project in Ho Chi Minh City. In the last couple of years we have also been collaborating with other offices from Madrid and from Beijing on different types of projects. We are very interested in working in Southeast Asia, but really we are open to working anywhere, and we love travelling and learning from different places.

And what prompted the move from Shanghai back to Spain?

A personal matter urged our return and while we were in Spain sorting out family issues we started a small project in Mallorca. Then we were invited to work on an amazing project in Brazil and, after this, one thing led to another. It wasn't a planned move. If it wasn't for that personal matter chances are we would still be in China. But you have to see opportunities as you move.

A tricky question, but of all the OHLAB projects so far, is it possible to single out a personal favourite? If so, what makes it special to you?

Indeed is a tricky question! It is difficult to single out one. Maybe one of our very first projects, one that is still unfinished and we don't know when it will be. It is a research project and a documentary film on trans-national architecture in Southeast Asia. It is very special for us because it led us to China to study a certain type of architecture in which we were both interested in and critical of. It also taught us a way of working with narratives and stories that has very much influenced the way we’ve worked since.

When you say you were interested and critical at the same time, what do you mean?

It's a long story (actually the subject of my PhD), so to make it really short, let’s say that we live in a globalized world and we feel that globalized architecture has its pros and cons...

Your work at OHLAB has gained considerable international acclaim. So much so that exhibitions were staged about it in Berlin and Moscow. Can you tell us about that?

The exhibitions were amazing projects in their own right. Everything started with Tina diCarlo, former curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She visited a small project we had just finished in Madrid and proposed that we use that project for an exhibition in Berlin about exhibiting architecture. The project turned into a dialogue about the house between Tina, a poet, a photographer, a graphic designer and ourselves. We enjoyed the experience very much.

And how did it feel to win the Best Retail & Leisure category of the WIN Awards 2012 with 'Precious Boxes'?

It was amazing! The quality of the projects presented was incredible so we didn't expect to win the award. We felt very lucky given the standard of the other projects and it meant a lot of recognition for us.

And what made you decide to enter again this year with Relojeria Alemana Born and Sala de Despiece?

We feel these projects are even stronger than the one we won the 2012 awards with.

Finally, if you were granted three wishes for OHLAB, what would they be?

To keep attracting good clients that trust our work, to continue accomplishing projects that make our clients happy, and to push the boundaries with these projects so that they can question the way we live and help improve it.

Gail Taylor