When Louis Vuitton decided to relocate its Midtown Manhattan store into the old Warner Bros. space on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, it was an epic translation challenge on many levels: The principal design and construction partners hailed from Boston, New York, Paris and Tokyo, the suppliers from multiple continents; and the project would follow the aesthetic trail that had started with a historic building, then became animated retail-tainment and now was to become elegant luxury.
Not only all that, but parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy intended this to be Louis Vuitton's biggest retail store in the world; to be built on some of the most regulated real estate in the world; and to be unveiled in time for thousands of A-listers jetting in from all over the world to fête Louis Vuitton's 150th anniversary in February 2004.
Incredibly, the building was ribbon-cutting-ready on time.
The process began in spring 2001, when Louis Vuitton tapped Jun Aoki, the architect responsible for many of its stores in Japan, to mastermind the exterior renovation. The site was the 11-story New York Trust Co. building, designed by Cross & Cross in 1930, located on the northeast corner of 57th Street. The lower portion of the original white marble façade had been altered by Warner Bros.
Then, September 11 put the project on hold. And as various intermediate designs vacillated from the cautious to the more luxe, the construction schedule ticked away. According to Les Hiscoe, vp, retail, of Shawmut Design and Construction (Boston), "we were hired in January of 2003, but weren't on the site until March, and then we had approximately 10 months to finish."
In the final design, Aoki made the whole building stylistically coherent again. Unlike the SoHo LV store, which respectfully incorporates allusions to that neighborhood's cast-iron heritage, Aoki had the freedom to transform the stolid art deco exterior into a destination with multifaceted 21st Century appeal. Citing Hugh Ferriss's "cluster of crystals" skyscraper renderings from the 1930s as a departure point, Aoki conceived of the glass façade as a playfully sleek meditation on crystalline transparency and clouded translucency.
Passersby experience a teasing optical illusion by day and a diffused streetlamp-through-fog appearance by night. Aoki explains how he achieved the effect using laminated strengthened glass with a fine white checkerboard [which Louis Vuitton calls its damier] pattern of ceramic frit on the inner surfaces. There is also a fine checkerboard pattern on the interior face of the laminated glass.
At 20,000 square feet, the store's interior, designed by Peter Marino (New York) with LV Paris, was one of the largest retail spaces the LVMH store planning department ever worked on. According to Hiscoe, retail renovations typically require only three weeks of structural work. This LV store required three months. More steel had to be added to the existing structure to support the new façade. And one of the most time-consuming tasks was the removal of the original Trust Company vault in the basement. (It took three months to excavate the multiple layers of 1.25-inch steel sheets.) Then there was the WB movie theater that had to be converted back to a level floor and structurally recorrected for use as office space. Plus there were tons of wacky cartoon character detritus and candy machines left behind, such as the Superman who had formerly "supported" the old glass elevator and gargantuan Ninja Turtles.
According to Shawmut's Hiscoe, what made it possible for the job to finish on time were cutting-edge project management software and an on-site field office where meetings of 20 people frequently took place. The logistics could be extremely complicated, such as when a five-ton fixture was being air-freighted into New York. With no place to store it, crane permits and other needs - as well as the brawny installation team - had to be ready to spring into action the day it arrived. As Doris Almanza-Mclean, project architect for The Phillips Group (New York), said, "organization and constant communication didn't make this hard job easy, but it made it feasible."
"To start with," says John Mulliken, vp, store planning for LVMH Fashion Group Americas (New York), "we broke down the store into components of things we'd done before and then assigned specific teams to focus on the new elements we wanted to introduce." As Shawmut's Hiscoe says, he got used to members of the Paris LV team "coming to us saying, 'I saw this in Tokyo and wouldn't it be great if-' and so a whole new element had to be priced out, bought, installed and somehow squeezed into the schedule.
"But," he adds, "everyone knew that this store was all about doing the hottest thing, which means up to the last minute."
The damier checker pattern on the exterior is also the dominant interior motif: grids and double-square rectangles are wittily integrated throughout the floors, in the checkerboard rugs, the double-square millwork for the product displays and the (quite literally) flashy LED "Feature Wall." The wall climbs from the ground floor up three stories to the top of the retail volume and is visible from outside the store. It can shift into 60 different spectrum colors, ranging from jewel-tone intense to misty pastel. It also functions as a screen for still images and films. Says Mulliken, "It was built in less than two hair-raising months with LED components from The United Kingdom and LED cladding from Hong Kong, installed by New York labor that had never assembled such a thing before."
Other interior highlights include: a wall of vintage trunks hovering above the periphery of the ground floor dotted with red hat cases and the cantilevered bronze-clad monotube staircase. Hiscoe says, "The precision required for the staircase metal and the southern chestnut treads meant that everything had to be cut perfectly at a facility off-site and trucked in after 10 p.m. and before 6 a.m. So it was always a relief when everything fit together on-site."
LV reports that the Midtown store is getting double the traffic it had anticipated. And, as Hiscoe says, the building is getting the "wows" LVMH wanted, as well - a word that needs no translation.
Client: Louis Vuitton North America, New York
John Mulliken, vp, store planning and development
Design: Peter Marino & Associates, New York
Peter Marino, principal
Maria Wilthew, project manager
Paul Garrett, architect
Outside design consultants: Jun Aoki & Associates, Tokyo, Facade design
George Sexton Associates, Washington, D.C./New York, interior lighting design
Laszlo-Bodak Engineers, New York, MEP design
Severud Associates, New York, Structural design
Robert A. Heintges Architects, New York, curtain wall design
Architect: The Phillips Group, New York
General Contractor: Shawmut Design and Construction, Boston/New York
Armourcoat plastering: Fresno Decorative Painting, New York
Audio/Visual: Audio Visual Design, Rego Park, N.Y.
Fixtures: Schmidt Tradition, St. Maur Cedex, France
Canus Construction, Edmonton, Alb.
Facade: Josef Gartner & Co., Wan Chai, Hong Kong
Flooring: Fantini Mosaic, Miami
WFI Intl., Delran, N.J.
Carpeting: Edward Fields, New York
Furniture: Cassina USA, Milan
Lighting: United Displays, Buckinghamshire, U.K.
Litelab Corp., Buffalo, N.Y.
Signage/Graphics: United Sign, Staten Island, N.Y.
Wallcoverings and Materials: Big Apple Visual Group, New York
Photography: Jimmy Cohrssen Photography, Paris/Washington, D.C./New York