In the Fast Lane
John Pawson and Antonio Citterio bring a former London car showroom up to speed for B&B Italia
Abby Bussel -- Interior Design, 5/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
What was once a Porsche dealership in Brompton Cross—that epicenter of London posh, down the Brompton Road from Harrods—is essentially a tunnel. Window walls at front and back overlook the street and the Underground tracks, respectively; between stretches a windowless midsection, which is primarily illuminated by skylights running lengthwise. In other words, the 13,000-square-foot space couldn't differ more from the cramped quarters one expects of a big retailer's furniture department, and that's precisely why B&B Italia is there.
Founded in 1966 by the Busnelli family, whose name provides the corporate initials, B&B Italia has always been committed to contemporary furniture. New, however, is the company's push for presentation in stand-alone venues in addition to maintaining a presence with furniture dealers around the world. (Since the opening in London last September, B&B Italia showrooms have also opened in Germany and Japan; a Milan showroom will debut this fall.) The decision to launch a London location was based on the expanding culture of contemporary design in the U.K., says showroom manager Concetto Marletta.
The interior represents a collaborative effort. London's own John Pawson was responsible for the architecture. Longtime B&B Italia furniture designer Antonio Citterio and his colleague Patricia Viel, cofounders of Milan-based Antonio Citterio and Partners, oversaw the interior. Pawson and Citterio's firms worked together to make sure that the space was integrated with the furniture for sale, and the result is dramatic and contemporary, an architectural translation of the company's design identity.
Pawson provided the sculptural shell. Then Citterio warmed it up with colors and tactile finishes for precisely the residential feel desired by Kevin Jarrett, founder and principal of the showroom's majority shareholder, Space Furniture. "As Citterio designs so much of the product for B&B Italia, it was essential that we display it as a personal environment in his vision, not just as product on the floor," says Jarrett.
Sheltered beneath a great curved roof, the showroom is organized with zones compressed or expanded to move eye and body through the 400-foot length. From the street, visitors see little more than a relatively small double-height lobby with the first of many furniture vignettes. Beyond, a one-story ramped passageway takes visitors past a series of minimalist vignettes (a chair and a table, a desk and a lamp), then emerges in the showroom proper. Here, the double height of the interior reappears with great fanfare. A monumental oak, steel, and glass staircase leads to a mezzanine display area, while the ground level continues on—and on—to the expanse of glass at the far end of the building.
Above the sleek yet homey ground level, a gypsum-board ceiling finished with a stark white glaze curves to a height of roughly 25 feet. The one uninterrupted sidewall is clad in slate tiles; the floor is sandy-white Portuguese limestone. Here, visitors find a linear series of what the company calls "mini living areas" or "atmospheres," suggesting various iterations of the B&B Italia lifestyle.
Opposite these ensembles, tucked neatly beneath the mezzanine, are three Citterio-designed kitchens for Arclinea. Much of the mezzanine itself is treated as an "apartment," with a rotating selection of furniture arranged as sitting room, bedroom, etc. In addition, part of the mezzanine is devoted to another supplementary line, the sophisticated Maxalto Collection. Whereas B&B Italia's glossy finishes come in oranges and reds, Maxalto features only natural wood, prompting Citterio to use oak floors rather than limestone in this part of the interior.
Constantly climbing the oak steps to the mezzanine and overseeing the entire space, from one end to the other, is unquestionably an all-consuming job for manager Marletta. But there is a positive side effect, he reveals: "I haven't had to go to the gym once since we opened."