Once Upon A Time
Christine Nakaoka and Norman Roberts weave tales about beauty and fashion
Annie Block -- Interior Design, 4/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
The principals of Nakaoka/Roberts. Photo by Ron Holtz.
These two know lipstick. And handbags. And men’s ties. After meeting in the visual-merchandising department of the Estée Lauder Companies brand Prescriptives, Christine Nakaoka and Norman Roberts founded Nakaoka/Roberts. Since then, they’ve taken on such clients as Victoria’s Secret Beauty, Judith Leiber, and Paul Stuart and are also developing a line of furnishings. Whatever the project, environments play out the brand narrative. The plot thickens.
Didn’t you both formally study something other than strictly interior design?
CN: My bachelor’s degree is in architecture, an interest sparked by my grandfather’s Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired house in Seoul, South Korea. After graduation, I decided that practicing interior design would have a more immediate impact on people’s lives. One of my first “real” jobs was in-house designer at J.W. Robinson’s in Los Angeles. I’ve been doing stores ever since.
NR: My BFA is in industrial design, which I’d planned to use to enter architecture—my love as a child—like Philippe Starck. But as I progressed, I came to appreciate the European model of “designer,” who works across all disciplines. Recently, I realized I was doing just that in retail. Architecture through facades. Interior design through space planning. Industrial design through custom furniture.
“Retail/Detail,” a show of the firm’s work recently presented by New York’s Bridgegallery. Photo by Jessica Boucher.
Why did you start your own firm?
CN: We were in total sync from the start at Prescriptives, practically reading each other’s mind.
NR: It’s true. We’d complete each other’s sentences or reference the same artist.
CN: We thought we ought to apply our partnership to a more independent, experimental way of working, beyond the world of cosmetics. Also, Estée Lauder was downsizing. We didn’t want to stop working together.
What do you each bring to the collaboration?
NR: Broadly speaking, Christine brings the big, and I bring the small. She has a great understanding of space, whereas I geek out about the details.
How does visual merchandising differ with accessories versus clothing?
NR: It’s mostly scale. Apparel has a larger presence, especially if it’s displayed on mannequins. Smaller items often need to have their own stage inside the larger stage of the store.
CN: Accessories require more precisely calibrated, flexible fixtures, but the fixtures also need to be “invisible”—shoppers shouldn’t notice them. It’s also important to incorporate softer elements, such as curtains or sofas, to complement structured, hard merchandise like shoes and bags.
The Judith Leiber boutique in Dubayy, United Arab Emirates. Photo courtesy of Al-Futtam Group.
Sounds a lot like the Mary Norton boutiques in Los Angeles and Charleston, South Carolina.
NR: Yes, Mary came to us when she was expanding from handbags into shoes. Our clients often have a clear understanding of their product, but they have difficulty tying it in with the larger environment where the product lives. It’s either too timid or too outlandish.
CN: Mary’s very theatrical, very Southern, and her bags have a vintage sensibility. We started by going to Charleston, where she lives. We stayed at her favorite hotel, had meals together, went antiquing. Looking at her and looking at the product—where she wanted to go and who her target customers would be—we put together a narrative steeped in ’30’s and ’40’s sophistication.
NR: I Love Lucy and Hollywood musicals came to mind. We researched interiors from those times, developing a palette of peach, coral, and sea foam. We also hit upon chinoiserie, which we made her signature with a hand-painted silk wall covering that set the aesthetic for her two stores, her shoe boxes, even her Web site.
Is your process the same for a bigger brand?
NR: With Victoria’s Secret, we watched runway shows for lingerie to find a part of the brand to express for beauty products. And we noticed that Judith Leiber’s packaging and gift wrapping were pink, but it wasn’t anywhere in the shops, so we created pink-lined dioramas. For established brands, we’ll also do a quick pass-through of a store, like we’re shoppers, then ask, “What was our impression? Too dark? Too light? Was an aspect not highlighted enough?” It’s part analytical, part gut.
The Phineas Cole department at Paul Stuart in New York. Photo courtesy of Paul Stuart.
How about for Paul Stuart’s Phineas Cole brand?
NR: The CEO had an outline of who the fictional character of Phineas Cole should be. In his late 30s, urban, a traveler, slightly irreverent.
CN: We rounded out the story, filled in the details. If Phineas travels, he must collect things—an unusual lamp, a wacky chair. If he’s younger than the traditional Paul Stuart customer, the space should be lighter, more open, but it still had to link to the parent brand. So the paneling is herringbone, connecting with the leather parquet throughout and men’s tweed in general.
Any other retail clients on the horizon now?
NR: It’s tough out there. We’ve been focusing on the branding side—developing logos, labels, hang tags, etc.—until clients start budgeting for new construction again.
Speaking of new, how’s your furnishings line?
NR: So far, there’s lighting, shelving, a magnetic display wall, a partition, a mirror. We’ve had promising responses from other interior designers and a few big retailers.
CN: We hope to design a store for our own products one day.
And what would that look like?
NR: Painfully minimal yet comfortably casual, like a Donald Judd.
CN: Ethereal, like walking on clouds, or intensely rich, like the inside of a Japanese lacquered box.