Michael Gabellini treated the design of Salvatore Ferragamo, Venice, like a theater piece
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 4/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Salvatore Ferragamo entered the Gabellini Associates fold with a quartet of projects. Michael Gabellini, who is virtually without peer for quasipoetic retail and gallery environments, was commissioned first for a flagship in Venice, to be followed by a boutique in Bologna and, in New York, a SoHo boutique plus the firm's Fifth Avenue showroom. For Venice, the commission afforded Gabellini not only a dream site but also an opportunity to interpret personal associations. The architect has paid La Serenissima more than 30 visits—one of them for his wedding—and has long been fascinated by Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. "Venice is a hall of mirrors, an ever changing sleight of hand," Gabellini says. The sestiere of San Marco, where the Florentine house of Salvatore Ferragamo obtained space in a 19th-century building, stands at the center of the daily carnevale of life on the city's canals, piazzas, and campi, and Venice's vicissitudes of light, fog, and lagoon also create constant flux. To this, Gabellini added the notion of change in a theatrical dimension, a subject dear to his heart.
Ultimately, the theater metaphor and a theme of transparency governed Gabellini's intervention at Ferragamo's space, a total of 2,150 square feet divided between two 18-foot-high floors. Both floors, in classic Venetian typology, present a row of full-height arched windows on each piazza-front elevation. Drawing on a proscenium association, the architect conceived the arched windows as a series of stage sets, outlined with neon and backed with scrims of chain mail. Through the arched windows, Ferragamo's intricately crafted setting and the players upon its stage are visible to Venice's audience at large. Gabellini offers layered views into the glowing interior. "It's a world in miniature," he says of the reductions in scale from cityscape to interior to products.
Inside, the two-level volume reads as a unified entity. The architecture is "based on the idea of suspension," Gabellini explains. Ceilings are suspended and pulled away from the building's perimeter. Articulating walls, also pulled away from the perimeter, either extend beyond the ceiling plane or pierce it, and mass is diminished by niches for shelving.
The stair is similarly dematerialized. Almost transparent—with steel stringers clad in nickel silver, limestone treads, and glass panels—this fine suspension in a sense negates a stairway's customary grandeur. Behind, two 36-foot-high chain-mail panels conceal the structural stringer while heightening the illusionistic quality. The stairway is essentially perceived as an outline, not a solid form, similar to one's perceptions of objects in a Venice fog.
On the pragmatic side, the program addressed questions of vertical circulation and display. Ferragamo, a shoes and accessories label supplemented by a strong ready-to-wear component, differs in this respect from Gabellini's previous, clothing-based fashion clients (Giorgio Armani, Jil Sander, Nicole Farhi). Thus, the Ferragamo project posed dilemmas of another scale. Gabellini defined the operational challenge as accommodating great quantities of small objects (shoes and handbags) while avoiding clutter. Again, he made a complex solution look effortless. He devised shelving as horizontal extensions of the walls, with no visible means of support. The impossibly thin Corian shelves, laminated with nickel silver and down-lit with LED sources, seem almost airborne. Elsewhere, display fixtures comprise glass and walnut vitrines, trapezelike bars of circular tubing, ribbons of metal for ties, and pedestals topped with circles of etched handblown Murano glass.
Both levels are built with low-key yet luxurious materials. "The most opulent yet," Gabellini remarks. There's calfskin upholstery in addition to the nickel silver, limestone, walnut, Murano glass, and chain mail. This mesh, new to Gabellini's arsenal, occupies a top position in the project's hierarchy of elements. "It is emblematic of Ferragamo's Florentine identity, because Florence was once a major manufacturer," he remarks. Apart from history, the chain mail at Ferragamo is, he continues, a "veil, but one that has contradictory physical properties. Depending on lighting, it's either transparent or opaque. We can manipulate it to give a sense of enclosure and protection or of openness."
Gabellini says his attitude toward lighting design, the single viewpoint to remain constant in his work, is to address "light as a material, not a secondary attribute." Seen through Ferragamo's windows, light sources add to the drama of the architecture while influencing the chain mail's translucency or opacity. Inside, ambient lamps reinforce the concept of floating planes to the extent that one perceives the space as almost without boundaries. Lit by concealed neon or HID sources, articulating walls—albeit 8 inches thick and finished with plaster or stone—have an incredible lightness of being. "They read as paper-thin," says Gabellini. To focus attention on merchandise, he chose recessed spotlights with optical glass lenses devoid of green tint. Like a theatrical lighting designer, he has mastered the permutations of combining sources to set a mood and influence emotion. He can replicate the romance of twilight, the eerie quality of fog, or the elation of a sunlit afternoon at any time of day.