Ian Phillips | May 01, 2011
In the basement of the Paris real-estate agency Foncier Home is a space that was once a bank vault. The safe-deposit boxes remain in place, and sturdy-looking iron gates have been installed. In the center of the room, someone seems to have left a few gold bars on a counter—actually witty gold-plated doorstops by Arik Levy. That hasn't prevented a number of them from disappearing, however. "Several have been stolen," Saguez & Partners creative director Boris Gentine admits. His firm is responsible for Foncier Home's new home, on a corner a stone's throw from the Opéra Garnier.
The grand 19th-century edifice was first occupied by the insurer Lloyd's of London and has been owned since the 1930's by the bank Crédit Foncier, which three years ago launched the rather revolutionary division Foncier Home. "Our strategic research had indicated that the French public felt that becoming a home-owner was too complicated. Too many different kinds of people were involved," Crédit Foncier director of strategic project development Cécile Chevalier-Rottman says. The new agency brings together the various players under one roof.
After a two-year training period, agents can both give real-estate advice and put together a mortgage proposal. Outside professionals such as investment experts, lawyers, and architects are available for consultation on certain days of the week, too. A unit called Buying in France serves English-speaking nonnatives hoping to do precisely that.
One of Saguez & Partners's major tasks was to increase visibility from the street. "It was a typical bank building, very private and quite dark," account director Cécile Poujade notes. The windows began so high above the sidewalk that it was impossible to see inside, so Gentine and Poujade lowered and enlarged them. Passersby now get a glimpse of several striking new features on the ground level. For example, above the circular reception desk, LED strands suspended around the top of a column illuminate with words of welcome.
Throughout the 16,000-square-foot, five-level interior, decor speaks loud and clear about the mission of Foncier Home. Thus, standing slightly beyond reception is the House of Houses, an enclosure that, from the outside, indeed resembles a house with stained-oak siding. Gentine and Poujade took the domestic analogy further by turning the open zone wrapping the enclosure into a "terrace" with wicker furniture, umbrella pines, and planters filled with wild grasses. The choice of wood for the siding was also meant to send an ecological message: Foncier Home is one of the first renovations of a 19th-century Paris building to obtain France's Haute Qualité Environnementale label.
The laid-back openness and accessibility of Apple stores very much inspired the ground level. Both the lounge and café outside the enclosure and the sales office inside feature high desks with built-in touch screens for browsing, and each visitor receives a card with a microchip for downloading real-estate ads. The idea was "to break with the usual way things are done and avoid immediate face-to-face contact with clients," Chevalier-Rottman explains. Foncier Home's advisers don't just sit behind a desk. They wander around.
Lighthearted touches are numerous, with areas in the sales office referencing different parts of a house. Shelves in the "kitchen," for example, hold a food processor, a whisk, and scales. In the "lounge" sit a pink Eiffel Tower and a porcelain hammer that could be used to smash open a nearby piggy bank. And a "playroom" offers cuddly toys, a drawing table, and a flat-screen TV to keep the kids occupied while their parents make savvy real-estate investments.
As you proceed upward via the spiral staircase, the second level is devoted to temporary exhibitions. Level three houses a large central lounge surrounded, along the window walls, by a conference room, an open office area, and private offices color-coded black, plum, raspberry, or mandarin. You need a special swipe card to reach the more subdued top level, reserved for VIP clients and the signing of contracts. In a nice allusion to domestic architecture, each meeting room here is named after a landmark, be it Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion. For extra privacy, the rooms' glass fronts can turn opaque with the flick of a switch.
Gentine calls the overall aesthetic Scandinavian. "It's gentle and relaxed," he says. Nordic furniture classics include Arne Jacobsen's Egg chair and Poul Henningsen's Artichoke pendant fixture—but they mix with designs by such current stars as Patricia Urquiola and Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec and discoveries made at last year's Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan. As for the color palette, it's generally vibrant.
Even the restrooms participate in the Foncier Home experience: Most of them have jukeboxes programmed with a playlist titled Home. It features Radiohead's "House of Cards" and the Animals's "House of the Rising Sun."
Olivier Saguez; Mikaël Bezou; Bruno Bini; Jean-Baptiste Coissac; Constance Gaborit; Pierre-Olivier Pigeot; Bruno Auret; Timothée Jonglez: Saguez & Partners. Versions: General Contractor.