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Architect of Fashion: Eric Carlson

Eric Carlson has made a name for himself in the luxury market with his Parisian-based architecture firm Carbondale, seducing Louis Vuitton, TAG Heuer and BMW with his striking designs. The self-confessed ‘anti-style’ architect tells Luxury London the secret to his success

Patience is a virtue, but if the founder of architect and interior design powerhouse Carbondale had to choose another career, he would swap patience for a vocation for which the reward would be instantaneous. The solution? Being a shoe shiner, of course. “The problem with architecture is that it takes time,” explains Eric Carlson. “If you have an idea and you draw it on a piece of paper, you may see if that idea works or not in a year or two, which is a long time. I would like to do a job that gives instant gratification, so I would probably polish shoes.” Fortunately, the architecture mogul now has his pick of designer brogues to buff, having carved out a career creating flagship stores for a number of design dignitaries.

Specialising in all things luxury, Carbondale was founded in Paris in 2004 by Michigan-born Carlson, who cut his teeth heading up Louis Vuitton’s architecture department before branching out on his own in a bid to tap into multiple luxury divisions, as opposed to just fashion. Twelve years later and it’s safe to say that he has succeeded, having constructed showrooms for BMW in Manhattan, the Celux club in Tokyo, São Paulo’s Tre Bicchieri restaurant, and JK Iguatemi shopping centre. But that’s not to say that he has completely shied away from the fashion world; in fact, while Carlson affirms that his specialisation is more geared towards customisation than it is style, I would go so far as to say that his best work is that which is sartorially-minded. If you have ever perused the Longchamp boutique on New Bond Street, the H.Stern store in São Paulo or, most notably, the golden Louis Vuitton flagship on the Champs-Élysées, then you will see what I mean, for these were all created by the hand of Carlson and his cohort of shopping-savvy designers.“I think fashion and luxury are very aware about how they are perceived and therefore the brands want architects who are able to deal with that,” he explains. “They come to us because they see that we are able to understand who they are and to manifest that into architecture, experience, perception, images and facades.”

The Louis Vuitton boutique in Paris is particularly spectacular; staircases absent, it instead has twisting floors that traverse around the store, taking you on a journey through the space in a way that Carlson likens to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. “It’s kind of a travelling voyage experience, much like Louis Vuitton, which started by creating trunks for travellers,” he enthuses. “That was our intention; when you walk in you don’t get lost, but you get taken down this path that automatically presents you with all of the different realms of the brand.” While Carlson had his fun with the interior – stripping it bare of its four floors and starting from scratch – the facade was a whole other kettle of fish, given that it was historically classified and therefore untouchable. 
“How do you define the image of a building that you can’t actually do anything to?” Carlson laughs. “It was a challenge but, by working behind the glass that represents about 65 per cent of the building, we managed  to create a double skin that’s visible from the outside, which unifies the entire building and was inspired by the monogram of a Louis Vuitton bag.”

Innovations in architectural design have come thick and fast for Carbondale. For the Paspaley pearls boutique in Brisbane, the firm created a pearlescent effect using a composition of lamps strung vertically behind a glass facade, creating the appearance of a string of glowing beads. Inside, cream and golden tones were used throughout on reflective surfaces to produce a glimmering effect. In Sydney, the boutique for Australian footwear brand Florsheim was decorated with a collage of coloured glass squares in leather shades of tan, black and taupe, while London’s Longchamp store featured a three-storey high multi-coloured mural in a design modelled on the label’s logo.

 “I would go so far as to say that if somebody recognised a building as an Eric Carlson then I would have failed to do my job correctly.” 

You don’t get as far as Carlson has without having something of an ego and the architect has no qualms about telling me that he is without a doubt “anti-style” – and don’t even get him started on trends. “If you’re an architect and you have a style or a form of language, then you usually repeat that language over and over again and you become known for that. I make projects for people that are theirs and I don’t want to apply my own aesthetic or language to them,” he explains. “I would go so far as to say that if somebody recognised a building as an Eric Carlson then I would have failed to do my job correctly.” When working on a new project, he encourages his staff to ignore the latest design fads, arguing that they’re likely to inhibit any original ideas. “In my world, we are leaders, not followers, so people will often follow us to define a trend. That sounds very arrogant, I realise, but it’s sort of true. Trends are preconceptions that are inevitably polluting the discovery of something new.”

The secret to his success, he tells me, is the in-depth research that his team does prior to design, during which they delve into the client’s background to truly understand who they are and how they want to be perceived. “I am sitting in my office looking at the walls because they’re covered with images and text for a new project we’re doing,” he tells me down the phone from his Paris-based headquarters. “We just presented to a big luxury fashion house and the owner told me that we understand his brand better than his staff, which is a huge compliment because that means that we’re going to get it right the first time.”

During our 40-minute conversation, it becomes clear that Carlson is not one to toe the architectural line, and his maverick approach transcends to his (not-so) favourite periods of design and his favourite architects, too. “I like the [design] pieces that broke the limits in whichever period they were created, whether classicism or baroque. I’m not into styles and romanticising about them; I’m more interested in radical people who broke through to create those things that we now define as styles,” he tells me. “I am very impressed with architects like Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American who did very large projects like the Gateway Arch, a beautiful sculpture in St. Louis, but at the same time did chairs and tables. He really spans the spectrum of scale and has mastered all of them, which is extremely rare.” And which scale does he think Carbondale is best at? “I think we can do all of them,” he responds.

To back up his point, Carlson discusses a particularly unusual request of the smaller scale variety that was commissioned for a Tokyo-based client, whose love of the Japanese liquor Shōchū necessitated an interior reshuffle. “We designed 24 pieces of furniture for his house and each piece has a place for his special glass of wine, so he doesn’t lose it,” he laughs. “Everybody’s got their thing. The more complicated a client is, the better the project is. You really are forced to reinvent or create things.”

Now the team is keeping busy with projects in Beijing, Monte Carlo, Venice and São Paolo, but the architect remains tight-lipped on the scale of said commissions and the identity of the clients too, joking that he’s “an expert in discretion”. Self-confidence is something that the architect seams to have in abundance, but his pride is undoubtedly well-deserved and it’s clear that he has passion. “I like that every project and every client is new. I don’t get tired of anything because there’s no repetition,” he says. “I don’t do the same thing over and over again, and for me that’s vital, to be creative and pertinent. It’s important to be confronted by new challenges constantly.” Put your Louis Vuitton loafers away because it sounds as though the world will have to wait a little while longer for Carlson’s shoe shining debut. Fortunately, what is the footwear industry’s loss is certainly architecture’s gain.