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Valextra’s Milanese boutique recently underwent a redesign by the designer and architect John Pawson. Over the past four years, the iconic via Manzoni space has seen a number of temporary collaborations and takeovers by names like Martino Gamper, Bernard Dubois, and Kengo Kuma.
Pawson was asked to create a longer-term vision for the store, one that is warm, clean, elegant, and minimal—the better to make the luxury leather goods created by Valextra really shine. Whitewaller spoke with Pawson about creating a feel-good environment filled with natural light and possibility.
WHITEWALLER: What was your vision for Valextra’s Milanese location?
JOHN PAWSON: I wanted to open it up as much as possible. They were keen on having something that was more akin to a gallery, so that when you walked in the only thing you saw, really, was an exhibition of the bags. But of course you’re dealing with people as well. So you want people to feel good and to look good. Those are the things that were in the back of my mind. Whether with a shop or gallery, you’re dealing with the human aspect—that’s so important. If you don’t feel good, you’re not going to look at art or handbags . . . or buy them.
WW: As a designer, how do you make people feel good in a space?
JP: The lighting, the backdrop—the things that architects use to create space, whether it’s mass or volume or proportion or scale. If people feel good, because of the lighting or because of special characteristics, it puts them in a good place.
WW: How did you let in more natural light?
JP: We opened up the space quite a bit, so wherever you are you get glimpses of the daylight from the street. On the other hand, you need to control the lighting on the objects and on the bags themselves.
If you accept a commission, you accept it with the chance that you can do something a bit different or special. I thought there was a chance here. It’s a shop, it’s a commercial space, but it has the feeling of a gallery, in a sense. It’s a one-off, really. That’s what attracted me to it.
WW: How did that lead you to the choice of materials?
JP: They already had this very nice gray floor in a Milanese stone. And we took that and made a hardened plaster mixed with marble dust in gray we used for walls and ceiling. It was also durable enough to use for the shelves. It’s unusual to be in a store—or any architecture—and have exactly the same material on all surfaces. The idea is that the handbags stand out against a neutral backdrop. And people look good in the space—a little bit excited, and a little bit anticipatory that there’s something different going on.
WW: Did the city of Milan influence your approach at all?
JP: Well, I think it’s influenced all of us [laughs]. It’s such an extraordinary, energetic city. Rome is so beautiful physically, with so much history, but you pick up energy in Milan. People are up to things. I always think about the food as well. It’s so nice eating there, just so elegant.
WW: Will you be in Milan for Salone? Do you usually go?
JP: Not religiously, but I will if I’m supporting a manufacturer or supplier. This year we have a few bits and pieces for the home. There’s nothing quite like Salone. And I always end up looking at Leonardo’s Last Supper, seeing paintings in the galleries and museums, seeing churches. It’s a bit daunting coming away from the Last Supper, thinking about one’s own relevance [laughs]. It’s very grounding.