Luxury retail is as much about the space it’s presented in as the products being sold: that’s where Eric Carlson comes in
Designing and creating some of the most iconic luxury retail stores is all in a day’s work for American-born Eric Carlson, owner and architect at multi-award-winning specialist architectural practice Carbondale, based in Paris.
Whether I’m travelling or in our Paris office, my mornings start with a hot bath. It’s the only time in the day I have to contemplate.
If I’m in Paris, I walk or cycle to work from my place on the centrally located River Seine island of Île Saint-Louis to our office by the Louvre. The only other thing I can rely on daily is eating lunch in one of my two favourite bistros: everything in between and after is different.
As an architect and business owner my job is to listen, be perceptive, have ideas and make decisions. This means I have to be creative whether I’m meeting with a client, my team, specialist consultants or visiting a construction site. I also get involved in more administrative things, such as accounting.
One of the most necessary parts of my work is travelling. Our clients that seek the exceptional for their architecture projects live all over the world: Europe, the US, South America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. I travel to our office in São Paulo, Brazil, every two months to follow our projects in that part of the world.
Last week I had brainstorming meeting with my team to kick off a new project, inspected a prototype for Longchamp, flew to Milan and Monte Carlo for the day and had two professional dinners. The rest of my time was spent designing and drawing. Discretion is crucial in the luxury space, so I am trusted to ensure everything is confidential.
My first project when starting Carbondale in 2004 was designing for the exterior and interior of Louis Vuitton Maison on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Prior to that, I co-founded the Louis Vuitton Architecture Department.
The way we create architecture is truly unique. Having spent the last 30 years in high-end design, I have refined a process that begins with an in-depth research and analysis phase. This allows us to define a design strategy that is tailored to the client, before we even begin to create. It assures the creative direction, so we tailor ideas to the specific lifestyle, character and image of the client, and also sees that we get the desired solution at the end of the customer journey.
When we work with external craftspeople and specialists such as lighting designers, façade engineers, digital gurus and acousticians, we seek out the best and most innovative technical and creative experts in the world. We also source and work with artists when developing our projects. Rather than purchasing pre-made design, we select those who can create work that will resonate with both the architectural vision and the client.
Avoiding the trap of succumbing to trends and styles is important to me – it’s essential to suspend our preconceptions to allow space for what we do not expect. I live by the principle of quality over quantity, as well as respecting the confidentiality of our clients. Luxury is a demanding sector to work in, as every aspect of each detail is important.
We are hired to make everything perfectly. That’s the main challenge of what we do. Creating a collection of work where I’m proud of every project I’ve worked on is a huge personal achievement, and I am still full of enthusiasm for my work. I was also the first to introduce design architecture to luxury brands in the 1990s.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is variety: every client has very unique needs. Each project I work on is vastly different and with little repetition, I am always learning. The best part of the process is seeing a project reach completion and watch people inside our creations, enjoying the spaces we design. You need to possess a lot of desire to succeed in this field.
Anything can influence my designs but as our projects are customised and unique, I am primarily inspired by my clients themselves. If people recognise my buildings as an “Eric Carlson design” then I’ve failed. For me, successful designs are inseparable from the identity of the owner or brand; this holds true for luxury brands projects but also for private homes, hotels, a museum or even a chair.
People often mistakenly think that luxury architecture is determined by the expensive or rare materials we use, but spaces, structure and materials are only tools for ideas. It is the quality of these ideas that shape a distinctive and remarkable experience for our clients, their brands, and their customers.
My other career
it would have to be in a field with instant gratification. Architecture takes a lot of time.
1986 Kansas State University
2004-present Owner and architect, Carbondale
1997 Co-founder and director of the Louis Vuitton architecture department
1990 Joined Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas
1989 Joined Spanish architect Óscar Tusquets Blanca
1987 Joined US architect Mark Mack
Interview by Kimberley-Marie Sklinar Green