Hermès' Long-time Collaborator RDAI on French Design and the Maison's Refurbished Hong Kong Store
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RDAI’s Julia Capp and Denis Montel on French design, luxury, and the reopening of the Hermès store in Lee Garden One, Hong Kong.

France has long ruled the world of art – from fashion and furniture to food and wine, and even TV shows related to the city (think "Emily in Paris"). But what makes French design so effortlessly chic and timeless? Parisian architecture firm RDAI, the creative force behind every Hermès store worldwide, may just have the answer. 

As the Hermès Lee Garden store reopens, we caught up with Julia Capp, CEO, and Denis Montel, artistic director and executive vice president of RDAI, on what defines French design, and the inspiration behind the newly refurbished store.

Hermès' Long-time Collaborator RDAI on French Design and the Maison's Refurbished Hong Kong Store

What defines French design? And how does RDAI capture the essence of French design through your hospitality/retail and furniture projects?

Capp: What’s really important about French design for me (and I am Australian!), is that the French are deeply anchored in what we call art de vivre, the art of living, which is crucial in hospitality and hotels. We learn a lot from the way French people live, particularly in Paris, where everyone is out on the street, at restaurants, and meeting people. Another significant aspect of French design is the heritage that informs our design decisions, but most importantly, it’s craftsmanship. We lean on the incredible knowledge and savoir faire of French craftsmen, utilising it in all our work – retail, hospitality, everything. 

Montel: French design is defined by the traditions of a sophisticated architecture; by it’s cultural heritage. The 18th century was the age of enlightenment, the 19th century Art nouveau and the 20th century Art Decoratifs and the Modern Movement. It is this heritage that leads to the French Decoratifs Arts of today.

Apart from aesthetics, what makes an interior, whether in a hotel or retail space, beautiful?

Capp: Aesthetics are important. But more crucial than aesthetics is how a person feels. You want to enter a space and feel comfortable and peaceful. What we try to bring into our projects is the experience. Because we work all over the world, we want our clients to experience something that tells them about the place, context and time that they are in. Working with local know-how and traditions helps us to  express a story and create this experience.

What is true luxury to you?

Capp: Luxury, for myself, and for RDAI, is about time – taking the time to experience something and having peaceful experiences. Luxury is also expressed through craftsmanship, which takes time. When you touch something like a ceramic or wood or leather object, you can feel the time that people have invested in it. To me, that’s luxury.

What would you be if not an architect/interior designer?

Capp: I would have been a chef. I’ve always loved cooking. When I was studying architecture, I often cooked for friends at weddings, just for fun. Being a chef is not that different from being an architect. You have to plan your meal, understand structure, colour, and taste, and create an experience. I worked as a chef when I was very young in London. I worked for a big development company that had a private chef for business meetings. Though I was offered a place at a restaurant, I preferred to return to architecture.

Can you name a book, movie, or music track that has significantly inspired your designs?

Capp: “In Praise of Shadows” by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. I first read it when I started working on my architecture degree. It discusses the importance of light and shadow and how they define the spaces you’re in. You don’t want to be in a dark place, but you also don’t want too much light.

When we work on our projects, we always try to balance light and shadow. A shadow can tell you something, sometimes more, about the space. This is especially challenging in shopping malls where there’s no natural light, so we use artificial light to create the sensation of natural light. Wherever possible, we try to open up the facade to let in natural light. The play of light and shadow is really important.

More than books and music, art significantly inspires our team, particularly our artistic director Denis Montel and myself. We frequently visit art shows and exhibitions. Recently, we were inspired by Constantin Brâncuși at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. He worked with natural elements and organic forms. While we don’t replicate his work directly, his use of materials inspires us conceptually in our projects. We tend to be inspired in a conceptual way rather than through direct translation.

Can you give an example of how light and shadow are integrated into your work, for example, the Bountiful Journey Tower in Taiwan?

Capp: For the Bountiful Journey Tower, we worked on the facade by moving the stone panels at different angles. When the sun hits the building, each panel captures the light and shadows differently, giving the facade texture and a dynamic quality. This creates a different experience depending on the time of day.

Hermès' Long-time Collaborator RDAI on French Design and the Maison's Refurbished Hong Kong Store
Photo credit: Kyle Yu  

What specific elements does RDAI incorporate into Hermès shop designs to enhance the customer experience across different global markets?

Montel: Each store is unique in its design and specific in its atmosphere. Overall, I’d say that we’re attached to the notions of proportion of space, balance, natural light, harmony of colours, quality of materials and, of course, comfort … all these notions combined together contribute to the quality of the “customer experience”. Our approach to the “customer experience” is quite holistic.

Hermès' Long-time Collaborator RDAI on French Design and the Maison's Refurbished Hong Kong Store

Any innovative materials or sustainable practices that RDAI has introduced in Hermès shop designs?

Montel: Environmental sustainability is central to the design of Hermès stores. The “carbon footprint”, for example, is a subject we monitor on a project-by-project basis. We are also increasingly committed to local sourcing of both materials and know-how.

How do you adapt your designs to meet local tastes while maintaining a consistent brand image for Hermès?

Montel: It is a very creative process. Each store has to be different and reflect the culture of the country it is in, while retaining the codes that tell the customer that he or she is in a Hermès shop. Materials and finishes will change: for example, in hot climates we use mosaic floors, while in cold ones, wood or carpet are favoured; the same goes for the type of building we are in, whether it is old or new. 

Then there are the details that the customer will pick up on unconsciously, such as the front door with the ex libris [the logo], or the meandering Greek frieze pattern that is repeated on the walls, lighting, door. The customer needs to have a different experience while knowing he/she is in a Hermès shop.

Hermès' Long-time Collaborator RDAI on French Design and the Maison's Refurbished Hong Kong Store

Can you share the story behind your Hong Kong office at PMQ and your participation in BODW?

Capp: We are here at PMQ thanks to its director, William To, whom we met in Paris with Chris Lo of the HKTD council and who introduced us to Business of Design Week. We are very excited about what is going to happen in December.

What's next for RDAI?

Capp: We are working on a hotel and serviced apartments in Ajman, Emirates, a hotel starting on-site very soon in Martinique, Caribbean, and a residential tower in Taichung called Belle Epoque which is under construction. We’re also developing furniture, which we’ve done over the years. We’ve started to re-edit Rena Dumas’ furniture designs and are designing new pieces. We’re also working with a gallery in New York soon on a project involving a table we presented last year in Copenhagen.

Hermès' Long-time Collaborator RDAI on French Design and the Maison's Refurbished Hong Kong Store
Hermès' Long-time Collaborator RDAI on French Design and the Maison's Refurbished Hong Kong Store
Hermès' Long-time Collaborator RDAI on French Design and the Maison's Refurbished Hong Kong Store
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