Our interview with the trio behind the cult Italian eyewear brand's new NYC flagship and first-ever brick and mortar store
by Leemor Rhodes
Retrosuperfuture (RSF)—the Italian label behind Super sunglasses—celebrated the much-anticipated opening of its first brick and mortar shop with a flagship store in downtown New York City. Located in an early 20th century building on the edge of SoHo and Chinatown, the massive 4,000 square foot space is comfortably nestled among like-minded neighbors such as Opening Ceremony and Jil Sander, on a street that’s recently experienced a small revival as a shopping destination for those seeking cult brands and hard-to-find labels. The endeavor was a collaborative effort co-designed by RSF founder Daniel Beckerman, Italian architect Andrea Caputo and RSF's creative director, Sean Michael Beolchini.
Through months of continuous open dialogues between the three, an overall design directive was developed with two elements clearly needed within the space—versatility and multi-functionality—in order to achieve their dream environment. With this in mind, the store was built not only for retail but as the brand’s US headquarters with offices and a showroom to hold presentations and events. A forthcoming phase two development will incorporate a "secret space" for friends and family to utilize in the near future.
"Both professionally and personally, this is a big step for us all. We finally have a space of our own, where we can let ourselves go, experiment, make mistakes and work. Having been with the brand since the beginning, it's an incredible opportunity for me to be the creative expression of the team in New York and throughout the US,” Beolchini tells CH.
The shop oozes an effortless aesthetic without a trace of pretension. A clear extension of the Italian brand is immediately evident as one enters the brick-laden interior, warmly welcoming and inviting customers to interact with both the merchandise and space thanks to the trio's thoughtful design process. Just 112 different styles are currently on display from among the 600 frames comprising the entire Super collection. Each section is designed so as not to overwhelm guests, but rather to encourage interactivity with the eyewear.
Almost every interior element was custom-designed and specially built for Retrosuperfuture, with the exception of an incredibly handsome sitting area which includes six Eames DWR chairs, some BassamFellows tractor stools and a pair of Herman Miller Wireframe sofas. “The tables, the iPad shelf, the bookshelf, the cash desk, the movable drawers and the wooden sunglasses corvettes [are custom]. A sort of artisanal process became the formula since using pre-fab product was dismissed from the very beginning. The rest has been totally designed ad hoc and then produced in Italy: marble tops in Vicenza, drawers in Treviso, the boiserie and the tables in Fano, the metal structures in Bergamo,” explains Caputo. We recently checked in with the three men to gain more insight into their US space.
Andrea, can you briefly explain the collaborative process of co-designing the store with Daniel and Sean? How did you meet the two?
AC: After being introduced by a mutual friend, Daniel came to my office one day in Lambrate. We never met before and his first comment was, ‘Dude, I can’t figure out how your design is so clean and essential, because this office is a total mess.’ He was right. We had lunch and immediately began talking about the NY project, completely ignoring the specifics of design talk—the conversation focused more on the program as a whole rather than the little details. The same dialogue continued for weeks, the possibilities [were] endless. Design proposals were considered, refused, then partially accepted for more and more weeks.
Sean jumped in the conversation some months after, with the same process. We spent an afternoon in my office looking at their collection and its declinations, from vis-à-vis models to the classic ones. During the whole process I realized an interesting exchange of ideas was going on, which were also stimulated by the suggestions of Luca Cavallaro, a designer for Ralph Lauren in NY.
What did you all aim to achieve with the design of the store? Is there one specific theme or continuous inspiration throughout?
DB: Since the beginning we have treated the brand in a non-conventional way. We were moved to launch the brand because personally, I thought the sunglasses market was not having an exciting moment. The offering did not show attention to the 'experience' and this reflected in products, the way they communicated and their design. We tried to change that with Retrosuperfuture, giving our own interpretation and that's why the glasses have this particular design and layout.
We wanted to let the space breathe and reveal its natural structure. We thought of it as a brand new pair of white shoes that needed some dirt.
When we found the physical space it was already so nice that our work was to mainly add as few outside elements as possible. We wanted to let the space breathe and reveal its natural structure. We thought of it as a brand new pair of white shoes that needed some dirt.
AC: I would say the whole concept and design is driven by smooth contradictions, from the materials and finishing choices to the contextual approach. The space itself was already amazing: An empty warehouse from the early 20th century with exposed brick walls, original wooden floors and an intricate pressed-tin ceiling; quite typical for SoHo but very impressive regardless.
The new flagship store fits the format of a young and very contemporary brand. The tin ceiling was painted white while the floor and walls a pearl gray. Overall, painting these surfaces left out 6 feet of exposed brick wall but only on top, resulting in a super clean gallery-like space.
This parallel stripe came out while I was working on a model in Milan, but then I realized it’s quite an iconography of NYC—along the Highline for instance, where behind the old warehouses painted by graffiti artists Cost and Revs you can see in gray the lower levels of many brick walls. I guess it’s a solution for undesired graffiti presence. Indeed painting over is cheaper than removing it with a sandblaster. So we painted the bricks, the floor, the ceiling. I was even thinking this solution would be perfectly replicable in new upcoming flagships, generating a sort of ‘adaptable’ approach to any kind of context.
And then, inside this white box we placed a massive volume piece made out of black plywood. It looks like a temporary scaffolding structure but there’s a complexity in it which brings value and again contrast between simple construction materials and sliding doors. This volume was needed in order to generate a tension inside the space: A first black pole on a corner, totally isolated and then a back-office area (with its huge bookshelf system) as secondary main attraction. I would say everything else has been organized between these two poles, which defines the store’s hierarchy.
Can you tell us more about the Phase 2 build-out, specifically the basement and its social, multi-functional aspect?
DB: Well, this actually was the 'secret space.' The basement is very big and it has a nice charming underground and secret feeling to it. We will hopefully use it for many different things. We will build it out in order to keep it very eclectic and will be a space available not only for brand activities but also a hub for all our friends and family that need a space in NY to hang out or do some business. Luca [Cavallaro], an NY-based Italian designer and very good storyteller, will follow us throughout this process in the same way he did for the main floor space.
What upcoming projects are you working on that we can look forward to hearing about?
AC: At the moment we will keep on designing for Carhartt WIP, managing many flagship stores, showrooms and retail spaces. It’s a tight professional collaboration, which every year becomes more interesting in terms of design and process. In February 2014 we’ll install a new unit in southern Italy—a sort of screen for a preexisting building that includes multifunctions like sun protection, water recycling, a worker's shelter and lighting system.
DB: We have so many exciting projects in progress and it would be a pity to ruin the surprise and I can't wait to see how people will react to them. The NY store was definitely just the first ambitious project and we have many more to come.
Retrosuperfuture is open now at 21 Howard Street. Images courtesy of Paul Barbera.