Coconut fiber string in Singapore, steel caps in Paris
von Esther Schulze-Tsatsas | 7/14/2015
In the heart of Kyoto: The Aesop store in Kawaramachi district. All photos © Aesop

Eine globale und wiedererkennbare Marke und lokale architektonische Bezüge – wie passt das zusammen? Die Kosmetikmarke Aesop macht es mit ihren Läden vor.

If you are wandering round one of the world’s metropolises and suddenly notice a cream dispenser attached to the frontage of a building, you’ll probably rub your eyes in surprise. Or you already know the Aesop brand and therefore you are fully aware you have just walked past one of its 110 branches and are simply being invited to test one of the high-end products. The “Resurrection Aromatique Hand Balm” made of mandarin peel, cedarwood and rosemary, is meant to convince anyone on first contact – and immediately turn passersby into prospective customers.

In the 28 years since Aesop was first founded in Melbourne, it has grown to become a global cosmetics corporations. And this has involved staging the brand in a manner that is about as consistent as you can get – starting with the plain-but-elegant branding of the product range and the design of the stores through to the countless quotes from famous people that grace the packaging – by way of homage to the man whose name was taken for the brand, the famed storyteller in 6th Century BC Greece.

From the outset Dennis Paphitis, who founded Aesop, had great ambitions as regards architecture and design, and was strongly committed to the respectively local cultural scenes. “I was horrified at the thought of Aesop evolving into a soulless chain,” Dennis Paphitis stated years ago in an interview. He is convinced that exciting store concepts and strong customer traffic go hand in hand. And thus it was probably not just his cultural soul but also his business acumen that prompted Paphitis to join up with designers worldwide and develop an individual concept for each brand branch.

Irrespective of whether the designers are young and up-and-coming, or renowned, or simply world-famous, the stores they have created for Aesop testify to their respective styles. The emphasis is on using local materials and referencing local culture and history. On the one hand, the location and its traditions are treated with respect, and, on the other, the key characteristics of the brand are unmistakably foregrounded, its DNA displayed. So let’s visit a few of the outlets.

ABC-Viertel, Hamburg, Vincent van Duysen

January this year Aesop opened its first store in Hamburg – on the ground floor of a heritage building in the middle of the en vogue ABC district. Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen, who lives in Antwerp and is famed for his minimalist and yet sensuous use of light and natural materials, took the room back to its root, by having the walls and ceilings uncovered. Van Duysen comments that the sculptural washbasin made of chalcanthite, a bright mineral stone, was inspired by Medieval fountains. Elements of blackened steel also allude to the building’s original wrought-iron facade.

Millenia Walk, Singapur, March Studio

A total of 30 kilometers of coconut-fiber string hangs from the ceiling. In 2009, Melbourne-based Studio March decided on a hunch to use the string with which Aesop otherwise packages gifts as the basis for the design of the cosmetic brand’s first store in Singapore. The local geography and climate influenced the idea, as coconuts are typical of the region’s moist, tropical climate and the strings were made locally. A nice by-product: Any breath of fresh air imbues the closely-knit ceiling with new life.

Prinsensgate, Oslo, Snøhetta Architects

In the premises of the 100th flagship store, the diligence of an archaeologist was brought to bear in exposing the 19th century vaulted roofs in Oslo’s Prinsensgate. Snøhetta, a local architectural office that is active internationally, as reminded of the traditional forms in Orthodox churches and monasteries and created ten vaulted matt plaster arches that toy with the room’s light and acoustics. In Oslo the inevitable washbasin made of fiber cement emulates the ceiling’s shapes and, as always, is placed in the center of what is here a monochrome sales room.

Le Marais, Paris, Studio Ciguë

The Aesop branch designed by Parisian architects Ciguë opened in September 2011 in Marais and is adorned by 427 steel bowls. All of them originated in the sewers under Paris where they functioned as the caps sealing sewage pipes. Now they’ve been blackened, some polished, others left untreated, and serve as consoles for the more than 90 skin, hair and bodycare products the Australian brand has on offer. What is more, Ciguë has transformed the lids from large pipes into washbasins.

Kawaramachi, Kyoto, Torafu Architects

A sea of tranquility in the midst of urban hustle-and-bustle is what the team at Torafu Architects sought to create in the heart of Kyoto. Metal pipes and lamps hang from the salesroom ceiling – once used by fishermen out at night to catch octopus. Set off against the fair-faced concrete walls, the simple lamps resemble refined ornaments – and emphasize the store’s sheer height. The floor is made of Ōya stone, a material traditionally used in Japan for dwellings.

Nolita, New York City, Jeremy Barbour

In September 2011, Aesop opened its very first store in New York City, in a small room just off the Bowery. It is a great example of sustainable architecture: The walls and sales top are made of old issues of the New York Times. Big Apple architect Jeremy Barbour wanted in this way not only to pay homage to the written word, but also to demonstrate newspaper’s structural properties and potential.

Adelaide City, Adelaide, Rodney Eggleston

Australia’s economy is strongly influenced by agriculture, and this informed the design of the Aesop store opened in 2008 in Adelaide. To protect the light-sensitive ingredients in the cosmetics, all products have since the company’s foundation been sold in brown glass bottles such as were typical once in apothecary stores. Australian architect Rodney Eggleston had exactly 7,560 such vessels suspended from the ceiling – for him they point to the agroindustry’s mass husbandry of plants.