The first Hermès store on Paris' rive gauche is located in a former swimming pool that has been filled with radical architecture and innovative retail . Denis Montel of RDAI architects explains how he transformed 17 Rue de Sevres.
After years of scouting the Left Bank of Paris for a location worthy of the first Hermès store on this side of the Seine, the luxury goods house finally found its rive gauche home in 2009 in the form of a vast vacant swimming pool that once belonged to the Lutetia hotel. As with all new Hermès stores, the architectural practice RDAI (founded by Rena Dumas, wife of the late Jean-Louis Dumas, former CEO and majority owner of Hermès) was asked to transform the space and create what is the first Hermès concept boutique, which opened on November 19.
Denis Montel, artistic director of RDAI, comments that the “immense, empty volume” required its redesign to be “imagined in m3 more than in m2.” A radical response was needed, which came in the form of three undulating huts constructed from woven ash wood, which rise 9m high from the pool floor to the skylights. These astonishing structures house women’s fashion, accessories and the Hermès home line (which debuted its Jean-Michel Frank re-editions at the store opening). Lit from within, the “houses-within-the-house” appear lantern-like from the outside.
A fourth “hut” lies on the staircase, connecting the conservative entrance – which gives no hint of the surprise inside – with the former swimming pool. The pool itself was meticulously restored with shimmering mosaics, overlooked by ironwork balconies, both of which give a nod to the Hermès flagship at 24 Rue du Faubourg St Honore. It is an impressive mix of restoration and contemporary addition and pure Hermès in its fusion of tradition with innovation.
Complementing the pioneering architecture at the sixth arrondissement boutique is a new concept in retail from Hermès. Alongside its signature fashion, accessories and homeware is Le Plongeoir tearoom (offering 16 blends from around the world), the Chaine d’encre bookshop (for a carefully curated selection of rare tomes), and, at the entrance, the florist Baptiste Pitou (his blooms can come complete with an Hermès vase and he encourages invitations to personally install flowers in clients’ homes). Visit 17 Rue de Sevres and dive into the world of Hermès.
What is your definition of luxury?
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
Something exquisite to behold and caress.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
A monastery garden.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
A timeless moment.
Denis Montel, artistic director of RDAI architects, explains how he transformed a swimming pool into the remarkable Hermès concept boutique at 17 Rue de Sevres.
What are your sources of inspiration?
The whale skeletons at the Musèum National d’Histoire Naturelle in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris. Mobile and traveling structures. And ships in bottles.
More precisely, how did this place inspire you?
The swimming pool at 17 Rue de Sèvres in Paris reflected the state of the day, and was built with what was then modern technology: reinforced concrete. The Art Deco spirit was very prominent in the decoration, both in the mosaics and the opus incertum tiling, and in the metalwork adorned with golf leaf. But this is a modest Art Deco construction, with no major architectural features. Likewise its volume. It was certainly a surprise to find such space bathed in natural light from three big skylights hidden inside a Parisian block. When the novelty wore off we found ourselves dealing with a not very balanced, rather massive volume: a big empty interior giving a sensation of space more than a surface area. We decided to occupy it in an exaggerated way. The project was “additive”. The interior envelopes were restored and an architectural ensemble was added to the original one. This is composed of three wooden structures that disrupt the proportions of the existing space – or rather, that play and dialogue with it. Boxes in the box… houses in the house… huts in the swimming pool. The stairs invite visitors to walk between the three monumental huts in the pool, in a promenade of changing scales as spaces expand and then contract. A dialogue develops between the existing volume and its strange guests. The project its twofold: like a ship in a bottle, it’s hard to say which is the more surprising. They live together and sustain each other.
How did you take the plunge?
The Hèrmes store at 24 Faubourg Saint-Honorè was given a makeover in 1926, so it is almost a contemporary of the Lutetia pool. But while on the Right Bank Hèrmes has kept close to its origins, in crossing the Seine to the Left Bank it has also traveled through time – across the 20th century. Here, in Rue de Sèvres, in the old Lutetia swimming pool, we felt that the architecture of Hèrmes “on the water” should be boldly contemporary.
Did the fact of its location in a listed building but put a particular twist on this project?
The Architects des Bâtiments de France (responsible for listed buildings) are very vigilant when it comes to restoration. “Light, nomadic, itinerant, passing, reversible” – to us, these seemed like the right watchwords for our work. The idea was to develop a harmonious dialogue between the origins and the present. The aim was to restore a place that was naturally timeworn but also massively transformed in the mid-1970s, to make it suitable for public use. We wanted to bring out the qualities of the existing architecture and recapture the spirit of the 1935 swimming pool, while offering a very modern expression of the Hèrmes spirit at this Left Bank location.
If there’s no more water in the pool, is it still a pool?
The smell of the water may have gone, but there’s still the feel of it. The existing setting is very mineral, very sonorous. The old pool is lined with a mosaic of stoneware and glass paste in a dozen shades of grey, white, light green, white gold, silver etc. The idea is to use these colours to recreate the sensation of a pool with a shimmering, sparkling surface. The presence of the water is also evoked on the ceilings by projections that are made by the lighting system.
Are we talking waves or undulation here?
On a much less literal level, most of the architectural elements that have been added are fluid, supple and light. They encourage movement, as free and easy as a body in water. On the ground floor, for example, the walls form long, wavy curves. Sometimes they change shape to accommodate display cases or shelves, or to allow a moulded bench to emerge. To give another example, the main staircase, created to link the ground floor and the lower level (the pool level), spreads like a slopping ribbon. The movement is natural, like a cascade. And the huts twist and turn as they rise up towards the light. We want this architectural intervention to be at once very decisive and very gentle and enfolding.