This story was brought to you by L’ÉCOLE School of Jewelry Arts.
Pop-up spaces may have emerged from humble, temporary beginnings, but there’s nothing transitory about Van Cleef & Arpels’ L’ÉCOLE School of Jewelry Arts, which will open on September 16 at the Qube, a lofty space in the PMQ design hub. Returning for the third year in a row, the Paris-based school hopes to cultivate interest in and understanding of the history and artisanal techniques of jewellery-making through courses, workshops and a series of conversations hosted by jewellery experts.
“The choice of a location for L’ÉCOLE in Hong Kong was very simple,” explains the school’s founder and president, Marie Vallanet-Delhom. “As soon as we saw the PMQ site, learned its history, and understood what was happening there in terms of it supporting lively young local artists in such a unique environment, we knew it was the right location for L’ÉCOLE.”
The appointment of Chinese-American interior architect and designer Johnny Li as the creative force behind the interiors (for the inaugural space and the next two consecutive years) was equally logical. “Working with Johnny seemed natural because from our very first meeting he was so open to our ideas,” says Vallanet-Delhom. “We felt he had already completely grasped our concept because we could see the way his own design studio at PMQ worked – the harmony of colours and materials, and even the work flow dynamics.”
Li’s design portfolio ranges from commercial projects for the Marriott Hotel Group, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, Shanghai Tang in New York, Blanc de Chine and PUYI Optical, to private residences in Japan, Bangkok and Hong Kong. The designer has a long-felt passion for classic and contemporary French architecture and says he was inspired by Van Cleef & Arpels’ flagship school, spread over two floors of a 17th century mansion in Paris’ Place Vendôme. The school was unveiled in 2012 with interiors that were designed in-house by a team led by Vallanet-Delhom.
For the Hong Kong edition, Li says one of the key challenges was to balance the needs of a functional professional educational environment with laboratory-style spaces while still conveying a sense of Van Cleef & Arpels’ signature mix of luxury and heritage. “At the same time, I wanted to avoid creating the typical feel of an exclusive boutique or a classic school environment,” he explains.
Li starts all his projects by immersing himself in the context, so began by exploring how the Parisian school’s design combines teaching with its iconic architecture and interiors. “One of the things I learned from my half-Chinese, half-German grandmother was that the only way to avoid clichés or to resist being half-committed to anything that you do, is to do everything you can to understand the unique characters and style you are dealing with,” he explains.
Keen to avoid any hint of a clichéd East-meets-West or “Made in Hong Kong” aesthetic, Li turned to classical Chinese garden design that favours a more conceptual approach to natural elements. While he has intensively researched the meaning of key elements from symbolism to placement, Li has managed to add a fresh take on the conceptual abstraction of the language of classical design. “Each stone, each tree is the result of complex conceptual and philosophical approach that places the human in relation with the natural elements: sky, water, mountains,” he says.
The design of pathways in traditional Chinese gardens, for instance, are typically constructed in a way to ensure that the walker does not reach their end point via a straight line. In Hong Kong, the school’s walkway is deliberately distorted to weave around the garden, allowing for time to reflect, think and enjoy a close relationship with the elements in a progressive way. Individual spaces may be compartmentalised to reflect their different functions, yet movement from one room to the next through the space feels organic and natural.
Li also designed an bamboo-mesh screen wall that greets visitors to the school, hinting at what lies beyond without providing a complete barrier. Beyond the screen, visitors will discover a library, complete with a 6-metre-tall bookcase of design and art books mixed with objects that inspire. That in turn leads to a gallery showcasing the Van Cleef & Arpels Legacy Exhibition. The layout flows naturally into four classroom spaces and from the very end the school’s gemmology lab overlooks the PMQ courtyard’s gigantic banyan tree.
While the space takes its roots from Chinese gardens, the design was also influenced by legendary French master architect and interior designer Pierre Chareau, renowned for his 1932 Glass House, which infused ancient architecture with contemporary elements. The original Paris location of L’ÉCOLE is similar, with a statement-making raw galvanised steel staircase and minimalist furnishings by contemporary designers that stand side-by-side with 500-year-old wood paneling. That in turn is echoed in Hong Kong with a statement raw steel bar offset by bamboo.
“Materials such as steel, glass and concrete were symbolic of modernity in the Art Deco period,” says Li. “At L’ÉCOLE, this shares the nostalgia of being free of convention.” The designer says he also wanted to reflect Van Cleef & Arpels’ appreciation of materiality through craftsmanship and natural elements.
In Hong Kong, however, the Qube’s 650-square-metre, 6-metre-high space, which bridges two mid-century heritage buildings and overlooks a courtyard, lacked the “sense of identity” of the Parisian school, says Li. In that sense, the traditional Chinese garden design principles of framing views and using borrowed views of adjacent settings were critical in evoking the Parisian school’s sense of mystery and illusion in a grand space.
The material palette also acknowledges the Parisian flagship by blending industrial touches with luxury, such as stained oak, Italian Carrara marble and wool rugs offset by galvanised mild steel plate, unfinished in raw form, and bamboo-mesh screens. The mix adds a spirit of modernity while helping to reinterpret heritage.
“The selection of materials is key to conveying the sensibility of a Hong Kong spirit,” says Li. “For example, bamboo is highly symbolic. When it is alive it is a vibrant green, but when dry it has a beautiful, earthy, warm beige colour that gives off a soft glow. For me, that helps to convey the sense of welcome and warmth that we want to create within the school.”
This year’s school reinterprets the signature bamboo-mesh screen at the entrance as a vaulted ceiling comprising a geometric composition of panels that forms a gentle curvature similar to that of a piece of jewellery. The walls now feature a new art wall installation inspired by Chinese watercolour landscape painting. Instead of a traditional ink painting, though, the 19.6-metre-long scrolls are landscape images by Hong Kong based photographer Josh Lee.
Li says French Impressionist Claude Monet was another source of inspiration for the photography. In the painter’s later years, as his eyesight deteriorated due to cataracts, he took a more abstract approach and began painting with dots. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we do the same and intentionally take a photograph and make it so that it is pixilated?'” says Li. “The blurring it creates becomes more mysterious, uncertain and dreamy, almost fairytale-like.” This is one difference between designing a luxury jewellery boutique and a pop-up school, he says. “At the school we can be more experimental.”
Throughout the new school, Li’s original neutral colour palette remains a subtle blend of earthy tones infused with touches of lavender, pink and light blue, a subtle nod to L’ÉCOLE’s trademark hues. This year, however, he also added a stronger hint of a “more rustic” green, with grey and aubergine, touches of muted pink, and yellow.
Although the Qube has a strong and recognisable identity with an unmistakable touch of local spirit, it nevertheless retains the DNA of its Parisian parent, creating an unusual sense of permanency in what is a temporary construct. Li’s latest design for L’ÉCOLE may be enough to make us excited at the prospect of going back to school, but the soft-spoken designer says the greatest compliment he has received came from Nicolas Bos, president and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels. When Bos first saw the completed design, he exclaimed, “I could live here!”
L’ÉCOLE School of Jewelry Arts courses will be available from September 16 to October 1, 2017. Interested parties can also visit the free open day on September 17, from 9:00-18:30.
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