Diplomates aims to create a bewitchingly sensory experience through architecture

Multidisciplinary studio Diplomates rejects today’s far-too-conservative retail work in favour of ephemerality and fluidly experiential projects.

They play with architecture and design, dabble in the audiovisual arts, and wander freely within the world of fashion. From their workshop, the trio that heads creative studio Diplomates lends physical shape to ideas. They like their projects to be site-specific, and they constantly strive to establish an effective relationship between a design and the space in question. ‘We try to find the right gesture – one that gives a structure a raison d’être.’ Above all, the team is averse to labels and limitations. So do I call them designers? ‘A project is a tool. People can tell us what we are. We are not designers. We try to make meaningful experiences that respond to a brand or a space.’

The workshop is part of a 47,000-m2 industrial complex that’s just a stone’s throw from Paris. Three thirty-somethings – Matthieu Prat, creative director; Brice Lartigue, engineer; and Jean Panien, architect – along with a regular crew of up to a dozen freelance specialists, develop a wide variety of decors, including those for Damir Doma fashion shows, a dance performance at the Nowy Teatr in Warsaw, a furnished showroom for young Milanese label OAMC, and a window display for Colette.

‘Many of our projects are ephemeral. We started off working in the fashion industry, doing runway shows. Fifteen minutes and then you dismantle what you just made. It’s as ephemeral as you can get. Slowly, our projects are becoming somewhat less temporary.’ They’re talking about those that last as long as a month – or even more than a year.

Two of the three ‘Diplomates’ live in the building that houses the studio. It represents a new, more urban chapter in their careers – a change from the country estate where they previously worked for four years. Not that they’re tied to one place. On the contrary, all three men like being in the thick of local activities. For Thomas Erber’s 2014 Cabinet de Curiosités in Bangkok, the team spent three weeks last year visiting local Thai timber yards before driving a single nail into the wood they used for the 23-m-high installation that featured at Bangkok’s Central Embassy shopping mall. ‘It was a prerequisite of our involvement in the project. We wanted to get to know the place first. It’s the only way that makes sense.’

Only recently, Diplomates spent day after day – for an entire month – realizing the premises opposite Les Bains Douches, a trendy Parisian nightclub that’s been converted to a hotel and restaurant (see St-W #106, page 124). Initially, even Diplomates had no idea what the accompanying concept shop, which sells decorative items like those in the hotel rooms and lobby across the street, was going to look like. The designers went into the project without an approved plan or even a sketch that had passed inspection. Armed with intuition and the confidence of the client, they let the space sink in – or rather speak for itself. ‘It’s about feeling the space: what it can bring to us, and what we can bring to it.’

It’s an approach they’ve taken to 12 Damir Doma fashion shows as well. A couple of weeks before the big day, all parties involved have lunch together. Doma shares his thoughts, some of which he’s sketched for them to see. He might give the team a piece of fabric to take to the studio, where they can experiment with life-size models to get the desired effect.

But can this way of working – experiential, site-specific, fluid – have a real influence on retail? ‘I think most retail is very conservative,’ says Prat. ‘Although the stores we see today do contain a few tricks, they’re fake tricks – quickly boring. A small spectacle can be exciting at first glance, but then you’ve seen it. Its lifespan is a week, at most. I’d love to bring sculpture into the retail environment in a minimalist way, the simpler the better – to approach a shop as if we were doing an exhibition design. Not like a gallery, where the space is about one or more objects. I’m thinking of something else: an honest poetic gesture that goes beyond a design concept.’ He pauses before explaining that Diplomates ‘always starts with the space, and thinks from the visitor’s perspective. I mean, people spend time in the places we design, so the question should be: what can I offer them?’

The showroom for Italian fashion brand OAMC, a project that also includes Diplomates-designed furniture, expresses a similar attitude. ‘We try to build up a special narrative, and the furniture in that showroom is part of the story. I need an excuse to design a piece of furniture – in a world already full of fantastic pieces.’ The same idea applies to a shop window. Rather than merely communicating a commercial message to passers-by, Pratt believes a window display should play the part of an intermediary and relate to the interior of the shop as well.

Having learned a bit about the philosophy of these young designers, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear that their vision of a showroom is ‘not about presenting an object’. So, what is it about? ‘Our aim is to create a bewitchingly sensory experience through architecture. That’s what we want to give the people who pass through the spaces we make. A good example is the OAMC showroom, which we approached as if it were an installation that had to last for a week.’

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Luxury just ain’t what it used to be. In yesteryear’s hospitality scene, the term was synonymous with private dining, champagne on ice and five-star hotels. Today, priorities have changed.

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