Aesop’s Head Architect Shares Tips on How to Create a Relaxed Ambiance

Oslo’s Aesop Prinsensgate and its domed ceiling inspired by Orthodox monasteries.

In a world of retail environments that value homogenous brand identity above all else, the approach of cult Australian cosmetics company Aesop to store design is certainly a breath of fresh air. Since the opening of the brand’s first store in 2004 in a converted back alley in Melbourne’s St. Kilda neighborhood, Aesop has been at the leading edge of thoughtful and holistic store design, choosing to conceptualize each space from the ground up while taking into consideration the local culture and heritage, and utilizing materials that reflect the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

In a show of the brand’s dedication to its progressive design identity, Aesop is the first and only skincare brand so far to have an in-house architect. That position belongs solely to Kian Yam, an MIT graduate who was hired by Aesop founder Dennis Paphitis at only 21 years of age and has since overseen the designs of the brand’s close to 90 “signature spaces” worldwide — some of the more notable stores include the New York Nolita branch, which is constructed from reclaimed copies of The New York Times; and the Prinsensgate branch in Oslo, the monastic atmosphere of which is realized by the intersecting domes of the ceiling plane and whitewashed interior.

Consistently crafting such calming, humanistic interiors undoubtedly requires a deep understanding of, and an empathic mind attuned towards, the unique needs of the customer, acquired only through keen social observation. We spoke to Kian about some of the central tenets of human-centered store design, as well as core design values that can similarly be applied to home and office design.

Aesop Nolita and its walls of The New York Times copies.

Flirting with the customer

Much like the beginning of any good relationship, the first step requires a little bit of damn good flirting. In the case of store design, the shopfront is vital in reaching out and fixating the attention of passers-by. Consistent with Aesop’s subtle brand identity, Kian designs “novelties” that play on the mental and physical states of potential customers to redirect them towards the store. Among some of the more ingenious novelties are placing a small dog bowl filled with treats by the entrance to lure pets (and their respective owners) in dog-friendly neighborhoods; situating a heater just outside the store in wintry Boston to entice shoppers with the promise of warm hands; and, during that loneliest time of the year on Valentine’s Day, pandering to the singletons by displaying a heart-shaped loaf of bread with a crack down the middle, on a Melbourne street full of bakeries flaunting their perfectly whole hearts of baked dough. Each of these novelties are essentially designed to elicit a sensation or an emotion appropriate to the time and place, taking passers-by into the store space and onto the next stage of their experience.

Aesop Kyoto and its hanging product displays inspired by traditional Japanese calligraphy.

Circulation patterns

And so the customer steps across the threshold and into the store, thus beginning a carefully laid-out path through the store formulated from repeated trial and error. At its core, the floor plan of an Aesop store is designed to not only make the customer feel comfortable, but also to make the Aesop consultant equally happy in hosting the customer. “It’s a little bit like a Chinese home,” says Kian. “You would never put a toilet in front of your living room or next to the kitchen because you don’t want to go to the bathroom and be seen by the people in the living room.”

Following this logic, the first visual that the customer is presented with upon entering is the product, which is always displayed shelf upon shelf and arranged uniformly according to size and shape. Immediately after the entrance is the sink, normally built of brass (but not necessarily) — a source of running water to accompany the testing of the various creams and toners available. The customer is then directed towards the far end of the store with the consultation desk and cashier, a place of calm and exchange of knowledge, before turning around again to review the wall of product. This circular route thus creates a predictable pattern of movement for the customer, which in turn puts the consultant at ease in knowing when exactly to inject themselves into the experience with an earnest greeting.

Aesop Le Marais and its shelves of repurposed steel “lids” that were once used to close the plumbing pipes of Paris.

Engaging the senses

In keeping with the immersive experience that Aesop aims to create, the senses are far from neglected. Primarily designed as a haven and a retreat, the Aesop space is bathed in warm, subdued light of between 2700 and 3000 degrees Kelvin which not only creates a tranquil environment but also serves to mediate a customer’s self-perceived physical flaws, in turn making them more open to interacting with the Aesop consultants. “Our belief is that we hate to expose people’s weaknesses. If you use any lighting range outside of that, then when you look in a mirror you will see pimples and roughness,” explains Kian. “Do you really want the customer to buy something so urgently because they feel bad about themselves? That was a no-no for us.” In the same line of thinking, the number of mirrors is minimized, often with only one large mirror furnishing the store to one side.

Scents are also kept to a minimum as not to distract the customer from the product, and ambient music is always limited to the front of the store so that the customer can hear their own thoughts as they progress into the space. One final empathic touch, while not related to the five senses, pertains to the often-reluctant companions of the shopper, who are present due to inconvenient social obligations such as marriage. For them, Kian advocates placing a bench in the store for the significant other to rest their weary legs, accompanied by a magazine unrelated to skincare to distract them from their woes.

Aesop North Melbourne and its reclaimed oak archiving cabinets that once belonged to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Home and habit

Regardless of whether you are designing a store, home or office space, the most important facet of a well-designed space is gaining a deep understanding of the habits of the primary user. Again, circulation patterns take precedent in the home — Kian herself will talk extensively with the client, even going so far as to play around with LEGO, to create a solid visualization of the space-to-be. The knowledge gathered is then consolidated into an overarching idea to maintain consistency in the final design.

Sectioning the home into different spaces with their own moods is a central tenet of Kian’s design philosophy. For example, living spaces should be an area defined by a rhythm of relaxation, where one is comfortable exposing their true selves, to be a fool and mess around. In contrast, the home office would carry an entirely different rhythm and pace, namely one of inspiration and productivity. Having designed three Aesop offices, Kian recommends a limited color palette (ideally three colors), as the more colors present, the more distracted one will become. Ample natural sunlight is also crucial in creating a space of concentration, as well as dimmable lighting that can be adjusted to the desired mood or time of day. Ornaments are also discouraged in lieu of inspirational literature — Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows is a personal favorite of Kian’s.

While sectioning ensures privacy, good home design will also maintain physical connection and visual contact between inhabitants, as well as what Kian refers to as “continuous flow of mind.” By ensuring that each private space is connected with a gathering space, a good home design will encourage bonding between inhabitants as well as with visitors, while simultaneously allowing each person a respite from social interaction.

Views of the Aesop Hong Kong office.

If there is indeed one defining concept of the Aesop store experience, it is kindness — not only overtly displayed by the store consultants, but more subtly, yet no less importantly, by the “novelties” and sensory balms that are designed into the physical environment by Kian. Contrary to the numbers-driven sales tactics that modern brands opt for, Aesop delves much deeper into providing for the wellbeing of the customer, ultimately offering a thoroughly considered browsing experience that is far more substantial than any of its counterparts today. “Our company is very logical, but we also have to be very emotional,” says Kian. “I think these two balance at some point. I don’t know where — but it will magically happen.” And we are glad that it does.

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