Berlin-based studio AAS Gonzalez Haase is behind some of today’s most stunning retail spaces, from Balenciaga’s cutting-edge Paris boutique to MCM’s sleek Munich flagship. We spoke to the studio’s founders to find out how they’re shaping the future of luxury commerce through spatial design.
For over two decades, Pierre Jorge Gonzalez and Judith Haase have worked together as AAS Gonzalez Haase, a Berlin-based studio with principal practices in architecture, scenography, and lighting.
The two first met while working for American theater director Robert Wilson at his Watermill Center in Long Island, New York and while both emerged from the art scene, their individual focuses and strengths is what helped them work so well together: Haase’s background as an architect and Gonzalez’s background as a stage designer for museums and exhibitions.
Since forming in 1999, AAS (Atelier Architecture & Scenography) has left its mark around the world, transforming ordinary spaces into striking boutiques, galleries, pop-ups, and residences.
In the last five years alone, AAS has worked with a who’s who of today’s most influential fashion designers, from Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia to 1017 ALYX 9SM’s Matthew Williams, helping bring a unique point of view to the staid luxury landscape. In short, their signature aesthetic has become synonymous with a high-end retail experience, inviting people in while creating an environment that allows for a real connection between consumer and brand.
To learn how the duo brings an elevated sense of space to everything it does, we spoke to Gonzalez and Haase by email. See our exchange below.
To start: you two have worked together for over 20 years. Do you still surprise each other with new ideas?
JH: Yes, we do. We come from different cultures and speak different languages and have different educations. Pierre Jorge is a scenographer and I’m an architect. Our thinking and approach is very different. That’s why we always surprise each other and what makes our collaboration exciting.
Do you have a collective design philosophy you work towards with each project?
PJG: A philosophy means a defined and theoretical aesthetic. With time, lots of elements of our approach return. If those elements return it’s because they’re a necessity for us to believe in that space.
When starting a new project, where do you begin?
JH: We start with the existing space. We analyze what we find and try to take every layer down until we see the “bones” of the space.
PJG: From there you can reveal the tectonics of the building, how it stands, how the natural light penetrates it. After, we think about how to add artificial lighting to the space before thinking about the program or function of the space.
How do you work with clients to ensure their needs are met while giving yourself the freedom to stay true to your design practices?
JH: If they come to us, it’s because they like what we do. There is trust and trust is the best companion for a good project and working relationship.
PJG: I will say that an interesting project is when a designer is able to deal with the needs of the client. It’s even more interesting when the client and final user of the space are not exactly the same. You then have to deal with all the technical aspects and be flexible with the design to preserve the economy and aesthetics of the space.
How do materials inform someone’s perception of the space around them?
JH: If the material is exposed and near the customer, it can invite a sense of touch. Material can also mirror the space around it to dissolve spatial borders.
Tell me about the materials in your work.
PJG: Architects speak a lot about real materials but the reality of economics gives almost everything you build a fake appearance—what you see is never what it is. Then you have the few that have enormous budgets; those are works with massive, beautiful, classic materials.
We approach the issue by using financially accessible raw materials. The next step from here is to work towards using sustainable materials. At the moment, those using sustainable materials are the same using massive, beautiful, classical materials: the ones with enormous budgets. Currently it is important not only to implicate the designer in this process but the clients as well.
How does light inform someone’s perception of the space around them?
PJG: Light can be very focused on a single object or it can be diffused into a space. We believe only in the second. This doesn’t mean you need to light every corner. We believe in the body engaging fully with the space, not only with details or objects.
“We believe in the body engaging fully with the space, not only with details or objects.”
Why do you think today’s luxury consumer appreciates industrial design and industrial materials?
JH: Because good design needs to have a neutral background just like art does.
PJG: Luxury tends to look into the future. If you are cultivated, well-bred, or just informed, you are likely to appreciate contemporary art. Within that culture, “savoir faire” becomes less relevant. I would also say that the industry itself is something from the last century. It needs to move forward or risk feeling vintage.
On our end, the industrial materials we use are never brought together in complex details. They are industrially produced as sheets, plates, and boards so the craftsmanship is also not complex—we just assemble.
Slowly those values are making their way into luxury.
How does architecture/design help a retail brand tell its story in an authentic way?
PJG: In reality, it’s always a fairytale. You fabricate a story. But we believe that if you remove the inauthentic parts of every space, your retail space becomes true and you go from a story to history.
“Selling products is certainly good for a retailer but being true to their customers in everything they do is one step above.”
The overarching goal of any retail brand space is to sell products. How does good design enable this?
JH: By giving the product space and the right background to be seen. Spatial approach and a strong lighting concept are our tools to doing this.
PJG: Selling products is certainly good for a retailer but being true to their customers in everything they do is one step above.
What do you hope people feel when they enter a space you’ve designed?
JH: Quality. Also our spaces always have something irritating about them, something surprising to think about. The people who enter and are interested in fashion are intelligent so we know they see our special details and appreciate our design language.
PJG: Well, you have some clients that are looking for what they call “an experience,” the ones that say it should feel like home, and the ones that tell you it should feel warm. We don’t believe in any of that. We want to find a strong connection between the origin of the architecture that builds and engages a sincere relationship between commerce and customer.
How do you work with brands that already have such a defined point of view and sensibility? Take for instance a brand like 1017 ALYX 9SM.
JH: We work closely with the brand’s designer to understand how they think and to learn about their work process. We look into the technical details of the fabrics they use and their wider material choices. From there, we begin to translate this into an architectural language.
PJG: For Alyx specifically, we pushed how we approach furniture. The brand experiments a lot with fabrics, so we experimented with furniture. Since there was a sense of urgency with this project, we started the process by using a few simple elements that we consider “very AAS.” Then, slowly, we began researching very specific objects and how to produce them in close collaboration with Matthew and his right-hand assistant Lee.
Tell me about your collaboration with Demna Gvasalia on the Balenciaga Paris flagship. How did the project come about and how did you work with him to achieve what he was looking for?
PJG: Demna requested to work with us. At each meeting, Demna was providing input and ideas, but was also very open to our approach. At the beginning he wasn’t sure how the space should be approached: very simple with no central focus? Or the opposite, a very loud and intense space?
Somehow we managed to do a bit of both. The space gives the perfect background for Demna’s work like a gallery would, while referencing a few different worlds without being overtaken by them. Those references are critical and have a hint of irony in them.
JH: He told us what he liked and what inspired him at Balenciaga, such as the industrial halls in Italy where Balenciaga produces its clothes, and where there are huge tables and special hanging systems. The entire collaboration was an exchange of ideas. A process where the first idea wasn’t always taken.
MCM has undergone a transformation over the last few years, pivoting from a focus on heritage to one that feels younger and more contemporary. What elements did you introduce to the MCM Munich flagship in order to reflect this change? How did you manage to still communicate a sense of luxury?
JH: It was Dirk Schönberger, MCM’s Global Creative Officer, who brought us into the project. It was a real pleasure working with him; he was very open to finding a new approach.
We introduced forms and colors, and worked with the space Itself. Working out a new color system allowed us to bring similar themes to different stores across the world. We also worked with specific pieces, like high-polished chains, which we brought into a new context and through repetition became a luxury object like jewelry.
Andreas Murkudis is known around the world as a destination fashion retailer. 10 years since the store opened, what do you think it is that has made it such an influential space? Why does the space feel as contemporary and inviting as the day it opened?
PJG: Andreas Murkudis feels timeless because almost nothing was built. We opened the space to show the bones of the building and simplified the window structures, allowing the building to be used in different ways. We updated a few elements over time like the lighting system, which is now a much more sustainable LED system, but this is totally invisible work as the fixtures are strictly in the same position as before and the lighting is the same as it was originally designed.
JH: Andreas is a fantastic curator and he has the talent to bring different objects together in a different context. He is there everyday, arranging and combining everything in-store himself. That is why the quality is there. He is around. People come to see him and he explains the history of the objects. The store has the atmosphere of a museum.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s luxury or affordable, we bring a design language that isn’t related to money.”
Why do you think your design sensibility works so well across the fashion landscape, from luxury to streetwear?
JH: Customers who are interested in fashion are also interested in art. They want to underline their individuality with fashion. This phenomenon is timeless. Young people can only afford streetwear while older generations buy luxury brands. In both cases, the background is culture—and it’s the same with us. It doesn’t matter if it’s luxury or affordable, we bring a design language that isn’t related to money.
PJG: I’m not sure it actually works so well across the fashion landscape. I believe there are more brands that hate our work than the other way around. Our work is not consensual.
What’s happening is that when you work a lot in the art space, luxury fashion starts approaching you, and when luxury fashion starts approaching you, streetwear follows. It’s a form of cultural layering and those cultural layers become porous with time, and ideas drop from layer to layer.
We find it very interesting to work with accessible or even entry-level fashion. If they come to us, it’s because the ideas have already made their way through the cultural layers and it has become possible to get them somewhere more interesting than where they were previously. At this stage, you can begin introducing other ideas like a certain degree of sustainability, a simplification in production meaning the use of less resources, etc. This is where we want all our work to end up.
When you walk into a store as a consumer (as opposed to as a professional) what details inspire you to pursue the shopping experience? What details have a negative impact on your shopping experience?
PJG: I almost never like stores. However, having great service goes a long way. I should say that first. Design-wise I wouldn’t be able to name more than five stores I find interesting.
One of the best ever made was the Helmut Lang store in Soho, New York and Apartment in Berlin. Both have closed. And, of course, the few we have designed. So when we enter a luxury store that costs millions to build and is over-designed with endless “concepts” and full of pretentious art and fake materials, we are not impressed and assume anyone with a similar background feels the same.
It’s important to not feel cheated when you are buying, especially if the products are expensive and they feel more like an investment.
JH: We like to see materials that are honest: nothing fake, no composites pretending to be luxury when they’re not.
“It’s important to not feel cheated when you are buying, especially if the products are expensive and they feel more like an investment.”
What technologies, if any, are you experimenting with to merge the physical and the digital in your work? Do you see this technology as one that can bridge the gap between physical and digital or more as a trend that will ultimately pass?
PJG: We don’t really pursue research on this topic. Instead, we think more about how the physical space is relevant in today’s digital culture. Therefore, our thinking goes towards reducing physical locations to their essentials.
For Tem-Plate in Lisbon, we created a kind of warehouse where you try something on, order it online, and leave with it. To do this, we simplified the construction, used less square meters, and simply built less. The store in the age of the digital can be a meeting point where there are two elements: inventory and a dressing room.
JH: We also implant digital screens into our designs. We use them as guiding systems or to reinforce the color palette.
Finally, can ecommerce ever replace physical stores in telling a brand’s story?
JH: No, because the brand has to be experienced. The garments, the colors, and the materials have to be physically experienced in good light.
PJG: It certainly can replace a lot. We could imagine miniature stores featuring a vitrine and dressing room: you could see some of the products and try them on. Then you order the product and the next day you have it at home. Brands would spend 100x less money on rent and shopping streets would be totally transformed.
Visit AAS Gonzalez Haase’s portfolio here.
All images unless otherwise noted courtesy of AAS Gonzalez Haase.
Main image: Balenciaga, Paris flagship