Architectural Record: Carbondale's Dolce&Gabbana Boutique in Rome


Published in Architectural Record, May 2019 issue

Retail designers commonly show restraint in order to let the merchandise shine, but when conceiving a Rome boutique for Dolce&Gabbana, Carbondale scoffed at convention—and so did the client. “I had no fear that the architecture would overpower the products,” says Eric Carlson, principal of the Paris-based firm. “I was more worried about the opposite occurring.” Indeed, the Italian fashion company’s bold designs stand out on their own, and its founders—Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana—have adopted a retail strategy just as bold, collaborating with different architects to create distinctive stores rather than rolling out the same branding concept from city to city.

The bi-level 10,700-square-foot boutique occupies a listed 16th-century building on the city’s renowned Piazza di Spagna. Working within the existing historic structure, Carbondale devised a journey back to baroque-era grandeur. The firm’s skilled approach to luxury, illusion, and craft creates an aura of Rome that greets visitors the moment they enter the vestibule, with a stone-mosaic medallion set into the Calacatta-marble floor. It depicts the city’s mythical founders Romulus and Remus with their mother (a she-wolf). A path through two contiguous spaces with lower ceilings and progressively narrower columns and doorways creates a forced perspective that seemingly elongates the corridor—a brilliant segue into the first of the shop’s lavishly appointed salons.

Though some of the rich surfaces and ornate architectural elements look historic, they are new and custom. Decorative columns throughout are made with board-formed concrete (save for marble columns in the staircase). The floors are marble with intricate inlays of brass, stone, or glass mosaics, all in a range of hues that refer to the city’s past. Modern touches also hint of papal Rome, such as glass walls backed in cardinal-red moiré silk and Murano-glass chandeliers with pops of red and gold.

On the ground floor, gold-mosaic-lined friezes decorated with Latin inscriptions draw the eye upward to a ceiling topography comprising marble- or brass-clad soffits, brass trim framing cove lighting and marble ceiling panels, or Vatican-inspired vaults and domes—the latter including a pair capped by 35-inch-diameter frosted-glass apertures that replaced existing industrial-sash skylights. Gradating mosaic rings within their spheres radiate outward from the apertures, producing a dramatic Pantheon-like effect in each.

Carlson and his team continue the illusionary scheme up the staircase leading to the men’s shops. Here, an expansive mirrored wall reflects the steps, so the the arcadelike landing appears double in size. An even more surprising trompe l’oeil effect awaits shoppers in a half-vaulted linear clothing gallery on the second level. LED screens along the length of an entire wall and on the curved ceiling loop a four-minute Sistine Chapel–inspired animated video sequence of battling Roman gods and goddesses, an ensuing thunderstorm, and finally a peaceful sunset, all to the background audio of Gregorian chants. A mirror on the opposite wall visually completes the vault “and creates a Rorschach-like movement to the ‘fresco,’” says Carlson. Psychedelic and memorable, this digital-meets-Old World feature amazes visitors, while fulfilling the client’s wish for an experience unique to the location.