The man in charge of designing Aesop’s global network of stores has definitely not been tasked with producing bland corporate homogeneity.
“I remember the first Aesop store in Melbourne, across the street where I lived. They turned the ramp of a garage into a retail space and I thought: ‘Oh my God, who are these mad people? This will never work’,” recalls Rowan Lodge on stage at the Business of Design week in Hong Kong. The boutique opened in 2002, yet his first impression of the cosmetic brand was misplaced.
On the brink of the company’s 30th birthday, Aesop not only has 178 signature stores in 24 countries but, ironically, Lodge is now the man in charge of designing new stores for the company. And he couldn’t be more passionate about his work. Since every store is unique, the job never gets boring.
Lodge, a trained architect from a family of architects, previously served as director of global retail concepts for German sports brand Adidas. “In my last job the overall aim was consistency,” he chuckles. “I suppose that has changed.”
Aesop’s recent openings couldn’t be more versatile: its first Danish boutique in Frederiksberg by famous interior designer Ilse Crawford honours the architectural heritage of its site through a subtle palette of soft greys and greens — also an homage to the elegant simplicity of Nordic design; while Aesop’s flagship store in Nakameguro, Tokyo, on the side of the Meguro River, mirrors the movement of the water through diagonally aligned product display cabinets crafted in teak.
“Store design is our form of advertisement,” Lodge explains. Aesop’s popularity doesn’t simply come about as a result of a public endorsement by Angelina Jolie or Nicole Kidman. That wouldn’t match with the utilitarian brown flasks, although they do look quite elegant when lined up or balanced on top of one another. “Our stores should be seen as a safe haven,” says Lodge. However busy life on the outside may be, inside the shop is an oasis of tranquility.
Customers are offered a cup of tea, while Billie Holiday or Édith Piaf play in the background. A music curator in Melbourne creates different sounds for each time of the day. On Friday afternoons, the music shifts to Grace Jones. In a similar manner, lighting levels change every morning and afternoon — sometimes even corresponding to the weather.
But, most importantly, every Aesop store follows a similar operational movement: Wherever you are, the counter is the operational sales centre, while the sink is the core of the shop, where the attendant offers a so-called consultation during which the hands, skin, or hair of a client are examined. An unusual, sensory connection — especially in its core market of Asia.
The sink can also be seen as a souvenir from the early days of the company. It is the brainchild of Dennis Paphitis, an erudite hairdresser of Greek origin in Melbourne. Towards the end of the 1980s, Paphitis started producing plant-based haircare products for damaged hair and selling them to customers in his hair salon. He filled the tinctures into old-fashioned brown glass flasks, chosen to protect the contents from the sun and light, meaning less preservatives were required.
Since Brazilian cosmetics group Natura Cosméticos bought 65 percent of Aesop’s shares in 2012, Paphitis retired from active business operations but continues to work as a consultant on new store concepts with the in-house-design team of 17 under Rowan Lodge. Around 30 percent of all Aesop-boutiques are planned in Melbourne. The other 70 percent are created by distinguished architects around the globe, usually locals who know how their cities tick. They all must follow Aesop’s general design principles, which means staying away from obvious ‘trends’. What leads is the space and where it sits in the context of the street. Wherever possible, Aesop tries to retain original store facades. The theme should be in sync with the city, the country and the culture of a specific region. It is advised to only use locally resourced materials from within a 250-mile radius.
What is Lodge’s favourite store? He shrugs. “Difficult to say. For an architect, the next store is always the most important.”