Haute couture, French for “high sewing” or “high dressmaking” or “high fashion” refers to the creation of exclusive custom-fitted clothing. Haute couture is made to order for a specific customer, and it is usually made from precious high-quality material, and constructed with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable artists, often using craft-based, hand-executed techniques. “Couture” means dressmaking, sewing, or needlework. “Haute” means elegant or high. A haute couture garment is made specifically for the wearer’s measurements and body stance.
One of our clients has been involved in the fashion industry for many years, and has become an aficionado of style – building up an extensive collection of haute couture dresses. These are one-off pieces by leading international designers including Christian Lacroix, Ricardo Tissi and Karl Lagerfeld, as worn on the catwalks of Milan and Paris.
This special collection of artworks called for a one-off piece of architecture in which to enjoy them. We designed The Dress Box in the spirit of haute couture. High-quality, custom-fitted; a discrete contemporary insertion onto the rooftop of the client’s existing country house.The new insertion was in a central location within the client’s home. Views had to be considered from the surrounding bedroom windows, and how any addition would affect the character of the existing terrace.The building had to provide enough internal space to maintain a growing collection of dresses. Technically this required a sealed environment, with closely controlled temperature and humidity. The external surface had to be carefully researched. Super-insulating glass was chosen for a variety of reasons; The thin external envelope enables maximum use of space on the roof terrace – space for dresses inside, and enough room to walk around the box on the outside, keeping distance from the surrounding brick walls.As mechanical ventilation was a prerequisite, we set out to minimise the energy this might consume.Until recently, the ‘air conditioned glass box’ concept could be seen as an ecologically thoughtless aspect of Miesian modernism. However recent advances in glass technology have made it more environmentally acceptable. By specifying cutting-edge triple-glazed panels, with UV filters to reduce solar gain, the amount of energy consumed in heating and cooling is minimised. The super-insulated glazing maintains the pieces at their ideal environment, and builds up a visual dialogue with the surrounding brickwork enclosure.
An upstand around the perimeter creates a seamless interface between the ceiling and the and brickwork through the glass walls. Inside, the ceiling appears to float above the solid oak floor, held aloft by four cruciform columns.When viewed from outside, the neatly defined top edge created by the glass-to-glass junction gives seamless reflections of the sky.Both columns and upstand are clad in polished stainless steel. This mirror-finished surface was used alongside the reflective properties of the glass, as part of a surface strategy for making the architecture appear ethereal, against the stately brickwork that surrounds it.
The box had to be made to fit, both functionally, and in relation to the character of it’s setting. This involved research into many surfaces. On the interior, the greatest challenge was the ceiling – both in surface material, and the incorporation of bespoke electronics and moving parts. To enable the dresses to be best viewed, they needed to be drawn out from their positions, into the centre of the room. This would involve sliding clothes rails, suspended on tracks. Materials for the ceiling surface had to be carefully researched – these panels would be suspended between the sliding rails, and had to have a very high quality finish, particularly on the edges, to produce a grid of neatly defined gaps, between which the rails would slide. As well as this, the material had to accommodate recessed spotlights and speakers, and suspended in a way that would allow the panels to be easily removed, to allow access to the track mechanism above.
For the suspended panels, Jesmonite was chosen – a water-based composite material, usually used for mouldings and sculpture. The mixture can be through-coloured in any pigment, and the surface has a high aesthetic quality, even when unfinished. This made it a perfect fit with the bespoke nature of the project. Mouldings were able to be made to accommodate the speakers and lights, as well as maintaining a well defined edge, in a uniform colour. Panels are suspended from the ceiling using a bespoke arrangement of Unistrut members, fixed from below to allow easy removal. The nuts and bolts were concealed with stainless steel pignose covers, adding to the modern yet functional aesthetic.
The project illustrates the thinking and research that often remains unseen, behind innovative material solutions, and how finding the right material is vital to create great architecture. For us this meant a discrete intervention that remains minimal and elegant – a finely crafted home for some finely crafted contents.
The architecture changes character depending on weather, and time of day. In bright sunlight, the minimal glass form reflects light like a mirror, seemingly disappearing, leaving only the surrounding elements – visions of the sky, brickwork, and trees. At night the interior becomes visible through the glass, with the Jesmonite ceiling illuminated by a dynamic pattern of luminous lightsheet fins. The effect is that of a glowing jewel – with light filtered through a translucent curtain.
The resulting architecture is both technically suitable for the important artworks, and also a valuable addition to the home – a space that is pleasant to be in, and relates visually to it’s context and environment.