The quiet of a reading room, combined with an affinity for the local landscape: JamesPlumb's design for Aesop in Cambridge is where the craft tradition of bulrush-weaving gets a new lease of life
Cosmetics brand Aesop is a retailer that refuses to roll out the same old space from Brussels to Brooklyn, frequently collaborating with top designers and readily embracing local makers and a sense of place. The distinctive apothecary-style brown bottles lining the shelves might be a constant, but their backdrop could include everything from rows of recycled cardboard tubes (the Brooks + Scarpa-designed LA store) to acres of minimalist marble and stone (film-director-slash-designer Luca Guadagnino’s Rome outpost).
James Russell and Hannah Plumb, founders of JamesPlumb, recently worked on their third Aesop store design, in Cambridge – allowing them to shift the focus away from London (the previous two projects were on Bond Street and Lamb’s Conduit Street) and create a narrative unique to this new location. And while Cambridge may be a city, JamesPlumb have looked more to the surrounding countryside for inspiration, with its watery fens and waving grasses. The practice commissioned local rush-weaver Felicity Irons of Rush Matters to make woven bulrush shelving (more than four metres long in places), inlaid into cabinetry and even used for a basin splashback.
“They saw the use of our rush and weaving in such a different and imaginative way,” says Irons. “The extreme sizes that they asked us to work on was a technical challenge, and we were delighted to see rush being used on such an extreme scale.” For the designers, “this beautiful material recalls the burnished surfaces of old writing desks,” says Hannah Plumb.
Aesop’s design DNA for its stores may shift as the location changes, but what they all have in common is the sense of space, order and calm that comes from the rows of products, and the ‘warm minimalist’ approach to materials. In Cambridge, Irons’ rushwork is what creates this warmth, its uneven weave dictated by the thickness of the rush and the maker’s hand, with the play of a multitude of subtle tones creating a pixelated effect – the perfect contrast to regimented lines of products. Local hemp has also been incorporated, pressed into bioresin to make a solid-surface material that’s used for further shelving.
The dark-chocolate-coloured shopfront, the hue of an ancient bound book – “if academia were a colour, then this would be it,” says James Russell – is filled with pelargoniums. Once inside, “you can nestle amongst them on the window bench and brush against their scents,” he continues. The light yellow walls of this first room were inspired by the colour of the inside of a bulrush stem, while the back room is painted in an oxblood tone that echoes the plant’s upright flower spikes.
The shop has the air of having always existed, helped by the antique furnishings in the back room and the 19th-century floorboards. “From quite an early stage our projects start to take on a character of their own,” says Plumb. “But it’s not about a specific era or style; it’s more instinctive than that. When we came across the antique chair which now resides in the back room, we knew we had to have it, slightly sunken from many years of bottoms sinking into it, and honestly faded in all the right places. Its these traces of the human that we hope really bring a project to life.” The joy of the handmade, domestic feel and sense of quiet also chime in with another nearby curated experience, the revered house-cum-modern-gallery Kettle’s Yard; the designers hope that the shop’s users will feel just as at home.