WHEN PETER DUNDAS, the creative director of Pucci, began to plot the retail revamp and expansion of the LVMH-owned Italian fashion brand, the Norwegian-born designer knew precisely where to begin: the Palazzo Pucci. "The Palazzo has been such a fundamental source of inspiration and identity for the house," says Dundas of the brand's ornate 15th-century Renaissance headquarters in Florence, which was the hereditary seat of the brand's founder, the late Emilio Pucci. "My first collection was for a girl who would live in a place like that. I try to imagine what she would be like today: aristocratic and a bit rebellious, with a touch of rock 'n' roll. I wanted the new stores to reflect that environment."
Photos: Minimalism at Its Best
Yet finding an interior architect attuned to his concept of super-luxe modernism and grandeur with a defiant twist proved more difficult than he initially expected. After meeting with several architects who didn't capture that mind-set, a friend pointed Dundas in the direction of Joseph Dirand, whose rigorous approach has made him one of Paris's most sought-after interior designers. "I immediately loved his mix of classicism and something modern inspired by that classicism," says Dundas. "I knew he would be perfect." What followed were joint visits to the Palazzo in Florence, meetings with the Pucci family and an extensive perusal of the archives. Dirand and Dundas formulated a shop blueprint that would temper the eccentric aristocratic sensibility of Emilio Pucci himself with the glamour of 1960s Italy—Pucci's heyday—and the austere modernism that is Dirand's hallmark. "Joseph expresses colors through surfaces—that's something I identify with very much," says Dundas. "Pucci is a house people associate so much with prints and patterns. There are so many ways to express that graphic element. It is interesting to provoke it with surfaces so that it becomes three-dimensional."
Dirand's design debuted in November, in the New York store on Madison Avenue, and will eventually be deployed in Pucci stores around the world, including flagships in Osaka, Shanghai, Tokyo, Miami, Paris, Rome, Venice and London. "I wanted to create Pucci today," says Dirand. "There is nothing in the designs that is not justified, that is just there to be pretty."
Retail is nothing new for Dirand—he has designed shops for Balmain, Alexander Wang and Rick Owens, and currently has projects in development for Chloé and Nina Ricci. And his education in matters of style started at a very young age. His mother designed clothes for a boutique fashion label, René Derhy. His father photographed houses for magazines, including The World of Interiors, and discussed architecture constantly. "Every day he was photographing great houses," offers Dirand, dressed in skinny red Balmain trousers, a gray V-neck T-shirt and white tennis shoes. "Each time I looked at the photos with him," he recalls, "the aesthetic went from something totally cluttered to something super minimal. Even as a child, I liked things that were a little hard, a little strict and a little minimal."
DIRAND DIDN'T WAIT LONG to jump-start his métier. While still in his second year at the École National Supérieure d'Architecture de Paris-Belleville, he landed a commission to create a boutique for Japanese fashion designer Junko Shimada's Junk brand. "It was a bit clumsy," says Dirand of the project. "Looking back, the design was full of creative things that were kind of nice."
In 1999, he launched his own agency, working from a laptop in his living room. Patrons caught wind of his talent and projects accumulated, including private commissions for high-level French fashion executives to business barons. He has designed hotel interiors, including Habita Monterrey in Mexico and was recently selected to design the new restaurant for the Palais de Tokyo contemporary art museum in Paris.
Dirand, at 39, has a reputation of creating spaces that are both original and modern while respectful of the original architecture. More often than not, his means for achieving these ends are extreme. "Joseph is pretty fearless about ripping up a space and making the proportions what they always wanted to be," says American fashion designer Rick Owens, whose London boutique, bearing stark cement walls and elemental lines, was designed by Dirand.
"My approach is pretty brutal," Dirand admits, "but I never destroy something that has creative value. I don't destroy just to mark my territory. If something is beautiful, I keep it." And he insists on rebuilding with the most traditional methods. "When we build something classical, we build it like it was built in the 18th century. We work with the best artisans. Nothing is pastiche."
As an example, Dirand shows pictures of an ongoing project renovating a grand hôtel particulier in Paris for a European industrialist. On the outside, the architecture could not be more classical, reminiscent of the grandeur of Versailles and its well-ordered symmetry. Inside, Dirand has introduced austere lines and materials that place it squarely in today's world. "I am passionate about stone," adds Dirand. "But when I got out of school, there was a real hatred of marble. It connoted vulgarity."
It was precisely its poor reputation that inspired Dirand to tackle the challenge of finding new ways to utilize marble. "I started with marble almost for the deranging side of it," he explains. "I felt I needed to bring in something more irreverent, as I was so influenced by John Pawson's work at the time." He adds, "In the end, marble is just beautiful. The poetry of the material in a room creates an enormous tension."
Though minimalism is the word most often used to describe Dirand, it's not the label with which he is most comfortable. "Minimalism has become an ugly word," he contends. "Its connotation is super negative now because it became what it shouldn't have: a style."
"For me," he adds, "the best example of minimalism is a Robert Ryman painting—expressing, with a minimum of means, the essential."