Global Designers Are Lending Their Savoir-Faire to Louis Vuitton

Given how iconic Louis Vuitton designs are these days, it’s easy to forget that the man who started what is now the world’s most valuable luxury brand was not a part of the establishment, but a disruptor.

One of the first things Vuitton did after setting up his atelier in 1854 was introduce the flat-topped trunk. It was a small design change, but one that rocked the industry. Made of waterproof canvas, his cases were lighter, held more, and were easier to stack than the curved models his competitors were selling. The pioneering impulse didn’t stop there; over the ensuing decades, Louis Vuitton created luggage that would fold out into beds, typewriter stations, record players, even roulette tables.

That innovation was on full display at two special exhibits celebrating the brand’s 35th anniversary in Toronto this fall. “The Time Capsule”, held outside Union Station, welcomed some 60,000 visitors, who could store their own luggage in a roped-off area while checking out the firm’s rich archives. The second showcase was more discreet—available by invitation or appointment only—and displayed exceptional items from Vuitton’s Objets Nomades and Petits Nomades collections at the award-winning Integral House, the curvaceous ravine home designed by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects. While guests toured the exhibit, an on-site artisan painted leather goods, and was able to personalize any hard-sided piece.

The Nomades line first started in 2012 as an homage to Vuitton’s original spirit of disruption. An elite group of designers was asked to create furniture and home accessories with a similar ethos to those early bespoke commissions. Each item is functional yet blazingly inventive.

For instance, French architect India Mahdavi created a talismanic portable side table that unfurls like a child’s board book. The removable tabletop features exquisite leather marquetry in a “benevolent eye” design meant to ward off evil spirits. Tabouret, a footstool from Swiss firm Atelier Oï, also has shape-shifting tendencies. When folded, it looks like a single sheet of leather, but it can pop open into an origami-like shape to become a whimsical perch. (A rigid aluminium frame creates the stool’s surprising structure.)

“We were fascinated by the ingenuity developed back then to solve practical problems,” the firm explains. “Our objects are a tribute to the intelligence of yesterday.” For the firm’s next collaboration, they experimented further. Taking inspiration from Vuitton’s inventive approach to knitwear, they squeezed and shaped strips of leather before weaving them into a minimalist yet sumptuously luxurious hammock. And they upped the relaxation factor with their Swing Boat, a retro-fabulous hanging seat that can also fold up when not in use. Fernando and Humberto Campana’s hanging pod is even more fantastical: for this bright cocoon, the Brazilian designers created a filigreed shell out of vacuum-moulded fibreglass and covered it in quilted leather.

When packed up, Dutch designer Marcel Wanders’s lounge chair looks like a futuristic take on a doctor’s bag. The three modules that make up the chair fit into each other like a puzzle; classic Vuitton belts help transform it into a carrying case. “The use of belts and straps allowed us to associate with the unique, high-end quality luggage and holistic travel experience that Louis Vuitton is known for,” Wanders says. “While this is a substantial piece that maintains its considerable size, it’s designed in a way that makes it very light and durable.” Just like the camp trunk Vuitton created for explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza back in 1874, it’s comfort that you can carry.

Many of the items can easily be set up or collapse down quickly, creating an inviting sense of escape that permeates the collection. It’s a potent reminder of how transportive design can be. “You get to travel without travelling,” explain the architects from Ateleier Oï. “With the Collection Nomades, you travel through what the objects represent.”

Photos courtesy of Louis Vuitton.