Désolé. There’s no free WiFi at Albertine. Nor are there baristas, charging stations, or telecommuters with their usual panoply of gizmos. The new bookstore, nestled within the French Embassy along New York City’s Museum Mile, is a triumphant counterpoint to the prevailing print retail formula and a unique extension of the French diplomatic cultural mission in the United States.
“We wanted to create the experience of being in someone’s reading room. After all, our location was once someone’s private residence,” explains Emily Katz, director of development + communications at the Embassy. She’s referring to the historic Whitney Payne mansion designed by Stanford White that has housed the Cultural Services of the French Embassy for 60 years.
Like a jewel box tucked within a treasure chest, finding Albertine means cutting through an opulent marble rotunda with a replica of Michelangelo’s famed Young Archer and past a rather taciturn guard who neither welcomes nor hinders you. Entering the bookstore for the first time feels like an act of discovery, if not trespassing, but the maybe-you’re-not-supposed-to-be-there vibe is part of its allure. Designed by French architect Jacques Garcia, who’s renowned for creating dreamlike interiors, the crown jewel of the two-story space is a cobalt ceiling adorned with a celestial mural that encircles a golden sunburst lit by a pair of oversized pendant lamps. A reference to the Enlightenment, the sunburst on the ceiling is also the central motif in Albertine’s brand identity created by Abbott Miller and his team at Pentagram.
In the hands of a lesser designer, a commission from a cultural institution might elicit the expected mélange of French clichés. But Miller, who was awarded the AIGA Medal this year, offers a less literal approach. “I saw sketches of the space, and how could you not respond to the beautiful renovation?”
Diving into his expansive personal library, Miller was inspired by the lettering in vernacular French packaging. He also drew from his time in France spent working on the short-lived American Center in Paris in the early ‘90s. “That project served as a warm up and a first-level immersion into the world of French graphics,” he recounts. “It’s delightful to go back and look at those historical sources, but for me, the design research is really seeped in the pragmatic aspects of the commission. The fun part is finding a way to merge the needs of the project with your instincts about its aesthetics.”
To create Albertine’s custom wordmark, Miller enlisted Jeremy Mickel, a Minneapolis-based typographer who drew the letterforms based on Miller’s sketch. The black-and-gold logo is joined by three typefaces—Trio Grotesk, Parry, and Helsinki—for print, online, and signage applications. The result is a discreet, almost feminine identity system that’s reminiscent of an elegant personal monogram, imaginably that of the elusive romantic heroine in Proust’s opus, In Search of Lost Time, for whom the bookstore is named after. “We picked a moment in French history and intuitively landed on Paris 1920’s, which also happened to be around when Proust writing,” explains Miller.
If you’re in search of a sunburst souvenir, you may be disappointed by the notable lack of branded merchandise—there’s not so much as a canvas tote (though you can carry your purchases home in a nice Tyvek shopping bag emblazoned with the logo). Following the Embassy’s vision, there’s an intentional restraint not just in the brand’s graphic design, but in its application throughout the space.
Miller, who recently spoke out against the tyranny of branding, explains a preference for mutable spaces as an antidote to the numbing placelessness wrought by over-branded locations. “I worry that design is being used to narrow experience,” reflects Miller. “If we transplant the same design program from place to place, we’re in danger of losing sight of the uniqueness of where we are.”
In Albertine, Miller finds a milieu to deploy a counter proposal, co-creating an identity imbued with an implied sensibility guided by a loose narrative. “The whole idea of Albertine is this anti-chain book chain idea—a richer experience afforded by being within this cultural institution.”