“A stand is a memorable machine for selling, it’s not marketing”

February 2012

A meeting with Ottavio Di Blasi.

“A stand is not a window display, rather it is a machine for selling.” Right from the start, Ottavio Di Blasi wants to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. And, he is in a position to do so, since he has been responsible for a number of the most remarkable watch stands at BaselWorld, among them the spectacular stands created for TAG Heuer, first in 1994 then again in 2007. Affable, modest, and pleasant, Ottavio Di Blasi is not a “designer” who specialises in stands and brand images. He is an architect—as well known as he is versatile—who, at the head of the Milan-based ODB Architects studio and Ottavio Di Blasi & Partners, has realised and collaborated on many major architectural projects. Among them is the famous Stadio S. Nicola de Bari, created in collaboration with Renzo Piano, as well as many churches in the southern part of Italy.
“My success with watchmakers comes di-rectly from my architectural practice,” he says, “because, as in architecture, to design a stand for any given brand involves finding the positive and constructive synthesis that can respond to the concerns and needs on very different levels. But, a synthesis does not happen by magic. It is the result of a common and in-depth reflection. Thinking about a stand and its form, while never forgetting about its functionalities, opens a phase of really examining the most profound identity of the brand. We could almost compare it to psychoanalysis. The approach to avoid, at all costs, is that of following the path of marketing. By definition, marketing is the best possible way to respond to the demands of the market and the competition at any given moment. A stand, however, is quite a different thing. It must be something memorable that lasts. I offer the example of the first TAG Heuer stand that had a fifteen-year lifespan.

“A stand is a memorable machine for selling, it's not marketing”

Making a break
At the time of the construction of TAG Heuer’s first stand in 1994, we wrote in the pages of Europa Star that “the new and remarkable TAG space has made a radical break with the traditional notion of exhibition stand design.” And we explained that, contrary to conventional wisdom, this stand “did not have any decorative elements since it was the structure itself, by means of the exterior arches that supported the choice of materials used (steel, maple wood, and carbon fibre, which was used for the first time in a building), that strongly expressed the philosophy of the brand.” We find in this brief description the essence of Ottavio Di Blasi’s architectural approach. It is not just the décor nor a single aspect, but rather the architectural innovation of the structure, the integral modularity of the elements, and the choice of materials that directly expresses the values of “strength, vigour, and balance allied with a form of nobility and prestige” that are at the core of the TAG Heuer brand. Another essential point in this architectural approach is that the beauty in the details and finishing is justified by their functionality. In other words, nothing is gratuitous; nothing is there just “for the sake of decoration”.

“A stand is a memorable machine for selling, it's not marketing”

Representing time in space
This great success, which allows Ottavio Di Blasi to affirm that “this construction has strongly contributed to strengthening the identity of the brand,” was followed by a second TAG Heuer stand, which was inaugurated in 2007. In the meantime, the brand changed ownership and passed into the fold of LVMH. But, again it was Ottavio Di Blasi who won the international competition to design the stand at BaselWorld.
“In a certain way,” explains Di Blasi, “the design approach of this second stand has been more philosophical. Since Einstein, we can no longer represent time by an arrow on a linear path. Time has also become space and representing it thus involves a spatial approach.”
This representation of time and the brand’s spirit, considered along with the practical necessities of the “selling machine”, led Di Blasi and his team to design a form with strong lines, but in a helical movement that culminates in a high point, above the visitors who approach it. The façade is composed of triangular solid steel modules, all the same size and measuring 10 mm in thickness, which are arranged in prisms. As if cut in half by a broken fault line, the façade opens onto a staircase giving access to the upper floors of this three-storey building. Inside is a large lobby serving as a bar and display area, plus four conference rooms, two kitchens, a photo studio, and thirty sales offices.
“We have studied this carefully and in great detail so that the sales offices meet, as best as possible, their function—comfort, lighting, ventilation, and division and distribution of the collections. Everything is important,” he insists. “The salespeople have a small control panel where they can adjust the lighting, varying the intensity depending on the moment, for example, for the welcome, discussion, or presentation of the collections. The control panel also gives access to multimedia tools. The salespeople can modify the air conditioning, which functions according to the ‘air lake’ system with a low flow rate. Everything is there for the optimal comfort of the client.”

“A stand is a memorable machine for selling, it's not marketing”

A research laboratory
“Baselworld is, to my knowledge, the only fair in the world to allow this type of thing. It is like a research laboratory where one is able to experiment with techniques that can be used elsewhere. For example, the project for the University of Novarra that I am working on now is, in many ways, directly inspired by the TAG Heuer stand. Building a stand is like building an entire house. The rules are the same, without the problems of watertightness, of course, but with the need to use only non-inflammable materials. Above all, it involves having the right technology for the assembly, dismantling, and storage. This type of project is very interesting for an architect because he must find solutions that can perhaps be used elsewhere. More and more, construction involves the so-called ‘dry’ techniques that do not involve concrete or cement. Also, you need to take into consideration the high degree of traffic in these spaces—140 people work there and they receive 10,000 visitors in one week. The density is enormous.” In terms of time and manpower, the TAG Heuer stand requires a team of eighty people working six weeks to build, and three weeks to dismantle and store it.

Constructed in cubes
In light of the high costs of building a stand—not just because of the location but also in terms of construction, handling, and utilisation—most of the stands at BaselWorld are constructed in large cubes, which is unfortunate in the mind of Otttavio Di Blasi. “In this cube, you need to find the right form,” he explains. The fact that he refuses all specialisation, but rather looks for solutions as he moves between urban architecture and stand construction, Di Blasi can play an important role as an architect. In his opinion, the designer of a stand must be someone who, between the brand, the economy, politics, message, communication, functions, and construction, is best able to find a spatial synthesis that is as strong as it is long lasting.
BaselWorld 2012 will probably not see very many changes, but when it opens its new halls in 2013, we will undoubtedly see a flourish of new architecture. And, it is a safe bet that Ottavio Di Blasi will be behind some of the fair’s most remarkable stands.

Reflections on Time, read more:

Source: Europa Star February - March 2012 Magazine Issue