Shelf Life

Originally published in 

Though he appears to live alone, this graphically inclined Parisian commissioned an apartment that deftly houses his many roommates—scores of beloved comics—as well.

Front and Back Apartment

Mathieu Vinciguerra has loved comic books since childhood, when he began collecting them with his older brother. “My grandmother disapproved,” he remembers. “She wanted us to read ‘proper’ books.” But his youthful obsession has proven fruitful—today, as art director at the French advertising giant Publicis, he designs ad campaigns for clients including Orange, Renault, and Wonderbra.

Vinciguerra’s comic book collection is now massive, and when he purchased his first apartment in 2007, at age 28, he knew it would be a challenge to accommodate them. That wasn’t the only problem with the 635-square-foot space he bought for about $400,000—a good deal for central Paris in a strong market. The apartment was a cramped, grubby little rabbit warren with six rooms, six doors, and lots of pointy corners. Squatters had come and gone, leaving graffiti and less mentionable remnants in their wake.

The layout dated from the 19th century, when Baron Haussmann, Napoleon III’s urban planner, transformed Paris. Haussmann’s broad thoroughfares combined humanitarian and authoritarian efforts—newer, more sanitary cityscapes and adequate space for marching troops, respectively. The boulevards met in angular intersections, from which rose consequently tortuous, ornate housing blocks, including Vinciguerra’s, which is on the frenzied Boulevard Magenta, not far from the Gare de l’Est. His apartment, typical of those formerly reserved for lower-class workers, overlooks the rear courtyard. 

Due to noisy traffic, these properties have become more sought after than their grand street-facing counterparts. Vinciguerra was the first to view his, and made an offer right away. “I had looked for four months,” he says, “and it met my criteria: wood floors, gas cooking fixtures, not the ground floor, and a central location, as I did not then have a scooter.”

Before completing the purchase, he invited Antoine Santiard, an architect and friend’s brother, to check out the place and its potential. Santiard had just formed H2O Architectes with colleagues Jean-Jacques and Charlotte Hubert after working with leading architects like Bernard Tschumi and Jakob + MacFarlane and was happy to help.

The brief was simple—“a more open, peaceful, sparkling environment”—though it clearly required a 21st-century idea of space. Santiard’s solution was to stuff necessities—storage, utilities, appliances—into thickened walls and keep the furnished areas open.     

The team’s design strategy started with “measuring the clutter.” They took widths and heights of all the comic books and quantified desired shelf space. After Vinciguerra decided to store his loads of Marvel comics in the building’s basement, they figured the rest would fit in shelves about a foot high.

“We wanted to feature the comics without letting them become visually overwhelming,” says Santiard. “So we developed this box concept, where bits of white space separate all the shelves.” The boxes’ interiors are painted dark colors so when set against the white walls they function like dioramas, or frames in a storyboard. Most contain books, but others contain toys, a vintage Peugeot coffee grinder, a plaster bust of French pop star Claude François.

The architects say that the visual reference to comic books was unconscious, if palpable. The shelf boxes create a rhythmic narrative, the architectural centerpiece of which is a sculptural unit—rather gloriously nicknamed “the totem”—that separates the dining and living spaces and conceals a chimney.

Some of its openings sit in rounded corners, so their contents, including Claude François, entice visitors to circumnavigate the structure. The shelf boxes are also color coded, like chapters in a graphic novel—orange is for work, green is for domesticity, and gray is for ambiguous.

After establishing the shelf-box motif, the design process focused on which walls to remove from the convoluted layout. Santiard believes that the Haussmann-era multiplicity of tiny rooms was intended to make the place feel bigger. “It’s a different way of perceiving space,” he says while flipping through “before” photos of the apartment and pointing out that cornices, moldings, fireplaces, and other details, despite being small, created multiple environments with discrete domestic roles.

To determine the layout, he created three distinct areas that involved blocking out different spaces for different domestic requirements. “They weren’t so much differences in design but different ways to live in the apartment,” he explains. “We explored having a separate room for a desk with shelves all around it. In the end, the space was too small to make that practical, so the desk is part of the open-plan living room.”

Design detailing began in summer 2007 and stretched to the end of the year. It was slowed by planning permissions, though, which required an affirmative majority vote from the households in the apartment block. Santiard produced an information panel with floor plans and structural engineering details, which they posted in the downstairs lobby. “We made it look less radical than it is and included only the most basic information,” says Santiard. The neighbors voted in favor.

Vinciguerra, who has designed gut-wrenching campaigns about environmental awareness for the Nicolas Hulot Foundation, also found ways to reduce his domestic carbon emissions. This meant full insulation, double-glazed windows, and a water boiler that reuses heat from graywater by piping it back around to warm the tank. One evening, he and Santiard sat listening to the upstairs neighbors’ every move and decided to add a layer of sound insulation into the ceiling, which made room for the boiler’s complex plumbing. In January 2008, the general contractor began demolition and installed steel I-beams over the living area and kitchen to merge the rooms. Every appliance was replumbed and rewired, and new drywall was set in from the masonry.

Building the shelf boxes was demanding work, so Santiard brought in two carpenters to halve the time needed to do it. To cut costs, they used MDF for most of the components; the totem’s curved corners are made of grooved Bendy plywood sheets, layered up for greater depth.

Construction took longer than expected, which forced Vinciguerra to move in with his grandmother. “She cooked my meals and made my bed,” he remembers fondly. He pitched in as well, by rectifying his childhood habit of filching money from her purse to buy comic books.

As the contractors finished and painted the MDF and gave laminate coatings to the hard-wearing surfaces like the drawing desk, Vinciguerra and Santiard made the final decisions on shelf color and other details. Vinciguerra moved in in June 2008, having spent $100,000 on the renovation.

“What I found most challenging about this experience was trying to envision what the 3-D ideas would actually look like,” says Vinciguerra, who was also abroad for much of the planning. But communication was not an issue. “He might not realize it,” says Santiard, “but Mathieu is very good at expressing what suits him.”

Today, Vinciguerra washes down a midweek lunch at home with a glass of white burgundy. His meal looks manga-inspired, with tomatoes cut open like heads erupting chunks of bufala and dollops of balsamic syrup. If he didn’t have to return to work, he would head to his desk to sketch storyboards or caricatures. The white-veneered work surface faces the shelf boxes, their contents meticulously arranged, and is already stained with charcoal.

To see more images of the project, please visit the slideshow.

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