A rising star in the modern American architecture and design scene, and one of the leading creators currently designing spaces in the metaverse; Luis Fernandez is at the forefront of his many fields
Designing a private residence is a task left to architects due to the specialized nature of the knowledge needed to truly create a masterpiece of modern architecture. Undertaking a renovation, for instance, of a house that’s been deemed a historically important masterpiece, is one that requires meticulous precision, research, and experience. But what happens when that same house–or a house requiring renovation–is not constrained by the literal pulls of gravity that dictate its physical structure? What new possibilities can emerge for the programming of what has, until very recently, constituted a residential home, if that home is built in the metaverse? Luis Fernandez is busy with questions such as these, as a designer working in the traditional domains of architecture, fashion, and retail–who also works in all these same fields, digitally.
‘I often refer to myself as a hybrid-creative,’ he explains. ‘The term is about creativity, strategy, and design–spanning all disciplines. Now, in this new world, it’s easier to exist as a hybrid-creative, because it’s a world of the future, where everything is woven together, and rendered in 360 or 3D, figuratively. Being a hybrid-creative doesn’t depend on the silos of the traditional industries. The way that I tend to approach design is to look at each of the different disciplines–fashion, architecture, and furniture; the approach is the same and the materials are different. This is the way I approach the hybrid-creative tag I’ve given to myself. More recently, of course, I’ve given myself the title of metaverse architect—it’s something people can understand.’
Indeed, the title of metaverse architect is unprotected–much unlike the IRL title of architect. At the bare minimum, becoming an architect working with actual concrete and construction crews entails studying the profession, its history, its theory, and obtaining actual practice. ‘I grew up in Miami, to immigrant parents from Cuba,’ he tells me. ‘When I was young, I used to love magazines. Real estate companies would put out issues with pictures of homes, and floorplans; you’d fill out this little card at the back–this was before the internet to get more information on them. When I would, as a kid, receive all these housing materials—what I now recognize as advertising and marketing–I would sit there for hours as a teenager, to start to learn to match the pictures with the floorplans, to understand the spaces. I taught myself, and by the time I was in high school, I researched all the good architecture schools–and much to my parents’ disappointment, of course, I moved away to Ithaca, New York, for Cornell.’
Among the premier architecture schools in the USA, Cornell University has a noted legacy and pedagogical reputation heavily focused on theory–at least, this was the case during the late-1990s and early-2000s. As we continue our conversation, I ask what it was that drew him to study at Cornell; the thrill of living so far away from home, the skills that could be gained through intense study, or perhaps a mix of both? ‘I knew Cornell was a good architecture school, let’s call it–by the books,’ he continues. ‘Though I wasn’t so attuned to the theoretical or pedagogical background of the teaching at the institution, as well as I would later come to find out. The teaching at Cornell was done with the attitude: “We’re not here to teach you architecture; we’re here to teach you how to think like an architect.” For me, that still resonates with me, because it goes back to the idea of being a hybrid-creative.’
‘I wasn’t taught during my studies to make buildings–and this can be problematic with architecture education these days if you are going to go the traditional route. We were taught how to think creatively; to solve problems; and at the end of the day, that summarizes my career. That is; yes, I could have stayed the route of working at a big firm focusing on one very specific aspect of architecture. And I did do that; I put in my all-nighters at the bigger firms, in my earlier days, doing door schedules, curtain wall details, and all that stuff. But it was not the reason I became an architect. All of this also goes back to how one continues to hone a craft or even a profession. Because, understanding details and parameters are important to design, as well.’
Anyone who proceeds through architecture school eventually has to find their way in the world with their profession. An education in architecture is, in some ways, rather forgiving as a track of university study, as it truly allows one to branch off in many different directions–in the architecture profession, or outside of it. Studying architecture is a bit like studying law, or English, in the sense that there are many areas of specialization. In this way, I’m curious how Luis forged his own path in NYC, after Cornell. How did he get from architecture to fashion?
‘One of the huge possibilities that I’m seeing is that the fashion world is finally waking up to the metaverse and web3. It’s similar to how important the parallel fusion of the internet to e-com was to fashion houses in the early-2000s; web3 is going to be huge for retail.’
‘After my early days of studying,’ he says, ‘I went to work at Jeffrey Hutchinson & Associates–a small design firm that mostly created luxury fashion and retail spaces. During that time, I also started a small luxury t-shirt brand. It was my exit strategy out of the world of big international firms, and it was a way to focus on my own designs for the various fields I work in. But unfortunately, for my own plans, what happened is that I enjoyed myself working there. So, I stayed. This was, to place it, just around the same time as the 2008 financial crisis; before that occurred, we were designing stores for Barneys New York throughout the world—as in Las Vegas, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, and Dubai. And so, I had a professional job that was incredibly intense, but also fun, but I made sure to keep working on my own fashion label, on the side. It was a lot of work, in retrospect. On the one side I was learning the business of design and fashion; how to sell the clothes, how to set the product as a brand; and therefore, I was also learning how to build my own fashion brand. And I think that the experience of both, together, was seminal to my career.’
‘In 2008 I quit my day job as an architect and decided to pursue a career in fashion. This is when I left, let’s call it, traditional architecture. I started a label called “NUMBER_Lab”, and the design principles were very much the same as the way that an architect thinks; how to solve problems for the way that the modern man dressed, though still have it look very aesthetically pleasing? In 2008 people did not speak of any sort of clothes as being “athleisure”, or what a few years ago was called active wear. We called this aesthetic “tech-tailored”, at the time with the more technical performance of materials fused with a dressier look. At this point in time, there were a lot of oversized t-shirts and tops, and the fit of men’s and women’s clothes wasn’t focused on as much as it is now. Especially when it came to working out and sports; and so that lead me, looking back now, to really begin to understand how to merge the worlds of fashion and architecture. Later, in 2013, I went to become the helm of Craft Atlantic, another menswear line focused on “tech-tailored”.’
As a hybrid-creative, Fernandez’s work cannot be easily packaged into a pool of adjectives, given the range of projects that he’s worked on, coupled with the notion that he spent the early stages of his career in NYC, working at the more established architecture firms. This means that much of his work was created under the guise of other designers’ names; something that has worked in his favor, in terms of not being pigeon-holed into one field. ‘In some ways working in the metaverse is really a dream come true,’ he says. ‘My stint in fashion design rewired my brain as an architect. When I had my own fashion brand, we knew selling online would open new markets. We ended up using a simple order form to circumnavigate the need to have an online store; my point with this analogy is that, in some ways, we are at the same point in time with the metaverse, as we are in relation to the early internet days. The idea of how digital and physical can coexist in a way to create a better experience, together, is something I’ve been chasing for a long time. It goes back to the basic principles of my education; what efficiencies do you gain by doing things digitally?’
‘I was just in Paris at the LVMH Foundation; it’s all flying buttresses and angles and curves. But when you go into its galleries, they are dark square boxes, with very traditional artwork framed on those walls. For all those curves and engineering, it doesn’t impact the space.’
Before we dive into the metaverse and his most recent design for it–an expansive villa–I first question Luis’ perspective regarding early-twentieth-century European architectural theory, and specifically that of Le Corbusier. Having read he is a long-time fan of Le Corbusier’s Toward an Architecture–the manifesto that the architect published in 1923–I sense that Luis’ affection for the publication and its theories on the way it advocated for a fusion of body, aesthetics, and architecture, could be of use to better understanding his own thinking. So, I ask him to summarize the famed book in his own words; and what ideas from that book continue to resonate with him, today, that he applies to his designs and his architecture?
‘Corb looked at the traditional and the established and tried to break that down by coming up with these new rules, which spoke to the way modern life was being conducted. Everything that he did, had a purpose and a mission to accomplish. His windows framed the landscape; his columns were more than just structural. For instance. And what a great question, as we are working toward this new world in the metaverse. Right now, in 2022, the architecture that we consider traditional is the more mid-century and early- twentieth modern century, as opposed to beaux-arts architecture that was ‘modern’, during Le Corbusier’s lifetime. He sort of turned his back to it. We’re learning that the very modern houses we’re building, today, are also being left behind. Like right now; you’re in Amsterdam and I’m in Los Angeles and we’re having a video call in a digital space. Yet I’ve also got a whole house around me that’s not contributing anything meaningful, to the current conversation that we’re having together, right now. So–this summarizes what we’re really here to talk about, which is the future. Looking back: I ask why we’re doing the things we do? We must ask more “whys”.’
Pulling the conversation back to the idea of early-twentieth-century, and Le Corbusier, I note that Fernandez’s built architecture tends to merge Le Corbusier’s more theoretical ideas with an appreciation and admiration for mid-century modern aesthetics. ‘My fascination with mid-century modern,’ he points out,’ is a recent development in terms of understanding it in a way I can adapt it for the future. Especially living here in LA, there is a lot of mid-century modern architecture. I’ve become enamored and fascinated with the mid-century work, which emphasizes these planes of space and plays with the idea of elongating space. But also, about framing nature,’ he muses. ‘They become squattier, or more horizontal; they’re not towering over the landscape. And every move, every window becomes about how to frame a landscape and create a space where you can co-exist with nature. And this has completely infiltrated the ways that I think about digital spaces. And obviously, much more so in the metaverse world.’
At its most simplistic, Mies van der Rohe’s architecture is visually echoed in Fernandez’s work, and I’m curious which of his works and ideals, he most admires; the 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, built for that year’s International Exposition, being one example. Fernandez’s work also reminds me of the Tugendhat House in Brno, in the Czech Republic, and also by Mies, in terms of his use of glass and its materiality, such as marble. That seems to be something that Fernandez is rather attuned to and has affection for: a penchant for the use of natural stone. As we continue talking about materials and the metaverse, I can’t help but bring up Adolf Loos’ intimate American Bar in Vienna, with its coiffured ceilings, ample use of marble, and mirrors that align the top of the space’s perimeter walls, to expand an infinite sense of space. Fernandez tends to liberally use stone and mirrors. My question: what, exactly, defines his approach to materials, and how does he use them to elicit emotions in spaces he designs?
‘To speak about the metaverse; a lot of architecture being built for it, at the moment, doesn’t ask questions about its purpose. People are just building, to build. It’s quite easy to render a crazy form and then put a chair in it and say: “Look, this is a house that I made!” But to reiterate; Le Corbusier’s book was about the ways he thought about what spaces could do. When we discuss the villa that I designed for the metaverse; know that I asked myself what we would be doing in the metaverse. How would we experience it? From that, I asked how such questions could ultimately lead to the design of the villa, based on its numerous users.’
With this last comment, I finally string together the line of thought underpinning Fernandez’s design philosophy–for architecture, fashion, the metaverse, retail, branding, but also beyond. It’s one combining the consciousness of the collective with the need for individual identity. ‘The metaverse has almost become a place,’ he explains, ‘with all these ideas that I’ve been speaking about–but you still must contend with the other practical elements of the metaverse. For instance, trees can’t exist in an art gallery, due to humidity. They can, in a metaverse art gallery. It’s a different way of creating what I had always hoped to–when designing for the real world. Carlo Scarpa is one of my favorite architects, by the way; organizing space and planes; how they bypass one another to become a frame for nature. Scarpa juxtaposed natural marble against a stark white wall, or a mirrored space, which then expands it. I have, also, always loved the American Bar by Adolf Loos, with the mirror above so the ceiling is reflected off the walls, to create an endless continuity.’
‘The idea of how digital and physical can coexist in a way to create a better experience, together, is something I’ve been chasing for a long time. It goes back to the basic principles of my education; what efficiencies do you gain, while enhancing “experience”, by doing things digitally?’
Grasping Fernandez’s appreciation of architectural history and theory, I quickly realize the space has emerged for us to discuss differences between 2D and 3D NFTs, in relation to the metaverse. A large chunk of the ‘crypto’ art world is filled with discussions regulated to art created on a 2D plane and is dominated by discussions from and with, people from the more traditional, contemporary art world. It’s its own bubble. There’s very little discussion of 3D. But designing a 3D residence in the metaverse is different. What makes 3D different? The discussions around a design, its creator, and utility–they’re all more complex. As someone at the forefront of this field; I ask Fernandez about the opportunities that exist in the metaverse, that don’t exist IRL. For instance: architectural history, has very little use in the metaverse. Why does he find it important to be in this space, as a designer, specifically in a 3D context?
‘One of the possibilities I’m now seeing is that the fashion world is finally waking up to the metaverse and web3. Similar to how important the fusion of the internet with e-com was to fashion houses in the early-2000s; web3 will do the same for retail. I’m working on a few retail spaces for brands, in the metaverse. I keep telling friends who are naysayers about the metaverse, today, to remember that ten years ago, they also said they didn’t know why they needed an e-com website. They thought it brought down the perception of their brand to also sell online. It’s the exact same conversation, all over again. For brands, how can they give their customers, a holistic experience; combining that new custom shoe with more of a digital experience… This goes back to the idea that all of this, is to amplify design DNA. Nike and Burberry, for instance, were very innovative in retail around 2010. They both took risks. The parallels going back to the beginning of the internet with the metaverse are huge. I’m still not sure that any computer from 1999, could ever open up today’s version of Amazon, even if its owner wanted it to. Even if it did, it’d take an hour to load. The speed of progression will just continue. We went from not having personal computers as mainstream to everyone in the world needing powerful processing capabilities–all within 20 years.’
Having touched on the ways designing, and thinking about designing, for the metaverse have developed in his work; as our conversation nears an end, I ask about his new metaverse villa. It’s a sprawling estate that’s largely set outdoors, edging up against a large body of water. In many ways, the villa he’s designed very much resembles what could be a fabulous outdoor setting, surrounded by more fabulous amenities, as those found in a backyard setting of an LA home: a sunken lounging area and fire pit, a meticulously manicured terrace, an area for yoga, a fountain, and miscellaneous areas for displaying art—as the owner’s NFTs.
‘The entry sequence is meant to recall a Greek temple,’ he informs, ‘with art screens. Oh; there’s an NFT gallery in there! That was a big program function for me to include in the villa. So, with NFTs, we mostly know them as 2D windows, in a 2D frame. And now these artworks can change and become more experiential in the metaverse, and specifically in this villa’s art gallery. There’s also the pool that plays into the visual cues of what a house has been, and I’ve included a digital fashion closet–it’s a place to store your digital wearables. There’s also a big floating box, and for me, that space was about pushing the notion of what an NFT and what artworks can be, so that it’s something that floats; the NFT is wrapped all around it, to become a site-specific piece of artwork, so you can lounge under it. And there are stairs! You can always walk up and into this area of the villa. And it becomes the inverse, where you’re now surrounded by these six walls with some sort of NFT art all around them.’
‘At the end of the day, I think of these spaces–those in the metaverse–as being very similar to set design, as in the set of a theater, or film; they’re all telling a story.’
‘When it came to furniture for the villa,’ he explains, ‘villa and furniture in quotes; it’s very easy for someone to make a 3D model of a chair and put it in a metaverse space. What I’ve now started to think, in the metaverse, is how we still need visual cues that work to signify what the activities that should happen in that space, are… we have to ask ourselves how the design of furniture changes over time in the metaverse, given that it’s not really possible to sit in there, yet; or dine at a table. So, the way we approach furniture now gives cues and signals of familiarity, but there can certainly be a lack of materiality in the chair, as we know it from its current form. The fundamentals of modern design are centered around how to insert one’s self into nature, by bringing that nature closer to us. Very un-midcentury modern, perhaps.’
To conclude, I ask what Fernandez envisions people doing in the metaverse–in his own villa, or otherwise. He pauses and then states: ‘With this most recent villa; the ocean crashes into the rocks. But the ocean also turns an edge and becomes a waterfall, a pool, and a fountain. This would never be possible in the real world, obviously. I also think that one of the main uses of the metaverse will be for meditation. I think meditation will be huge in the metaverse. As we now know all too well, no one likes video calls. Meet-ups and lounging and parties; they’ll happen in there too. The metaverse really is all about the body–or, the absence of it.’
Originally published at MetaMundo in July 2022.