Mark Fernandes is a revolutionary. In the khaki-and-blue-button-down world of quarries and stone masonry, Fernandes, the president of the Charles Luck Stone Center, looks more at home under the tents at Bryant Park during Fashion Week than he does brushing granite dust off his black bespoke suit in the stone yard.
In fact, when he started to think about the changes he wanted to make in the company in order to propel it forward, Fernandes first looked at the fashion industry for cues.
Fashion? To sell stone, a product weighted with history, literally and figuratively? "Mark told me he wanted revolution, not evolution," says designer Peter Fraser of Fraser Design Associates. "I had no idea what we were getting into."
"We thought that there was something we were missing," says Fernandes. Focus groups said that most of the design community, as well as homeowners, loved stone, but only about 30 percent of that group used it in their homes. There hadn't been a lot of innovation in the industry, and Luck's original stone center hadn't changed in more than 20 years.
By contrast, fashion changes constantly and consistently stays ahead of the retail curve by about 18 months. So Fernandes took a trip to Milan, and after pondering $800 jeans at Dolce and Gabbana and $5,000 purses at Gucci, he didn't see why his company couldn't evoke the same kind of emotional response and attachment luxury retailers get from their clientele.
According to Fernandes, customers also told him that although they loved Luck Stone's product, the experience of buying stone could be "a little rough and tumble." Customers wanted to speak to salespeople who understood their tastes better, in an environment that was more inspiring.
The Charles Luck Stone Center, says Fraser, "straddles the line: It's a professional service and it's a retail business." With that kind of dynamic, the company needed an inviting space that welcomed customers and also needed to create the kind of experience that made a drive out to Goochland worthwhile.
At first, Fraser and his associate, Ansel Olson, pushed for a studio that didn't use any stone at all. Fernandes wasn't ready to go in such a radical direction (after all, stone is their business), but with Fraser and his company on board, the idea of the traditional showroom was off the table. But it wasn't just a theoretical exercise in design either. "Peter didn't approach this [project] from a design perspective," Fernandes says. "He approached it from a business vision and a strategic perspective. He's the best-kept secret in Richmond."
The result is a soaring corrugated-steel structure that seamlessly meshes with the rural landscape of Goochland County and, despite its brownstone entrance, looks a lot like a postmodern barn. Inside, rough-hewn stone walls are juxtaposed with slab-like tables topped with a Virginia granite the team discovered, astonishingly, at a slab producer in Italy. Long peach curtains lighten the tall windows across the back, and wide-screen computers at each of the tables can access hundreds of images of stone interiors.
Another wall is made of sliding panels that showcase different types of stone, like a gigantic sample book. Samples can be switched out overnight, and the unique system enables the company to stay ahead of the trends in construction and interior design.
"Everybody is welcome," says Fernandes. "People who are doing a small stone patio or a single vanity top are going to get the same experience" as someone building a large outdoor living space. Coffee and cookies are carried out to you on a tray as you talk about your project with a consultant, most of whom have interior design backgrounds. If you don't see exactly what you want, the Stone Center can find it for you.
It's a comfortable yet urbane space that's both visually intriguing and designed for fingers to touch and hands to feel. Bluestone planking reminiscent of wooden flooring, herringbone patterns inspired by Roman roads and Indiana limestone, like the kind used for the Washington National Cathedral, are just a few of the more compelling products the Stone Center offers. When you leave, small stone samples are packed up for you in a sturdy canvas bag with a slick brown notebook and your very own mechanical pencil.
An identical design center is open in Northern Virginia, and five more are planned for Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, but the Charles Luck Stone Center remains grounded in its long 80-year history as a family-owned Virginia business. "There's a certain identity a place has that's unique to itself," says Fraser. Inspiration may have come from Prada and Gucci, but ultimately, the stone business is about craftsmanship. "We want people to enter the world of stone," says Fernandes, "and fall in love with it forever."