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Entering Toyota's (TM ) redesigned flagship store on Paris' Champs Elysées is like boarding a 1960s comic book spacecraft. At the Oct. 27 unveiling of the $5 million showroom, models in white knee-high boots and short gray dresses draped themselves over concept cars, while a deejay played space-age electropop. The 10,000-square-foot space features curved walls of seamless white Corian polymer and a second level that overlooks the ground floor like a Star Trek control deck. The clean lines and airy glass are just what Toyota Motor Corp. (TM ) wanted in order to communicate the company's emphasis on "green" themes. Perhaps most remarkable, Toyota's premier brand-building venue in Europe was designed by a 28-year-old French design school dropout.
The Parisian showplace is only the latest venture for Ora Ito, the new It-boy of European corporate design. In a career spanning just four years he has created ad campaigns, products, and interiors for dozens of companies, including Adidas-Salomon (ADDDY ), Davidoff, and Swatch Group (SWGAF ). Ito dubs his style "simplexity," meaning a mix of simple shapes that are nevertheless complex to design. Thanks to rapturous response, Ito's Paris atelier now employs 12 people and is on track to pull in revenues of $3 million this year.
BESIEGED WITH CALLS
Companies like Toyota choose Ito because he helps their bottom line. At just 24, he created a slim molded aluminum bottle for Heineken (HINKY ) that transformed the venerable brewer's beer from dowdy to nightclub chic. Within months of the bottle's launch, Heineken doubled the number of French outlets that carried its aluminum bottles, to 2,000. "We had places like [upscale Paris department store] Bon Marché besieging us with calls. It was unprecedented," says Pascal Gilet, global marketing manager for Heineken, who gave Ito his first contract. The product has since been launched worldwide. Similarly, Ito's 2003 redesign of Paris nightclub Le Cab helped double admissions in one year. Fun-seekers have flocked to see the club's colorful dance floor, mirrored halls, and leather-lined hexagonal alcoves.
The young Frenchman's path to fame and fortune was ingenious, if reckless. At 21, Ito, whose real name is Ito Morabito, decided he couldn't bear spending 10 years inching his way up the career ladder. So the son of well-known Paris fashion designer Pascal Morabito invented the pseudonym Ora Ito to carve out his own identity. Without using his father's money or connections, he set out to excite the design world with an audacious media stunt. He helped pen two articles for the fashionable French magazines Crash and Jalouse, presenting a selection of 3D images of completely made-up products for mega-brands such as Louis Vuitton, Apple Computer, and Levi Strauss & Co.
The response was electric. Within weeks of the first article's publication, Ito's Web site was getting 200,000 visitors a day. A Swiss collector and a host of other watch fans wanted to buy the designer's four imaginary Swatch designs, whose digital red dials and cool curves added a futuristic edge to the company's classic look, even though no such products existed. Customers inundated luxury goods company LVMH Moët Hennessy/Louis Vuitton with calls and store visits in a desperate attempt to buy Ito's proposed monogrammed backpack. A factory in China bestowed the ultimate accolade. It lifted the designs and started churning out counterfeits. "It was wild," recalls Ito, noting that no companies initiated legal action against him because the designs were virtual and well-received by consumers and the brands involved.
Impressed with Ito's talent and the reaction to his unsolicited design schemes, companies soon started begging him to work for them. Along with Heineken came Italian furniture-design agency Cappelli and sporting-goods giant Adidas, for whom he created a best-selling perfume bottle. "His talent is in being both a visionary and respecting the equity of the brand," says Eva Ziegler, brand manager for Toyota in Europe, who chose Ito over two Japanese designers for the showroom project (despite his Japanese-sounding name, Ito is of French ancestry).
These days, Ito can take his pick of clients. His eclectic mix of current projects includes a new lamp for Italian lighting company Artemide, a global refit of automatic photo booths for Britain's Photo-Me International PLC, and a top-secret product for London interior design emporium Habitat. For the moment, Ito plans to continue working for corporations. "Where else can you get the budgets to do exactly what you want?" he asks.
By Rachel Tiplady