With its work on headquarters for companies such as Bloomberg and Barry Diller's IAC gaining worldwide plaudits, Studios Architecture is on a roll
For Studios Architecture, the firm behind recent high-profile interiors at Bloomberg and IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI), the question is how, not if, it will innovate. The firm's architects, designers, and planners have made a name for pushing the boundaries of design and technology, pioneering a new wave of corporate interiors in the process. Studios' design, it seems, is transforming the nasty, brutish, and often dull life of work into something altogether different—one high-tech interior at a time.
Founded in 1985 in Silicon Valley, Studios Architecture came to prominence in the early 1990s as the booming tech startups that had challenged long-standing corporate hierarchies were themselves becoming larger, more complex organizations. It made its mark in 1997 with Silicon Graphics' (SGIC) 500,000-square-foot North Charleston Campus in Mountain View, Calif., setting a new benchmark for hip, high-tech environments. Twenty-two years and more than 2,000 projects after its founding, with some 25 million square feet of office space realized, the company is known for its skill at designing spaces for organizations in transition. Over the years, it has worked with global companies such as eBay (EBAY), 3Com (COMS), Reuters Group (RTRSY), and LVMH Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton (LVMHF).
With four offices in the U.S. and one in Paris, Studios offers a wide range of services but is best known for its innovative interior design. "Their great strength has always been open, flexible, and technologically sophisticated office interiors," says Clifford Pearson, deputy editor-in-chief of Architectural Record. (Like BusinessWeek, Architectural Record is a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)
Currently, Studios is enjoying a moment of even greater-than-usual esteem. Two of its most prominent designs have been wrapped up during the past two years: the futuristic, information-infused headquarters of Bloomberg in 2005 and the interior of the gleaming glass tower designed by Frank Gehry for IAC in Manhattan, which may be the most talked about new building of 2007. (Last week it was awarded an Excellence Award in the BusinessWeek/Architectural Record design awards.)
The two designs, one for a financial titan with a sharply honed Wall Street brand, the other for a rapidly evolving conglomeration of upstart Web brands, couldn't be more different, and have helped Studios to strengthen its claim as a company capable of tailoring innovation to a client's identity and business needs. "It shows their range and sensitivity to the needs of the people who hire them," adds Pearson.
But according to Todd DeGarmo, one of Studios Architecture's 12 principals and the founder of its New York office, technological developments and changes in executives' attitudes toward work have freed the firm to create its most flexible, collaborative interiors yet. "Instead of being bogged down in solving technological problems or departmental minutiae," says DeGarmo, "we can focus on the big picture idea: How do you make a wonderful place to work and make individuals in it their most effective?"
Despite its diverse clients, Studios' designs do tend to have elements in common—they're technological bombshells that emphasize collaboration. At Bloomberg's 55-story building on Lexington Avenue in New York, every last one of the 3,800 employees sits at open-plan workbenches, top executives included. Absorbing the private office space, Studios doubled the number of conference rooms, encouraging collaboration over isolation.
Even the building interior's most artful details are functional. The company's core business—delivery of financial data and other media—is on permanent, frenetic display. LED displays light up with a constantly evolving stream of graphical information such as market data, news, and reports on internal developments, including sales or employee events. In other words, the interior provides a constant but subtle reminder of the business at hand. Brian Tolman, an associate principal at Studios in New York, says, "It's an intuitive layer of the environment but it's incredibly rational, much like Bloomberg the company."
In Manhattan's West Chelsea, meanwhile, IAC's newly minted offices shine above the West Side Highway like a ship at sea. Studios was tasked with designing the 150,000-square-foot interior, as well as creating a bridge between the project's two superstars, architect Frank Gehry and IAC's hard-charging Chief Executive Barry Diller. Neither task was easy. The dramatic curve of the building's exterior architecture meant that no two floors were identical, creating challenges when laying out the largely open-plan office. To maximize natural light and surrounding views, Studios avoided cluttering the building's perimeter with offices or conference rooms, leaving it open for workspaces, lounging, and eating areas.
Unlike the completely open-plan Bloomberg, IAC required some private areas, for instance, for the legal department. Diller also wanted a corporate suite with a traditional boardroom, requiring Studios to create a variety of flexible spaces in the same building. But, according to DeGarmo, that was in line with the company's business philosophy. "The idea is to provide leadership with the full range of experiences and spaces they need in order to be comfortable and to lead," he says.
A Marriage of Corporate Culture and Technology
Studios' approach is notably humanistic, emphasizing the experience of those who often end up overlooked in large-scale corporate programs: individual workers themselves. "We're doing everything possible to avoid that Dilbert cube stereotype," says DeGarmo of the firm's office projects. "How can we make it more colorful? How can we make it more saturated? In the simplest way, how can there be a wow factor, something delightful and unexpected?"
Recent developments in technology have opened up new avenues of innovation for the firm. The prevalence of wireless Internet, cell phones, and powerful portable computing capabilities have made executive clients more inclined to allow Studios to create unrestricted environments where workers can move about freely. "Right now there's a convergence of culture and technology," DeGarmo says of the evolution in technology and corporate attitudes toward space that have taken place over the past five years. "So many of the ideas we once talked about as revolutionary are simple now, which frees you up to focus on big design ideas."
He is referring to big ideas such as the high-definition video wall that lines the ground floor of IAC. At 11 ft. high and 120 ft. long, it's the world's largest, with constantly changing images meant to evoke the many parts of Diller's Web empire. Another Studios project, the Washington (D.C.) offices of law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, features a 12-story, five-ton solar-powered luminescent tube that pipes natural light throughout the building.
Studios' interiors make an impact beyond mere aesthetics or theatrics. Tolman says the company's early design stages are consumed with a conceptual exercise whereby designers and architects imagine the various tours that might be given through a new space. That helps them to crystallize essential messages about a company's aspirations and its business. "In assessing what the visitor sees, what the worker sees, and what the executive sees, we can make sure the ideal environment is not compromised," says Tolman.
Other designers and architects say that, thanks to such processes, Studios is at the forefront of the trend toward more collaborative corporate environments. "The problem is there's still a kind of polarization. [There's] either the truly open office or a throwback to the carpeted cubicle nightmare," says Hani Rashid, an influential Columbia University professor and principal with Asymptote Architecture in New York. "Studios is designing for clients that aspire to and demand much more flexibility."
Colin Nourie, cofounder of the Cincinnati-based TripleFive Design, who has worked in collaboration with office furniture giant Steelcase (SCS) as well as with architect Zaha Hadid, agrees. "The office is transitioning from a place to simply complete 'tasks' into a place to gather physically, and socially connect." Studios, he says, "is playing at an impressive scale."
Such praise doesn't mean the company is impervious to challenge. For one, it has yet to prove that a great office redesign can help turn around a flailing company's culture—let alone its financial fortunes. Studios' best work is often completed for organizations experiencing periods of financial exuberance. And even as the firm's reputation for innovative interiors has blossomed, recognition of its building architecture has not. But that could change with the completion of a 1,250,000-sq.-ft. urban complex in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood in 2008. Likewise, the proposed 9,000-sq.-ft. Washington (D.C.)-based Kingman Island Environmental Education Center (aiming for platinum LEED certification, the highest possible rating in the national ranking system for green buildings) could help Studios further hone its portfolio.
Budding architects and corporate leaders alike would do well to tour Studios Architecture's interiors. Its designs provide a blueprint not only for aesthetic and stylistic triumphs but, more aptly, for transformative work environments at the center of developing technological and collaborative trends.
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