I’m in a Novotel in Leeds with Naughtone. A second home to travelling salesmen up and down the country, it seems an odd place to meet, especially since the company’s HQ is a short drive north in Pannal. But there is good reason to be here. The company has supplied the furniture for a cosmetic makeover of the place, a project with its long-time collaborators, interior designers Blacksheep.
Today, directors Matt Welsh, Kieron Bakewell and Mark Hammond are seeing their products in situ for the first time since completion. They look happy, as well they might: through a mixture of custom-built and standard Naughtone products they have managed to breathe some life into a pretty soul-sucking environment.
“They had these bizarre little open spaces and it was all single height,” says Hammond gesturing towards the foyer. “The banquette looked liked it had been ripped out of an 80s movie.”
By installing bar-height versions of their Trace table and bespoke banquette seating Naughtone imbued a mix of intimacy and informality. Broad-shouldered Hammond is the quietest of the three, preferring to let newest addition Welsh and co-founder Bakewell do most of the talking, but he comes alive when talking through the finishes: “What can I say, I’m a furniture geek,” he shrugs.
Novotel is just one of many large clients Naughtone has worked with.
You can find its products in venues as diverse as Jaguar’s car showrooms and the Royal Albert Hall and, most recently, the BBC’s new Salford headquarters.
The BBC commission came about through another ongoing relationship the company has with an interior design firm, this time ID:SR, which was designing the fit-out. Keen to be seen as “giving something back” following the controversial multi-million pound relocation, the Beeb held a competition with Naughtone, inviting students to design a piece of furniture for the building.
The result was Busby, a high-backed cylindrical chair by student Samir Skalli, which is perfect for working quietly in open-plan spaces. Impressed, the BBC ordered 40, and the guys plan to launch it properly later this year.
“They [the BBC] were on about making something out of old film reel cans and all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff,” says a bemused Welsh. “We had to rein them in a little and say ‘let’s make something useful.’”
This nicely sums up Naughtone’s design approach. Cast your eyes across its rapidly expanding collection (it aims to produce four new products a year) and you’ll be struck by its coherence. There’s no room at the inn for whimsical flights of fancy; instead the collection is anchored by purpose.
“We do quite simple stuff,” says Bakewell, the outfit’s chief designer. “We are not trying to break the mould with fancy new manufacturing techniques and so it isn’t a huge leap of faith for people to buy into the Naughtone thing. We make products that do the job and that people actually want.”
Everything is made locally, too, which is extremely encouraging for a region whose once-formidable industrial heart has all but flatlined.
Despite the amount of bespoke pieces featuring in projects like the BBC and Novotel it is not an aspect of the business that the three actively push, preferring to present themselves as a company with set products.
However, the collection does lend itself to adaptation. A change of base or a different finish allows for a seamless crossover between office, education and leisure sectors and have helped the company ride out the recession.
“There was no Naughtone downturn,” says Hammond. Partly in reaction to the market, they are exploring wood as an aesthetic rather than just a structural material, but it’s the happy union of elegant steel and warm fabrics that characterises much of their work until now.
As we decamp to upmarket Harrogate for a pub lunch, the conversation and beer flows. All native Yorkshiremen, they possess an easy charm tempered by gentle self-deprecation.
Bakewell tells of his mild obsession with Volkswagen Sciroccos, including a hair-raising tale of how the last one he owned virtually exploded on the journey back from London. The story gets everyone laughing, as does Hammond’s piss-taking of Welsh’s drawing ability. “I’m an excellent drawer,” says Welsh, aping Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman. Their knockabout humour is disarming and one suspects they would be fine regular drinking companions.
From here it is a short hop to the Naughtone HQ, tucked away on a clandestine business park in sleepy Pannal village.
The designers have adapted the building to house an ad hoc showroom, office space for the five staff and a warehouse.
Naughtone moved the business here from Leeds city centre 18 months ago, exasperated with the daily commute, and although rural Yorkshire is blessed with natural beauty, one wonders whether they now feel disconnected being so far from London.
“There is a lot of curtain-twitching that goes on in the industry, particularly in Clerkenwell,” says Hammond. “We don’t have that here and the train to London is so easy.”
And although Bakewell suspects money has been lost by not having a London showroom, it’s a sacrifice they are all comfortable with. “We’d have to have someone there all the time… and my chickens would hate it,” adds Hammond.
So, business is booming, and – given the length of Naughtone’s client list – it is surprising that the company is not better known.
Much like the birds of prey that populate the Yorkshire countryside, the company has swooped under the radar. The fact that it’s hovering outside of Clerkenwell must be a factor, but another is the product range itself – with no “look at me” designs screaming for attention, they seem to be both everywhere and nowhere.
Inevitably, this has meant people are now starting to copy them. Frustrating, but Hammond attributes part of the problem to the weakness of UK creative copyright laws.
“We pride ourselves in this country on British design heritage, but our protection laws are so fluffy,” he says “Unless you are willing to go to court there isn’t much you can do.”
Thankfully, Naughtone displays more integrity in its own business model, paying the same royalties to competition-winner Skalli as it does to full-blown pro designers. “We didn’t set up the business just because it might prove lucrative. We love design and we have to be fair.”
In the grand scheme of Scandinavian design, Norway has generally taken a back seat. Denmark, Sweden and Finland pushed ahead in the region’s golden age of the 1950s and 1960s with the likes of Saarinen, Panton and Jacobsen, whose designs defined an era. Of course, in the 1970s and 1980s Norway turned out success stories of its own – Peter Opsvik’s Trip Trapp chair has sold in the millions and he also redefined office seating with the first kneeling task chair for Variér. But on the whole, Norway has quietly got on with design in the shadow of its neighbours, building on a unique heritage that goes back almost 100 years.
Yet something has clearly changed. With a newly powerful presence on the contemporary design scene, suddenly all eyes are on Norway. In the last decade, a talented crop of young designers has stepped into the limelight and, in the process, reinvigorated some of the country’s oldest manufacturers. Exhibitions such as 100% Norway (the 8th edition to be held during September’s London Design Festival) do their part to feed the flame internationally – with this year’s exhibitors bringing over a clutch of new and classic pieces geared toward the retail and contract markets. Amid all the excitement, though, onoffice is still left wondering what characterises “Norwegian Design”?
To answer the question, I'll set off on a trip around Norway – traversing fjords, forests and snow-capped mountains with my trusty tour guide, Knut, from InsideNorway. The plan is to visit as many designers, factories and showrooms as we can pack into three days. Five flights, three ferries and 550 miles of driving later, I hope to have a decent snapshot of what our Nordic neighbours are up to…
It makes sense that my first stop after landing in Oslo is the studio of Espen Voll and Torbjørn Anderssen. The pair have been the country’s most prolific and well-known designers over the past ten years, and in 2000 they helped form the seminal collective Norway Says, kicking off a design renaissance. When the group exhibited that year in the Salone Satellite in Milan, it was the first such outing for up-and-coming Norwegian designers at a major fair. The international furniture industry was keen as mustard because the products were very good, and as a result Norwegian designers started to look outside the country’s borders for work. “When we started out, ‘Norwegian’ was very exotic, the last frontier of the Scandinavian design thing,” says Voll.
The millennium also marked the start of a period when established, family-run furniture companies like LK Hjelle saw value in collaborating with fresh talent. Young Norwegians have been inspired to pursue design ever since, and the country now exports more than ever. “We’re in a transition period at the moment,” Voll continues. “Ten or 15 years ago most Norwegian designers were constrained within the boundaries of Norwegian industry. But we started this outgoing movement through Norway Says. We pointed out the way of establishing yourself outside of Norway and finding the manufacturing partners that would be most suitable to individual style or ideas.”
So if it’s all about individual style, is there a thread that links this new generation’s work together by shapes, materials or ideas? Is there something “Norwegian” that can be picked out? Anderssen and Voll are suspect. “Of course we are Norwegian designers because we are from Norway and we work from Oslo, but we’re not so concerned about a Norwegian design identity,” says Anderssen. “It tends to be more of a marketing tool,” Voll adds, candidly. “If we say we’re Norwegian then we’re differentiating ourselves in a very easy way. People want a label.”
Both designers balk at the suggestion that Norway’s design language is influenced by nature, an idea that is comprehensively hammered home in the press. “Historically, the Finnish have been much more inspired by nature than the Norwegians. The Norwegians have been more inspired by rational production and hardcore, strict, almost crude language,” explains Voll. (Apparently a strong link with the United States in the early 20th century meant that some Norwegian furniture companies adopted a Henry Ford approach to manufacturing versus a more craft-based approach.) Anderssen agrees: “This nature thing is just something that young designers feel obliged to fulfil. And the strange thing is that we haven’t done anything nature-inspired until the last year or two.” Which sort of defeats the point, in a sense, because obviously there is a subtle influence – at least in terms of materials (wood versus plastic, for example). The duo recently produced some little containers shaped like mushrooms, which almost seem like a joke, and a swivelling chair called Eva for the Juvet Landscape Hotel (more on that later) inspired by a kubbestol, a traditional Norwegian high-backed seat carved out of a single tree trunk. So maybe they can’t see it, but it’s there.
Norway Says disbanded in 2009, but Anderssen and Voll went on to set up their own eponymous studio in the disused technological institute on the east side of Oslo, across from the city’s oldest cemetery (where Ibsen is supposedly buried). The pair shares the space with proteges Hallgeir Homstvedt and Petter Skogstad, the four of them making a kind of Norwegian super team – fostering new talent was part of Anderssen & Voll’s ethos from the beginning. Homstvedt worked for Norway Says before breaking out on his own – this year launching pieces for Established & Sons (a resin and aluminium lamp that looks like a mushroom) and Muuto. Skogstad, though still technically working for Anderssen & Voll, will exhibit a new chair at 100% Norway and has garnered a fair bit of attention on his own for Hay, a modular sofa system inspired by the dimensions of hay bales. So, to recap, on my first day in Norway the country’s top designers have told me that there is no such thing as a contemporary “Norwegian” style of table, chair or sofa. That could be true. But I’m not totally convinced.
Heading south out of Oslo, I’m treated to my first glimpse of rural Norway. Lakes, flower meadows and rolling hills covered in pine forest whiz past the car window as we head down to Risør – a charming coastal community known for its fishing, wooden boat festival and furniture factories. Knut tells me it’s a popular place for Oslo residents to have their summer cabins. Our first stop is Hødnebø, established in 1904 by furniture maker Stian Hødnebø. The factory is just outside of the town, and we’re greeted at the door by Stian’s grandson, Stig, who is now in charge of the contract business, which is primarily geared toward hotels and conference environments. The company has launched a new brand called Spinnaker, a range of luxury chairs incorporating cotton sails into the frame. Hødnebø’s values, I’m told, are based on history, tradition and Norwegian culture, and while the Spinnaker chair plays on the area’s sailing and fishing heritage, it’s hoped that it will also provide a long-needed image update for the company. “Up to now we’ve been looked at with old-fashioned eyes,” says Tor Arne Skjævestad, who heads up the new division. “We all love to go sailing and fishing and be on the sea, so it was impossible for us not to have that link.” When we leave I see he’s got windsurf boards strapped to the top of his car, so he’s telling the truth.
Moving into the centre of Risør makes it abundantly clear that boating, fishing and general sea-related shenanigans are the main (read: only) activity to be had, in case there is any doubt. In the sun, the colourful little wooden houses look like a candy-box, and at Hødnebø’s shop (which used to be the founder’s home) I sink myself into a Relax chair – a design classic held together by a leather strap and rope, first launched in 1962. We are scheduled to visit a boat-maker, which I am unbelievably excited about, and then Nora of Norway, a furniture manufacturer established in 2008 known for combining modern design with traditional craftsmanship. But it seems the good weather has worked against us. With a heavy heart, Knut breaks the bad news. “They’ve gone fishing for the rest of the day,” he says. “Both of them?” I ask. “I’m afraid so.” I’ll have to come back for the Risør design festival, which happens every few years. It’s back in the car to drive three hours further around the coast to a town called Kristiansand, where a hotel in the shape of a pirate ship awaits us. Apparently it’s a big deal in Norway. My room is leopard-themed.
The next morning sees a 5am start to catch a flight back to Oslo, where we transfer to a tiny plane going to Sandane in western Norway. Careening incredibly low over the water of the majestic Nordfjord and onto the runway of this dinky, postage-stamp-sized airport is both exhilarating and terrifying. I must admit that I’m glad to be back on terra firma and on our way to a major hub of the Norwegian furniture industry, Stryn. This remote part of the country is home to a bulk of the furniture manufacturers in Norway. As we drive alongside Sognefjord, the longest and deepest fjord in the world, Knut fills me in on the region’s design heritage. At the beginning of the 20th century, design was a way for the farmers and fishermen to make extra money. The story goes that a lone travelling teacher taught local people the craft of weaving rattan, which quickly bloomed into small commercial ventures. The industry around the marine sector – ie machinery and boat-makers – was already in place in the area, so opening furniture and textile factories was a natural evolution. It was cheap to make things, plus, unions were weaker and the workers didn’t demand very high wages. Around lunchtime we pull into the valley of Stryn and the showroom of Stryn Møbelindustri AS, established in 1939 by skilled craftsmen working mostly with wood. The company trundled along producing furniture and parts, using local materials, until the late 80s when new owners decided to take a more design-based approach. One of Norway’s most prominent designers, Olav Eldøy, is here to talk us through the recently launched Dina range, which combines typical Scandinavian form with a dark, Italian styling. Like Anderssen and Voll, Eldøy isn’t sure whether there are distinct qualities in Norwegian design. “There is something living inside me that is Norwegian,” he says, “but I get influenced from Italy and other places around the world as well.” Is he influenced by nature?
“I design furniture first without thinking and then I make the story afterwards,” he says, chuckling. “But I do think nature is influencing us in some way. It’s impossible to only draw circles and straight lines when you’ve been born and bred in nature.” (Eldøy grew up on a small island off of the west coast). You can see what he means in the swoops and swings of the chairs he’s designed for Variér, another company we’ll visit tomorrow.
Before leaving Stryn, we call in on Silje Vollan, who is part of the founding family of Tonning Møbelfabrikk, established in 1946. Best known for designs by Alf Sture – Ola Windsor and Chair 1036 – the furniture, like the other local manufacturers, uses solid oak and birch paired with local textiles and traditional craft techniques. On the factory floor I meet Rune, 43, who has been sewing the finishing details by hand since he was 16. But as with any business, Tonning is concerned about keeping the product lines fresh. In 2009 industrial designer Johan Verde was drafted in to create a modern work chair with laptop table, called Surf, as a shot in the arm for the business (it will be featured in the press lounge at 100% Design this year, I'm told). One thing I’m noticing is that these companies are not maniacally producing new ranges as a PR stunt, as you see so often. They’re taking their time.
We have much more to see before I can lay my head on my pillow at the Juvet Landscape Hotel, conceived of as part of the National Tourist Route’s scheme to explore Norway’s breathtaking nature. So it’s into the hatchback and over the Trollstigen mountain pass we go. Knut is very obliging and pulls over for me to gawp at the scenery, which shifts from snowy, barren peaks to lush pine forests, before opening out to a vista of the Geirangerfjord, with its mossy granite canyon walls. All of it is staggeringly beautiful, so thankfully there is a place where I can stop for chocolate ice cream to collect myself before boarding the ferry.
After arriving at the Juvet hotel, designed by Jensen & Skodvin, I’m almost too worn out to appreciate the minimalist timber pods perched on stilts beside the river Valldølla, at the bottom of an immense mountain gorge. But there is the local delicacy of dried fish and cured moose meat to eat for dinner, and I can’t help but sit up until 2am, in full daylight, watching the water slosh by underneath the glass wall of my bungalow.
It’s time to head out closer to the sea, Knut tells me over a breakfast of smoked trout. We jump in the car and drive one-and-a-half hours to Skodje, forested home of the Skokke and Variér factories. Both used to operate under the name Stokke, a company established in 1932 by Georg Stokke, until they broke into separate entities in 2006. They still share the same building though. Stokke spokesperson Janne Strommen reckons the western fjords hold so much of the Norwegian furniture industry because of the entrepreneurial spirit of the people in the area. “Starting out with empty hands, and then building businesses, that’s what it’s all about here. It always has been. All the big families with a lot of money now, they came from nothing,” she says.
Variér produces all types of seating – from task chairs to more design-led pieces for the office or home – but the legacy of Peter Opsvik’s Balans revolution is what is most potent here. In the early 1980s, Opsvik and like-minded designers publicly rejected “Scandinavian design” because they felt it was ideal for industrial production but hadn’t reconsidered the concept of sitting. So, giving two fingers to Scandi style, they applied new ideas of ergonomics, balance and movement patterns to their products, and the first kneeling office chair, the Balans Variable, was born. (HÅG is another Norwegian office chair manufacturer developing Opsvik’s Balans concept). Here in the Variér showroom I get to try one out for myself.
It’s comfortable but it sure ain’t pretty.After another stretch of driving and a ferry crossing the Storfjord, we arrive in Sykkylven – “one of the ten most beautiful cities in the world” according to various travel mags. At the foot of an alpine mountain range, Sykkylven’s bay is dotted with factories related to the furniture industry ie foam, cardboard wrapping etc. The headquarters of Ekornes, makers of the hugelypopular Stressless chair, can be seen across the water. But we’re heading instead to LK Hjelle, a small family-run company started in the 1940s that has made the most of Norway’s recent international design momentum, though its business is based wholly on local subcontractors and all production happens on site. The founder’s grandson, Dag Hjelle, meets us out front of the modern, white building. Glancing into the showroom on the way to the factory, I catch a glimpse of what the company has become known for in the last ten years – modern sofas and seating designed by Norway Says. It’s been a fruitful partnership. Ugo, a modular system from 2003, is still a bestseller, but there have been about a dozen other projects since then including colourful poufs, the Eva swivel chair and the OK sofa, all of which are featured at the Juvet Hotel.
Hjelle sits in his office surrounded by prototypes, talking about the future. “If we want to continue to exist, we can’t make easy, cheap furniture,” he says matter of factly. He adds that he’d like to collaborate with more designers outside of Norway and target other markets, because right now only 10% of business is exports. After a tour of the factory, it’s nearly time to leave. The last ferry ride, with sun on my face, is bittersweet, and to mark the end of my tour I eat a sweet pancake with brown cheese. Knut heads for the airport for a final internal flight to Gardermoen, but not before stopping for lunch in the picture-perfect town of Ålesund.
Have I learned what Norwegian design is? I know that nature plays a part no matter how many times Norwegians try to deny it – it’s in the lines, the materials and even a preoccupation with poking fun at it. There is a rich history of craftsmanship that pervades the production of modern furniture, and most Norwegian companies manufacture locally or in their own factories. But unlike the Danes, the Finns and the Swedes, the Norwegians have a bit of freedom when it comes to style. They have fewer design legends to live up to, so in many ways, it’s an open book. To all who contributed to the journey – tusen takk!
Like the distinctive shopping bags from nearby Selfridges, it’s all about the yellow and black at The Interiors Group’s new headquarters in London’s Balderton Street. The dramatic yellow recessed ceiling lights that surround a massive media wall in the informal entrance zone perfectly echo the square brackets on the company’s logo – and were what made me realise I’d arrived in the right place. These corporate colours are a little reminiscent of ITV’s, and once you’ve got properly inside, with the bank of screens behind you, the effect is a little News at Ten-like. Bong! All this is part of The Interiors Group’s plan to make this workplace “memorable yet functional”.
Interior designers Scott Brownrigg were charged with consolidating the workforce from two sites, one from nearby Bruton Place and one from Sunbury-on-Thames in Surrey. Was it tricky having one of the country’s best-known fit-out firms as a client, I ask Scott Brownrigg designer Renate Sa. Not at all, she insists. In fact, it allowed them to take more risks. Not to mention specify high-end products on more favourable terms than others might be able to manage, adds Interiors Group CEO Andrew Black. Hence the unusual black Flowcrete floor in the entrance, which could just have ended up resembling a Tarmac road but just about gets away with it, and the Vitra Alcove sofas, in a shade of white that one imagines must give the cleaners quite a headache. A Barrisol ceiling system here brings a light crispness to an area which had previously suffered from a lack of natural daylight.
The adjoining space on the ground floor is taken up by a pair of meeting rooms. The ‘funky’ room has tri-folding doors that can open up to accommodate larger gatherings and presentations in the reception. Here, the coolness of the white leather chairs and glass table is balanced by the warmth of the walnut panelling used across one wall. This is no ordinary timber wall, however. Using fibre optics, LEDs and other lighting gizmos, an infra-red photograph of a 1960s London bus can be summoned to appear on the wall, and with the twiddle of the controls, the ordinary walnut wall returns. It’s a pretty neat trick, no question.
Adjacent to this meeting room is a transition zone featuring yet more talking points for visitors: yellow and black acrylic boxes of different sizes and depths dominate one side of the space, again referencing The Interiors Group’s branding, while opposite is a white-on-white city skyline. In case you don’t recognise all the iconic London buildings, there are a few from Abu Dhabi just to throw you, a reference to the company’s other office in the UAE capital. Further back, the second meeting room also features a skyline motif. It has a more serious feel to it, with Fritz Hansen’s Oxford chairs and a ceramic-topped meeting table by Methis making the space seem that little bit more corporate. Running longside the stairs there is a compact servery area. Staff can enjoy a cuppa at the stand-alone walnut bench, or hold informal meetings here – there are stools provided, but equally it fits in with the trend for stand-up working and gathering. There are subtle accents of yellow on the bench’s storage inserts along one side and a bright, canary-coloured tap sat atop the sink. “We wanted to make this area quite moody and with the mirror at the back, it also gives a feeling of space,” says Sa. A single yellow fluorescent strip on the wall is an homage to American minimalist artist Dan Flavin, whose work with fluorescent tubes was a starting point for the whole project. “The interior had to grab people’s attention; it had to be inspiring,” says Sa.
The skylines and acrylic boxes, as well as another piece of wall-art with copper piping fashioned into the word “innovation”, are the work of Acrylicize, which worked with Scott Brownrigg on creating site-specific pieces. Look around and you can spy a few more pieces of art. There are two large egg-shaped sculptures by sculptor Andrew Sinclair: Going to Work has a roaring lion on the top, while The Big Idea features a spread-eagled cockerel. And instead of a rather ugly street view, those heading up the stairs are treated to photographer Barry Crawston’s image of the Wills Tobacco Company in Bristol, sourced from the Affordable Art Fair.
The reflections on a set of suspended Tom Dixon’s Mirror Ball lights add some distortion to the interior. They also provide a visual connection between the ground floor and what Black refers to as the “engine room”, the first-floor area with workstations for the 50 or so staff plus the now-ubiquitous booths for privacy. Nothing too out of the ordinary here, but it’s the client-facing downstairs that is the star attraction in this workspace. Says Black in conclusion, “We just want to show people what can be done.”
It’s hard to believe that internet calling company Skype has been connecting people the world over for nearly ten years now. Its survival is no doubt down to its successful harnessing of nerd power, which has kept the company on the cutting edge while so many others have fallen by the wayside. (Myspace, anyone?) Stockholm is home to Skype’s technocrats, and their expanding numbers meant a move to a disused brewery in the waterfront district of Slussen. The company hired Swedish multi-disciplinary practice PS Arkitektur to transform a place of beer-kegs into a state-of-the-art sound engineering facility. Project leader Mette Larsson-Wedborn explains further: “The Stockholm office is where they develop the audio visual part of the business so it needs a really, really good acoustic, which the old office didn’t have.” Also on Skype’s shopping list was a space that defined them as a brand, not in a bombastic or forceful way, but with intelligence and a sense of fun. “Skype wanted to show that this kind of office can work for a technical environment, not just in, say, the marketing department,” says Larsson-Wedborn. “It is not an office full of paper, with people in suits. It is geeks in jeans.”
The only problem was time. Skype had wanted to sign the lease on the building it had discovered before the summer break. Anyone who has visited the city at this time of year can testify to its 28 Days Later feel, so nailing down some hard details before everyone disappeared to the fjords became priority number one. “It came down to who could deliver the right plan and materials, so we knew what kind of costs we were talking about. We could do it in time.” According to Larsson-Wedborn, the building it didn’t offer much more than four bare walls and a metal staircase that connected the ground floor to a mezzanine level. The layout didn’t exist. First off, the practice tore down all the inner walls, constructing audio labs, chill-out space and a kitchen on the ground floor while reserving the upper level for meeting rooms. The feature that leaps out when looking at the fit-out is the contrast between monochrome geometric patterns and vibrant splashes of colour. “We were trying to use Skype’s own colour scheme, adding more colours from within that family, but we didn’t want it to feel like you’re walking through Skype’s website, or in a commercial for the company,” Larsson-Wedborn says. It wasn’t simply a case of extending the Skype palette, however: PS also wanted to create a sense of cartoonish hyper-reality, like you might find in a computer game: “It was totally the opposite of what we normally do.”
The practice drew further contrasts with its choice of furnishings. Soft amorphous seating is scattered throughout the ground floor, as if someone had dropped a bag of giant marshmallows. Alongside these blobs are angular tables constructed from wood veneer and MDF by PS specifically for Skype – neatly echoed in the triangular carpet pattern underfoot. Taking inspiration from Skype as a “global connector”, the practice conceived the carpet design as a series of nodes. “We were like, OK, that can be a pattern for the floor and then you could extrude some of these and get tables. The shapes become volumes.” More triangles appear in the office space courtesy of a bright orange electricity cable that zig-zags up and down a monochrome wall. On the large ground floor, the practice left much of the space open plan. Next door to the main working area is a calming blue breakout space with caged light bulbs dangling from the double-height ceiling. There are two coffee points situated on this floor and, in response to concerns that some of the space felt a little cold, Larsson-Wedborn and her team added leafy prints, green chairs and a timber floor made from factory offcuts to make the whole thing a little more bucolic: “We wanted it to be like a little oasis.” The natural element is continued around the stairs by some large light orbs. It’s a subtle-ish reference to Skype’s cloud-like logo and is designed to give anyone ascending the iron staircase the feeling of walking in the clouds.
So far so good, but the specialist nature of Skype’s work nearly cancelled out the building’s best original feature. As already mentioned, excellent acoustics were the most important technical aspect of the project, but they are a quality not normally associated with former breweries. The obvious solution was to create a large void above by adding a suspended ceiling. Understandably, Larsson-Wedborn was not overly keen at this prospect. “Skype immediately suggested that we should put a suspended ceiling, but that would have destroyed the industrial feel of the building. In the end we covered it in acoustic render – but it was a really big challenge to keep it.”
Acoustics also presented a formidable challenge on the upper level, where lower ceilings coupled with acoustic tiling could have resulted in claustrophobic meeting rooms. To attack this problem, hundreds of metres of sound absorbers were added to the walls, and extra insulation was laid underneath the rich carpets. PS then really went to town in the meeting rooms, with deep purple and vibrant orange carpets, and walls adorned with depictions of cables, nodes and headsets.
The office certainly doesn’t look like your average headquarters, but with all that colour, one wonders whether it will date too quickly. In the end, it went from industrial husk to high-tech office in roughly eight months. Needless to say the job gave Larsson-Wedborn her fair share of sleepless nights. “The shortage of time was stressful and made things a little difficult, but as a client Skype was very good,” she says. “They had
a good budget, they wanted it to be special and they were open to ideas. So in hindsight, it was fun.”
It has been said many times that the architecture of 200 years ago is proving far more adaptable to the demands of modern working than the purpose-built office blocks of the 1960s and 70s. Warehouses and factories in London’s East End have converted easily into living and workplaces for the creative industries, but those with fatter wallets tend towards the more prestigious West End, and it is here we find the latest commercial project by architects and interior designers SHH. Standing in the outer reaches of Marylebone (but away from the bedlam of Oxford Circus) the building, an early Georgian townhouse, is typical of the area. Its owner, an international shipping firm that has asked not to be named, occupies the first floor and is planning to rent out the other rooms in the five-storey building. A serious sort, the company director has thankfully eschewed any lame nautical references in favour of clean unfussy finishes coupled with a masculine penchant for black and chrome.
Grade II listing meant that, aside from some spit and polish on the Portland Stone facade, structural changes were not allowed. Not that they were needed: arriving on site, lead architect Brendan Heath found a building in good-ish anatomical condition albeit with some questionable decor. “The previous tenant was a bank, I think,” Heath says. “All the walls were magnolia and they had put laminate floor in the offices. It looked like there had been someone smoking in here for 20 years. Not particularly attractive.” The project’s tone is set by the imperious black front door, which swings open to reveal the gleaming walls and polished stone floor of the foyer. SHH stripped back and whitewashed the wood panelling. The whiteness is almost clinical, but offset by the ornament of the cornice and overhead pedant light. An architectural black lamp stands to one side, with a quiet elongated form that could pass for a hat stand. It works well in this transient zone. The reception beyond is framed by a set of arched double doors that could have been lifted from a conservatory. Here, Heath removed the layers of paint that had built up over the years and discovered series of glazed elliptical frames above the doors; restoring this element re-established a line of sight from foyer to stairwell. The heavy black marble reception desk reveals the client’s machismo tendencies. No amorphous blobs here, just hard decisive lines. “It had the potential to be a little bit 80s so we played with light and reflection by using black glass to reduce the blockiness of it,” Heath says.
To counterweight his client’s desire for a monochromatic palette, Heath installed a beautiful herringbone-patterned parquet floor, which stretches all the way back to the lift at the rear of the ground floor space. Dangling in the stairwell is a glass pendant lamp comprising three different sized blown-glass globes suspended at various heights, which replaces a naff brass chandelier. This feature proved to be one of the building’s trickiest elements: building manager Rocco, our amiable chaperon for the day, lowers the pendant to demonstrate the motorised hoist in the roof, while Heath explains the structural difficulties presented. “We had to put big steels in to redistribute the load from the roof down through the building. It took a hell of a lot of work above to get this thing to work.” The original wrought-iron balustrade was still in good nick, as was the timber handrail, but for a few chips here and there. Both have polished up nicely.
The director’s office on the first floor is a suitably grand home for a shipping magnate. We enter via the main office through some majestic double doors and are immediately bathed in sunlight streaming in through the sash windows opposite. To the right is a charcoal-coloured Cassina sofa and coffee table, but commanding the floor is a formidable blackened-pine desk. Heath points out that anything less muscular would be lost in a room this size, but undoubtedly power games are afoot here. It’s alleged that the office formerly belonged to a fashion designer, which explains why it once featured more mirrors than a starlet’s dressing room. The design team wasted no time in chucking out most of these pointless accoutrements save for one framed mirror. One of two original fireplaces remains, a mosaic-clad beauty depicting classical scenes. Mixing original with modern details Heath illuminated this already bright space with a Medusa-like Flos chandelier. The only obvious hint as to what occurs within these four walls is a model cargo ship, sadly not in a bottle. Next door, two employees work silently at a bank of desks. One senses there are few histrionics in the day-to-day running of the place so any reverb from the hard surfaces causes little upset. Models of the impressive fleet are also displayed here, alas rather boringly in wooden display cases.
Towards the back of the building there is a meeting room where a table and chairs in matching black and chrome are the order of the day. The slickness is tempered by the warmth of the parquet floor, and a wonderful old map of the world on the wall. Gardener Kate Gould’s work can also be seen here: she has installed a window box to block out the looming brick fire escape of the neighbouring hotel, as well as a series of taut wires that will eventually support a tangle of climbing plants, further screening the ugly view. As is inevitable with a building this old, the major work went on behind the scenes. Fixing cracks in the structure, repairing joists, levelling off wonky floors and even filling in an old chimney consumed much time and money. But when called upon to make cosmetic improvements, Heath and his team invariably hit the mark. Careful restoration of the ageing fabric, paired with modern lighting, have proved a sound formula in a project that could have veered into pastiche. Credit is also due to the hands-on client, who set a clear brief. “He had very firm opinions,” says Heath. “And because his old office was just round the corner he was on site a lot. But you’d much rather have that than someone who arrives at the end and goes: ‘What the hell have you done that for?’”
The first commandment of any creative company these days seems to be “Thou shalt inhabit a post-industrial building with lots of exposed ductwork.” So at first, it may seem peculiar that a trend-forecasting consultancy should want to move from a converted warehouse to a row of Georgian townhouses in a conservation area – but as a workplace concept, the warehouse has been done to death, and in some cases it doesn’t yield the best results for an organisation. (We at onoffice are slightly bored of reporting on it.) London-based group The Future Laboratory, ever ahead of the curve, bucked the trend back in January, abandoning the tin-roofed, open-plan shed it previously occupied in Shadwell for a row of 18th-century houses tucked away in a quiet cobbled lane near Spitalfields Market. It wasn’t the obvious step, but then, that’s what this company is supposedly all about.
Elder Street, a few steps away from the hustle and bustle of Commercial Street, is a spectacularly preserved piece of Georgian London. The Future Laboratory has taken hold of numbers 24-28, which sits atop a Roman cemetery. Rumour has it that since 1722 the buildings’ occupants have included a silk thrower, a worsted stuff weaver and, in 1857, Mrs Kivor Thomas, a cow-keeper (our favourite). Numbers 24 and 26 are the company’s main premises, with plans for 28 to be added later.
As it turns out, the shift to a higgledy-piggledy series of townhouses made a lot of sense. The company has three distinct arms: a trend-forecasting portal, a bespoke research division and a brand innovation team. These services had been incrementally introduced since the company launched ten years ago, and its office in Shadwell no longer supported the way staff worked together. Staff needed private rooms for work and meetings, client-facing spaces, workshop and seminar rooms and social areas. So, instead of a couple of gaping open-plan spaces, as before, The Future Laboratory envisioned Elder Street as a maison –
a home instead of a headquarters, so to speak. “One of the reasons we came to these buildings is that we were looking for a space that would reflect the way we work as a business, which is unconventional,” says Tiffany Arntson, who heads up the research division.
So, even though the intention was to pave the way for change, the new digs needed to stay true to the carefully engineered image and work ethos of The Future Laboratory, which, as Arntson suggests, is different from the average company with 40 staff. This is clear from the minute one steps through the wooden gate into the old goods yard, which has now become the central hub of the building. The interior had been pretty drastically altered over the years, with a substantial 1950s extension to the rear. The effect it currently gives is a bit like an enchanted factory. To the left, a reception/gallery area is dotted with art pieces from the founders’ own collection. At the other end, sunlight streams into the courtyard through a glass ceiling: here, a tiered vertical garden, its shelving system created by retail designers Campaign, contains vegetables and herbs that are tended by staff. “You need to be able to take people away from their desks and break up their day,” says Arntson. “Culturally, that development has been a very important thing for us to manage and it’s something we’re very aware of. So things like the vegetable garden are a good way to bring in that dynamic.”
Lovely as the garden is, the best bit of the ground floor is the new canteen situated just off the courtyard. Intended to function as a staff lunchroom as well as a client event space, it’s where the “heart of the home” message really comes into its own. (A member of the production team, who incidentally also coordinates care of the garden, was baking a delicious-smelling chilli and chocolate cake when onoffice swung by.)White tiles against blue-grey walls, black and white framed photography and a hodge-podge of school furniture purchased from eBay are all in line with The Future Laboratory’s “aesthetic DNA”, as Arntson calls it (an internal design team orchestrated the look and feel of the whole project).
“We love the canteen, it’s our favourite room,” Arntson declares. The charm and cosiness helps to draw people away from their desks, she adds. “You have to give people room to approach things from a different direction by slightly messing around with their senses. That is how we’d like to interact within the business and with our clients. It’s more pleasurable and it tends to spark people’s creativity.” If that’s not enough, toward the back of the courtyard is the “undercroft” space for art installations – the latest being a sculpture by Sam Spencer, sitting next to the bike storage.
The main work happens in a series of rooms on the first floor, reached via an industrial staircase, and also by another staircase next to the reception in the original part of the building. Moving through a small lounge area into a substantial seminar room for client workshops, the styling has been kept simple with the same sort of school furniture used in the canteen. The sizeable room just beyond has been stripped back from an ancient fit out when the building was extended, so it now has lots of light and exposed beams (post-industrial motif prevails!). The research and brand innovation teams sit here, and the massive cork walls are used for collaborative work sessions.
Up a few stairs and down a hallway, in the older part of the building (past a rather spiffing toilet, replete with Aesop soap and Dyson hand dryers, take note), is a smallish room where the trend-forecasting team sits. A research library and meeting table off to the side of the desks is perhaps the reason why it feels vaguely cramped – but the good thing is there is a small, rather adorable meeting room right next door and another quiet work room on the top level in case someone needs it. Up the original staircase to the second level are dedicated rooms for sales, the design team and finance. Further up still is a quiet room, administration office and a roof terrace (IT man Martin will be the volunteer beekeeper this summer). Add to this the basement bar (which onoffice didn’t see) and the canteen, both of which can be used for working, and there are plenty of options for flexibility. “We never had enclosed space like this before,” says Arntson. “In our old office there would have been a bunch of people in the middle of the room with desks either side.” In other words, it was doable, but it wasn’t ideal. “This project was about being smart,” Arntson concludes. “It wasn’t about us throwing money at a new building; it was about evolving our business into this space and creating a place we can grow and extend the different things we can do.”