Items filtered by date: April 2011

London-based designer Micheal Sodeau was the mastermind behind Design Junction's cool space on Via Savona in Milan. Onoffice editor Elizabeth Choppin caught up with him to talk about the design and the products he was launching. Click on read more to view the interview.

Familiar faces in their native Denmark, award-winning design duo Busk+Hertzog has swapped Copenhagen for Clerkenwell

Amid the battered leather sofas and armchairs of the Hoxton Hotel, people are doing business. Papers are spread out over coffee tables and smartly dressed arty types perch on velvet armchairs. The decor says ‘mildly ironic gentleman’s club’, its pretensions underlined by the efficient table service and aspirational prices. I’m here to meet Danish design duo Flemming Busk and Stephan Hertzog, the two eponymous halves of the multi-award-winning Busk+Hertzog.

Highly decorated in their native Denmark (they’ve scored so many Red Dot awards they could probably take out a patent on the name),the pair recently relocated from Copenhagen to Clerkenwell, a move to break the ennui fostered by over-familiarity coupled with a need to “live more dangerously”, as Hertzog puts it.

“Every time we present a new product, we try to push the client a little bit on how they look at themselves and how they are perceived by the market,” he explains. “But if you yourself don’t take any risks and only stay in your little safe world, you start to play safe yourself.”

B+H’s astonishing success has also played its part. With so many Danish companies wanting a piece of them, they began to feel conflicted. New horizons beckoned and they are now immersing themselves in London’s bubbling multicultural stew; today they walked to our meeting from their office in Clerkenwell. Walking, they both agree, is the best way to get to know a city.

“Every time we present a new product, we try to push the client a little bit on how they look at themselves and how they are perceived by the market”

As we settle into conversation, the complementary nature of their personalities reveals itself.

Dressed in designery black, the animated Busk engages with and occasionally battles the laid-back dimensions of his armchair while illustrating his points. His compadre is a more measured presence.

They both hail from different backgrounds: Hertzog began his career in the garment industry, helping to establish manufacturing plants in the former Eastern Bloc post-Soviet meltdown.

Busk took a more well-trodden path, graduating from Denmark’s Aarhus School of Architecture with a masters in furniture and interior design. Their combination of skills gelled.

“As an architect you look more at the concept or structure, and Stephan is much more about the detailing,” says Busk. “In the beginning I would have these crazy ideas and Stephan had the knowledge to make them. Suddenly we had a company!”

This was in 2000, and since then B+H has been nothing if not prolific, designing products for the likes of Magnus Olesen (distributed in the UK by Scandia), Hightower and Globe Zero 4, but they really hit their stride in 2008 when they scooped The Furniture Prize, the Danish furniture industry’s highest accolade.

Past winners include Danish design legend Arne Jacobsen, and the sculptural forms and clean lines of products such as K2, Capri and True Love clearly share schematic DNA with Jacobsen.

He remains a strong influence on Danish design, not least because there was no cult of exclusivity surrounding his products, as Busk explains: “We grew up surrounded by his products. We sat on Arne Jacobsen canteen chairs; the shower taps at my school were Arne Jacobsen’s.”

Although B+H’s work is very much rooted in the tradition of Denmark’s glory days of the 1960s and 70s, the pair see this as a foundation to build on rather than something to hark back to. “We have the Danish aesthetics, but we believe we are open-minded with an international approach. We would like our furniture to be a part of architecture and relate to it.”

“People react more positively to sculptural furniture”

The architecture B+H deals with, at least on the contract end of their business, is characterised by hard geometries in concrete, glass and steel.

“These buildings are what I would call very masculine,” says Busk. “If you place minimalist square pieces in them, then when you enter them you get a very cold feeling. When architects build these offices with huge atriums we analyse their purpose and how people use the space.”

Its Plamsa seating is a good example of this analysis: as a response to architects’ tendency to build chasmic atriums, B+H addressed the view from the offices above by creating curved soft seating. The amoeba-like forms avoid looking untidy owing to their complementary forms and infinite configurations.

“People react more positively to sculptural furniture,” says Hertzog. “I think that’s the reason why a lot of the furniture that’s considered classic today – Jacobsen, Eames – all has a little bit of softness.”

Just as Plasma demonstrates B+H’s awareness of how objects are viewed, when it came to designing Pause (a canteen-style office chair), the detailing was refined on the back, because that’s how it is mostly seen. Session, on the other hand, is beautiful from any angle: combining a stacking chair’s practicality with a Scandinavian crafty feel, it is precise but not overly formal. Of course, functionality is important to Busk and Hertzog, but their deep appreciation of aesthetics explains the one notable omission from their impressive portfolio – a task chair.

“That is something that mentally we have put aside, simply because it is one of those products controlled by a lot of functionality,” says Hertzog. “Some task chairs actually ruin the otherwise-nice environment they sit in. So we’re not going to attack the drawing board and make a fantastic task chair.” More’s the pity as one gets the feeling that the duo would make a decent fist of it.

“We’re not shy, but we don’t have this desire to be world famous. It would be like going on Big Brother”

London is proving a good fit for the pair so far, and there’s a sense that they’re enjoying its anonymity. They’ve shunned the cocktail party circuit, preferring to hang out in the local boozer.

“We’re not shy, but we don’t have this desire to be world famous,” says Hertzog. “It would be like going on Big Brother.”

One suspects this indifference is partly because they both came to the industry relatively late, and were already sufficiently adroit in business to build a career in this notoriously tough industry.

“You have to have big balls for this business. A lot of designers fail because it is difficult to be both emotional and creative on one hand, and a tough businessman on the other. They are flattered by big companies saying ‘You’re a nice guy, and I’d like to give you a chance.’ But no one helps you out in the design world without a profit at the end.”

Monday, 11 April 2011 10:28

Benjamin Hubert: living up to the hype

With 10 new products on the launchpad for this year’s I Saloni in Milan, product designer Benjamin Hubert takes a minute to relax, breathe out and explain how he got so far in so little time

It’s a lot of pressure to be labelled one of Britain’s most promising design talents, as Benjamin Hubert knows. The resounding success of the 27-year-old’s inaugural collection at London Design Festival three years ago, along with the subsequent flurry of awards and publicity, would be enough to petrify even the sturdiest ego attempting to live up to the hype. So far, Hubert has managed to uphold his wunderkind status – but with ten products set to launch in Milan this year, the pressure is definitely on.

When the onoffice team arrives at the designer’s north London studio on a crisp, overcast day, he waves us in from the door while balancing a phone on his shoulder, his lanky frame sat amid the organised chaos of the studio he shares with two assistants. It’s crunch time – details are being sorted for a number of projects launching with brands like Casamania, Örsjö, Zero, Fabbian, Nava, Kundalini and De Vorm. An iPad bag, designed for Colors Tokyo, has been delayed because of the natural disasters in Japan, but as Hubert says, “There are some things you just can’t get upset about.” Considering how much he’s achieved in such a short period of time, one gets the impression there is very little that could stop him anyway.

After graduating in 2006 from Loughborough University, the designer spent three and a half years working for large consultancies while developing his own projects on the side. It was during this time that he got to grips with the industry – what he could offer it, and what he wanted to achieve.

“You get a bit of ‘design by committee’ at those big companies and by the end you’re just reacting rather than setting out what you think is right,” he says. “One of the reasons I wanted to do my own thing is because whether I’m right or wrong, they’re my decisions.”

He worked at night and on weekends, and began to spend half his paycheck prototyping his own designs. The fruit of this labour was what eventually emerged at 100% Design in 2009. Entitled A Year in the Making, it was a collection of simple, decidedly charming furniture and lighting – included hits like the Labware series for Authentics, Heavy Desk Lamp for Decode and Float, a cork pendant for &Tradition. The types of materials Hubert used – kiln-fired clay, concrete, timber and recycled plastic –
gave the collection coherence but also struck a chord. It was perfectly pitched with what was going on in the economy and people’s overall attitude to design.

“I think people ‘got’ the pieces,” says Hubert. “They weren’t complicated things to understand. A lot of my work is very simple. You don’t have to be told a big story to understand it, or to fall in love with it, or to hate it,” says Hubert.

And aside from the fact that the products themselves were so well received, Hubert stood out from other young designers because he had managed to get seven British and continental manufacturers to produce his entire collection.

“I knew exactly what I was trying to do. I was trying to do something about brand association,” he explains. “A lot of designers create very interesting and beautiful prototypes but it only gets them so far. People want to know, can I buy this, who is producing it, what’s the story that’s bigger than the prototype?”

“A lot of what I do now is more in touch with materials, trying to create quite tactile products. I wouldn’t call it craft but it’s more in touch with the maker and the production process, I think”

Basically, from his first outing, Hubert proved himself to be a standout designer with diligence and frightening business acumen – a combination that has brought him to the fore and kept him there. So what’s been pushing Hubert this time around? A big chunk of the designer’s current projects derives from a self-initiated development of LED task lights, which he shopped around to manufacturers.

“I liked the idea of working with LEDs. I think it’s a very interesting technology – it allows new forms and details. It was an opportunity I thought we should look at,” he explains.

“A work light needs to be flexible, I think. There are too many things that pretend to be a task light but you can’t adjust them very much.”

Much like his first collection, the projects are inherently about the materials and the production process. Details of the Crane task lamp, previewed at Stockholm Furniture Fair, are based on the industrial metalwork associated with its Swedish manufacturer, Örsjö. And even though the shape of Loom lamp for Zero was inspired by Chinese lanterns, the project’s starting point was a 3D textile typically used in the bedding industry.

Hubert found the stretchy polyester fabric while trawling through a materials library and became excited because of the way it diffuses light, yet had never been used in that particular market.

“My interest in materials is a bit of a reactive thing,” he says. “In my training and in my work at industrial design consultancies, it was fairly hands-off when it came to materials.

It was focused on consumer products – injection-moulded plastics and a lot of theory. It’s one of the reasons I started exploring my own work. A lot of what I do now is more in touch with materials, trying to create quite tactile products. I wouldn’t call it craft but it’s more in touch with the maker and the production process, I think.”

This is definitely true of Pod, a new privacy chair for De Vorm, which first partnered with Hubert on his quirky Pebble chair in 2009. Pod uses pressed-felt technology on a large scale – Hubert believes it’s the largest segment of heat-pressed felt that has ever been used in a piece of furniture.

“A lot of manufacturers are asking for privacy chairs for office break-out areas or lobbies. The problem with a lot of them is that they are big, very heavy and unsustainably produced,” he says.

Because traditional upholstery uses a metal framework, it then needs foam, glue, and finally textile. It is labour intensive, expensive and difficult to recycle – so Hubert’s solution is to use a timber framework and self-supporting felt made of recycled plastic. The shape is in tune with the Dutch mentality of slightly caricatured furniture, he believes.

“It’s about accessibility and personalization”

But the designer is most excited about his collaboration with Casamania: the Maritime chair is a piece prompted by the shipbuilding process whereby a framework is created and then skinned with a membrane for shape and support.

“It’s my personal favourite. I think it’s the most mature piece of furniture design that I’ve undertaken,” he says, though he seems equally enthused about his other project for the Italian company – a modular storage system with an eclectic mix of boxes in a thin, gallery-esque framework.

“I love living in London. It inspires a lot of my work but this is quite a direct inspiration, especially walking around the Olympic site and seeing all of the urban redevelopment. I really like seeing the skeletal structure of a building being put up, and that informed this project,” he says. “It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – I think it will be quite polarising and that’s fine.”

Hubert’s LED task light for Fabbian, however, is almost guaranteed to be a hit across the board. Called Paddle for its fluid motion and form, the lamp is a highly resolved piece of design and is eventually revealed to be Hubert’s other favourite piece. The idea was to have the same manoeuverability and flexibility as an Artimede lamp, he says, but make it “more human”.

Certainly the combination of industrial and natural materials, in this case oak and stamped aluminium, is fast becoming a Hubert signature. “For me, this lamp and the Maritime chair – I’d like to own them. I’d like to have them at my desk,” he says. Other offerings in Milan will include two lights for Kundalini – Treis, a pendant of stamped metal with a softened triangular form and Frame, a small cast aluminium architectural wall light.

A second light for Fabbian, called Roofer, is based on the idea of making a shape by fixing rubberised polymer “roof tiles” to a framework.

“It’s about accessibility and personalisation,” says Hubert. “When this arrives with the user, you construct it yourself, you can arrange the colours as you like them. It’s about being able to own something you’ve had a role in creating.”

The three colourways will most likely be slate, terracotta and a green inspired by roof tiles found in north Africa, he adds. Lastly, bag manufacturers Nava will introduce a design from Hubert – a laptop bag that can expand to a small overnight bag, which was inspired by the designer’s own business travels.

“A lot of my work is very simple. You don’t have to be told a big story to understand it, or to fall in love with it, or to hate it”

A few of Hubert’s projects are not making it to Milan, he says, but it’s not for lack of effort on his part. The last few years have been a steep learning curve in how the design industry works, it seems.

“I had to go way above and beyond on some projects. Not just designing, or detailing, or talking to the factories or even finding the factories, but getting companies to understand the market,” he says.

It was a real struggle to get the Maritime chair pushed through, for example. After the first costing the manufacturer came back and said it was too expensive, which was quite heartbreaking as he’d been working on the project for six months and had already produced two prototypes. “When I got that email, I thought, ‘how can an industry work like this?’ If somebody says they’re not going to do a project, it needs to be a really good reason.”

So Hubert went away and put together a presentation about the market – showing price points and some opinions of retailers in London. He returned to the manufacturer with a packet of information and finally convinced them to produce the chair.

“I had to do something to keep it alive – it was quite a significant project for me. The only reason I’m in this position now is just down to bloody-mindedness and hard work. One of the partners I’ll be launching with said I was the most tenacious person they’d ever met. I think it’s because I’d probably do just about anything to make a product happen, within reason.”

This heartfelt admission brings to light the reality versus the perception of successful designers. No matter how much press or kudos a person receives, making it in the royalty-driven furniture and lighting industry is extremely difficult.

“Everyone wants to work for the biggest Italian companies but a lot of that is prestige. You have to go into it realising that you’re not doing it for money,” says Hubert. So what did he go into it for? “I think you create your own opportunities. I feel very lucky to have a working business that I can control, in an area that I’m passionate about, with clients that will support my ideas. That, for me, is what success is.”

Monday, 11 April 2011 10:13

Scotstoun House by Haa Design

Imagined more as a ‘pavilion in a park’ than a ‘machine for living’, Scotstoun House certainly seems to embody more than a little poetry compared to most common-or-garden, single-storey, square-plan modernist offices. This probably has a lot to do with its verdant South Queensferry setting, nestled as it is into one side of the wall of an early-19th-century kitchen garden, which once enveloped the previous Scotstoun Estate country house. As for the modernist workplace itself, designed in 1962 by Peter Foggo of Arup Associates as the firm’s Scottish headquarters, this also has its charms, particularly in the elegantly understated combination of concrete, glass and steel that has since become something of a cherished heritage for Arup. Indeed, so cherished, that it received B-listed status in 2005.

Fast-forward 50 years, and with a growing workforce and changing work practices, a dark, cramped and inflexible building was no longer meeting the noughties needs of the company. The situation demanded a rethink, which led subsequently to an analysis of the company’s current business needs – and ultimately, to a major upgrade and reinvention with ‘holistic sustainability’ at its heart.

“When it was built in the 1960s it was a very forward-thinking, aspirational building,” explains project architect Gillian Lockyer of Glasgow-based haa design, the firm charged with changing the fortunes of this “modernist icon” into a modern flexible workplace. “It’s also unusual in that the company that built it still own the building and the surrounding land,” continues Lockyer, “but 50 years down the line the situation has changed entirely. It predates Building Standards, and working in a modernist building has its challenges – they’re baking in summer and freezing in winter, not to mention the fact that you could heat half of the country with your bills. There was single glazing, little insulation, not an awful lot of cabling, and inflexible workspaces, which meant that it couldn’t adequately reflect or accommodate a forward-thinking, international, high-profile firm.”

The B-listed status of the building precipitated a series of discussions with Historic Scotland as well as planners, which eventually led to the acceptance of an extension containing support functions, in addition to a scheme that would maximise the effectiveness of the original building.

“It is very much a sustainable refurbishment and extension,” continues Lockyer. “Many of the natural qualities of the original building have been reactivated. We replaced the single glazing with double-glazed units and solar-controlled glazing, and also installed solatubes, so there is a lot of natural daylight entering the building now. Natural windcatchers (a passive form of ventilation) and passive cooling systems are also used throughout the building. The project received a BREEAM Excellent, which is quite a feat considering that, as a B-listed building, we couldn’t change its external appearance.”

Externally the original building’s simple modularity, with its ‘garden wall’ choice of materials, has been carefully restored, while internally its built-in elements, which were an integral part of its listing, have been retained, such as the pitch pine ceiling which has been rebuilt to match the original. “We enclosed the central courtyard and took out all the partitions in the existing building, then put in little pods – open-plan arrangements only work when you have adjacent break-out spaces,” continues Lockyer. “Glass louvers have also been installed around the internal courtyard to draw in light and air for ventilation, creating a very light airy space.”

The new extension echoes the existing building in its similar palette of concrete, timber and reclaimed stone, “but we’ve used the materials in a different format and in different ways so that there is a conversation going on between the old and new buildings without actually aping the original,” says Lockyer. “The design of the new extension is very understated, as we didn’t want to dominate the existing building. The base build needs to be subtle, not singing and shouting.” Set against this appropriately simple, neutral backdrop, a collection of furniture, light-boxes and feature walls now provide a shot of bright colour as well as texture and movement.

A new, prominently positioned formal entrance has been created at the nexus between the original Scotstoun House and the new extension. This not only provides a seamless transitional space between the old and new accommodation, but is also a far more prescient point of entry directly from the car park. “Very few people used the previous formal entrance, as the parking was located off to one side, hidden behind a wall,” says Lockyer. “We felt that something of height and presence was needed to draw you into the new entrance of building. This connecting link was a delicate balance, and we had to knock down part of the existing wall to create it. But we’ve since rebuilt this internally.” Lockyer admits that the whole project had a fair few challenges, not least because there were so many interested parties involved. However, following a lengthy process of “constant dialogue and discussions” with Arup as well as Historic Scotland and planners, these proved to be surmountable. Having a largely shared vision was key: “We all came from the same place and so managed to find solutions to difficult problems. It was a joint effort to make the building work,” she explains.

“This isn’t tokenistic sustainability. It’s truly sustainable in terms of its construction, running costs and the experience of working in it. Ultimately, this building proves that existing buildings can be reused. It’s an example of holistic sustainability that includes keeping the building on its current site and reusing existing building stock. But above all, it’s now a great place to work – giving the Arup staff a quality environment by adding to the buildings’ diversity. It’s a fantastic exemplar in terms of reusing an existing building, and a listed one at that.”

Art and interior specialists Acrylicize didn’t need to look far for their ideas when they were asked to inject some life into 81 Rivington Street, Shoreditch, an art deco civic building turned serviced office. The entrance installation, a 3D-collage of laser-cut MDF graphics, references the cultural heritage of the area, namely local architecture and landmarks as well as fashion, music and design icons, spanning an entire wall and dispersing onto another. Mixing shape, depth and detail, the graphics turn the entrance into an engaging space without drowning out the open, industrial feel of the interior. “We were intent on embracing the personality of the building as well as its locality,” Acrylicize’s creative director James Burke explains. “Since becoming serviced offices the space was left blank and uninspiring” – architects Wells Mackereth did the original conversion in 2008 – “so we wanted to reignite some of the heritage of the building and the area.”

In among the silhouettes of tube signs and the Truman Brewery, there are two mopeds – a recurring motif used by Acrylicize in its projects for repeat client The Office Group, whose directors both ride Vespas.

“We have a shared philosophy with the client,” Burke explains. “It was great to meet them and start working with their spaces.” To date the company has created bespoke art installations for corporate offices in Kings Cross, Islington and Tower Hill, which range from a 3D acrylic wall installation, a super-sized light bulb suspended from the wall and crammed full of miniature acrylic people, and an acrylic relief depicting Kings Cross station.

“We operate like artists, looking for the opportunity to try something new with every new commission,” says Burke. “From the client’s perspective, they know never to expect the same thing twice.” It’s a challenge Burke clearly relishes: “I graduated in contemporary art,” he says. “Maybe that explains the search for something new, not one winning formula to roll out.”

The first pitch Burke made with his business partner on graduation was a project for Wembley Stadium, where a giddy combination of raw enthusiasm and football fandom won them the commission. Since then they have worked on the Emirates Stadiums, hospitals, private homes and office spaces, coming at each with the same creative appetite, and the company has now grown to six. Acrylicise’s installations include a world map made of Monopoly homes (for a property broker); a tube map constructed from coloured ribbon and nails (for an estate agent); and a life-size banker strapped to a wall (installed in an office adjacent to the Bank of England). Its latest centrepiece, with architects Jump Studio, is a colour-changing light-wall for marketing and communications agency The Engine Group.

The Shoreditch project did nothing to dampenits slightly tongue-in-cheek approach. “When we assessed the core communal space at Rivington Street, the first thing it needed was brightening up,” Burke explains. “We were really eager to do a light installation. Because it’s the space people came to drink coffee and chat and it’s in the middle of a lot of communication-based agencies, we went with a flashing ‘Blah, blah, blah, blah’ neon-tube signage.”

To continue the theme, Burke created bespoke graphics depicting an old microphone and vintage gramophone, printed on textured wallpaper and framed in heavy wood. The space was finished in the same dark green Tektura wall covering, and Burke commissioned some free-standing units to create more intimate booths for impromptu meetings and breaks. The units were filled out with a collection of objects following a shopping spree of favoured antique markets and reclamation yards. Each of the meeting rooms are numbered in old vintage lettering, for which the team trawled all over London.“In a building of serviced office spaces, each company will do something different; we wanted to tie the spaces together, but in a loose way,” says Burke. The remainder of the furniture,  fitted out by The Office Group, includes a mixture of Knoll Bertoia chairs upholstered in pink, sofas from Naughtone, Ear-chairs from Studio Jurgen Bey, Eames Eiffel chairs, Ercol tables and a collection of pieces from different auction houses. “We always work with interesting buildings,” says The Office Group’s director Charlie Green, “and on this occasion we were lucky enough to have a beautiful listed deco building as our canvas. It was critical to get the right furniture and the right artwork to complement that.“We want to create spaces that are interesting and stimulating, so people stay with us,” he continues. “But more than that, it’s a desire to create office spaces that stand apart from the usual corporate offer.”

Monday, 11 April 2011 08:54

Swarovski by James Langford Architects

Woompf! It’s the scent that hits you first. We’re in Swarovski’s second-floor offices near London’s Piccadilly Circus and I suspect my nostrils are being treated to a very expensive kind of scented candle. Having outgrown its previous offices in nearby Conduit Street, the brief here was to create a vibrant space for both users and visitors alike. Visually, the reception area is bright white and sparkling, and the magpie in me doesn’t know where to look. There’s the Cascade chandelier on one side of the reception for starters. It’s a handsome, nigh-on ten-footer of a thing, weighing nearly half a tonne. “It came through the window and it was then fully assembled and connected,” remarks James Langford, principal of his eponymously named architects practice, which was responsible for the design of this workplace. Above the reception desk another suspended piece of lighting snakes through the air. Look underneath and large pieces of crystal change colour, thanks to some nifty fibre optics. The bespoke reception desk is inset with a strip of crystal and opposite that there is a display cabinet, made of lacquered MDF, showcasing several other products like an oversize upended jewellery box, made especially in Swarovski’s Austrian HQ. Then there’s a glitzy Arik Levy-designed Rock table and even a crystal-shaped carpet, while a series of hand-held lights that look like blinged-up yo-yos sit atop Zaha Hadid’s Serif 1 wall shelf complete the introduction to the space. There’s certainly no mistaking what they sell here.

The office had to function partly as a showroom, but not so much that it felt like crystal claustrophobia. “It’s a fairly neutral backdrop, which allows Swarovski’s different coloured items to be displayed,” says Langford. Staff sit to the left of the entrance at white Vitra desks, with adjoining cabinets along one wall. “The office was all about storage and efficiency,” adds Langford. Structurally, he has made some subtle yet fundamental changes. The existing ceiling levels have been raised and the air conditioning system has been made more efficient, countering the down-draught from the windows. The lighting system was also altered, so it now adjusts according to the amount of natural light coming in. Tord Boontje’s gorgeous Blossom light and a large Union Jack artwork break up the white space here; along the other wall are the directors’ offices, where you can glimpse a large-scale landscape of  Wattens, the Austrian village where the Swarovski story began, bringing a bit of humble Tyrolean charm to an otherwise terrifically sophisticated environment. “It’s like a panorama and is achieved by screen printing onto film, which is then mounted onto the existing glazing. Nadja grew up there and she selected this,” explains Langford. Ah yes, Nadja Swarovksi, the client, and the woman who in the last decade has brought in a design-orientated desirability to her ancestors’ business as vice president of Swarovski Crystal Business. Its list of collaborators runs like a veritable who’s who in contemporary interiors and architecture from Tom Dixon to Ron Arad. At last year’s Crystal Palace exhibit in Milan, for instance, there were installations from, among others, former onoffice cover star Yves Béhar, Belgian-born Vincent van Duysen and Tokyo-based Tokujin Yoshioka, while 2010’s Design Miami saw an installation by cutting-edge London practice Troika. Nadja’s office is at the far end and is unsurprisingly spacious. Ms Swarovski likes her bright colours if this is anything to go by – a zingy lemon-coloured task chair here, a highly patterned rug there, mixed in with some modern artwork. This must be one highly stimulating office.

At the other end of this floor there is a series of meeting spaces, with more jewellery displayed in niches built into the wall of the corridor. Storage was again an important function here: each of the meeting rooms has a teak-lined treasure trove full of samples to show clients and potential collaborators. Swarovksi’s Elements brand is dedicated to using loose-cut crystals in interior design – on textiles, walls, home accessories and furniture – so it’s important to have many different products to hand, to demonstrate all the possibilities. The meeting rooms have four light settings, depending on whether staff are demonstrating the crystals’ light-reflective properties, using AV facilities or simply requiring bright light for reading and interaction.
There are mannequins dotted here and there too, as fashion is another market the brand maintains strong links with, working with the likes of Balenciaga and Viktor & Rolf. Entertainment is another area where the firm has had a long association, from Bond (the chandeliers in the Ice Palace in Die Another Day) to ballet (Natalie Portman’s costumes for Black Swan) to any number of A-list pop stars’ costumes. In the space next to the meeting rooms, there’s even a ‘hall of fame’ where photographs of Prince and
Tina Turner in their finery are displayed alongside another snap of Wattens. And as if to reinforce the point that this is a company that doesn’t forget its heritage, there’s a portrait of Nadja’s grandfather Daniel, the firm’s founder, looming large on an adjacent wall. This is a much softer area, complete with armchair, low seating, rug and bookcase with smoked, mirrored glass. Upstairs is the project’s most recently completed phase, which originally started on site in August 2009. It’s home to more workstations and new glazed screens to maximise the light. There’s another bit of Zaha greeting guests here in the form of her Moon sofa, surrounded by a series of dramatically suspended lights, as if to demonstrate once again how seriously they take design, and designers. Flooring-wise, while there are areas of pale grey carpet, the main traffic area has a white stone floor. “It’s a Spanish limestone,” says Langford. “It had to be tough enough to withstand stilettos.” “Really?” I ask, whereupon as if on cue, a spectacularly shod specimen emerges from one of the meeting rooms, perfectly illustrating his point. So it seems that behind every glamorous office, there’s a strong sense of practicality, making the workspace function.

It’s impossible to miss Jakob+Macfarlane’s building: the Parisian architects’ bright orange cube bursts from its dreary industrial setting with unashamed vigour. While so much of today’s architecture frets over context, Le Cube Orange revels in fizzy exuberance. Its name, sounding a little like Del Boy franglais, is a misnomer. An enormous chunk bitten off the northwest facade, and a smaller nibble from another corner, shatter the regularity, and it’s all the more intriguing for it. This site undeniably needed a shot in the arm. The building stands in the old Lyon docklands, owned by the waterways agency (VNF) and littered with commercial debris: cranes, warehouses and redundant brownfield sites. In 1998 it became the focus of an urban renewal plan by public/private company SEM Lyon Confluence, which will eventually double the size of the city centre. The Lyon Confluence plan has already precipitated some high-minded structures. Anyone scouring the architectural press will have seen Le Monolith by MVRDV, an aluminum-clad mixed-use block of frightening dimensions and bleak public space completed last year. Compared to this mega-block, Le Cube Orange’s 6,300sq m seem almost dainty. It’s nevertheless proof of the city’s aspirations.

Despite the depressed surroundings, the location, adjacent to a newly constructed promenade on the banks of the Rhone, was a tremendous opportunity. Recognising this untapped potential, VNF launched a design competition in 2005, which Jakob+Macfarlane won. Brendan Macfarlane describes the site and his practice’s response: “It was an extraordinary ludic environment, and of course we tried to push that. It was the chance to propose something a little bit different. To challenge the context. And sometimes the context needs to be challenged. Otherwise, you can end up with one neutral object after another.” Anything but neutral, the practice’s multi-purpose building attracted the eye of developer, Cardinal, which thought it would be
a good idea to build it. VNF was in agreement, and construction started in mid-2008.

The Orange Cube houses a variety of spaces within its five-storey 29m by 33m concrete frame. Exhibition space dedicated to design takes up the ground floor, with multi-tenant office space above. Its inhabitants are a fairly disparate bunch: designers, lawyers and developers have all set up camp here, perhaps testament to the building’s appeal. At the summit the building steps back to create a 360º balcony for Cardinal, which inhabits the top two floors. But undoubtedly the building’s most dynamic feature is the ‘meteor crater’ on the north-west facade, a daring response to the age-old problem of natural light in office space. Eschewing the ubiquitous full-height central atrium, the practice punched an oval hole deep into the building’s heart to increase light in the workspaces. As the void tapers back, it turns skyward, creating a constant airflow throughout the building. Capitalising on their boldness, Jakob+Macfarlane created curved outdoor balconies for the four office floors on the inner facade of the crater. Although structurally impressive, the engineering is not as complex as one might expect, with the curvature acting almost like a cantilever: “If it was a square we might have some problems,” says Macfarlane. A fainter echo of this is found on the west facade’s bottom corner facing the river. Here, a curved incision creates a canopy for the exhibition hall entrance taking its cues from the three arches of the adjoining warehouse. “We decided not to get involved in making a join, and to create the impression of a cube that has just been slid alongside the old building.”

The practice took the motif of the curve and then extended the geometry to form circles, which perforate the aluminium solar veil enveloping the building. Sustainability played a big part in this design, Macfarlane explains. “The veil is held away from the actual glass facade and it acts like sunglasses or a hat, stopping the solar rays before they penetrate the building. That gives us incredible visibility. It is about 70 per cent transparent.” The perforations bubble up the side of the building with the effervescence of a fizzy pop, and Macfarlane explains the inspiration came partly from the movement of the river running below. “If you look closely [at the facade] it almost has a liquid-like quality,” he says. The glass facade within, receded 25cm from the aluminium veil, is also protected by manually operated blinds and workers can open the windows to cross ventilate the workspace. Further nods to sustainability come in the form of a heat pump under the Rhone, which reacts to seasonal temperature change. Naturally, it’s impossible to build something like this without provoking a reaction. Macfarlane admits the initial response was shock. “It wasn’t necessarily a good shock reaction. It was more like, ‘Oh my God, what is happening to our city?’” This attitude softened slowly after a couple of months,  though: “It just ultimately means something completely new has appeared and it takes a little while to get used to. The people who were tortured at the beginning have appropriated it.”