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.”
Britons generally equate Comic Relief with red noses, fancy dress in the office and Lenny Henry not being particularly funny. That may or may not be accurate but it’s in the same spirit of fun that the charity has reconfigured its offices in Vauxhall. The result, finished earlier this year, echoes certain fundamentals of the organisation: optimism, cost-efficiency and a heck of a lot of red. For more than 10 years Comic Relief was spread across the ground and fifth floors of an 18-storey tower on Albert Embankment. It wasn’t ideal in the sense that staff had to shuttle between the two, but it worked. However, a familiar problem arose when staff numbers started to expand. More space was needed and the lack of connection between the two floors became exceedingly difficult – eventually it was clear that something had to change. One idea was to find an office elsewhere. But by this stage the organisation had grown to love its location, which has views of the Thames and sits thrillingly close to the MI6 HQ. “There was an affinity to the building and the locality. It suits a lot of their staff,” says Andrew Locke, director of fit-out contractor The Interiors Group. “It’s known euphemistically as ‘Charity Towers’ because pretty much 100 per cent of it is occupied by charities and the landlord is very supportive of those sorts of institutions.” So from a practical and financial point of view, it made sense to stay put.
The Interiors Group was asked to pitch ideas for an office interior that was fit for purpose and adhered to a strict budget. “I think pretty much from the pitch process we hit the right note, because in being a professional charity there is a balance between the corporate and practical infrastructure of an office carrying 200-300 staff, with not being overly opulent or flamboyant when you’ve got your investors, partners and your trustees in and out of the space every day,” says Locke. During campaign periods building up to Comic Relief or Sport Relief, head count can jump quite dramatically, he explains, meaning that extra space is required. “After doing detailed analysis on the space planning we were able to show them how it could work to accommodate all of their staff, including the expanding head count,” says Locke. When the first floor came on to the market, Comic Relief decided to take it and give up its space on the fifth floor. The first floor, which has two wings, would now hold the bulk of the workspace and meeting rooms, and eventually be connected to the ground floor by a new staircase.
Partnering with Jump Studios, renowned for imaginative corporate office design for the likes of Red Bull and Engine, proved a wise move. “It was a heavy Cat A job, so previously there was a very tired fit-out that needed to be stripped out completely. There were no mechanical services, there was no air conditioning or ventilation in the space, so we needed to achieve the design criteria but also address the complex practicalities of the refurbishment,” Lock continues. On the first floor, Jump designed a series of red box-like structures to organise the space and work as the key visual element. The structures do not fully extend to the ceiling, preserving a sense of openness and light, and hold secondary facilities such as tea points, storage and editing suites. A hard shoulder of open booths for photocopiers and water dispensers sits along the periphery and performs a helpful role by keeping the working area clear. Upholstered bench units in bright red are used for informal chats.
Obviously, it was important to find simple ways to brand the space without breaking the budget. “The brief from an aesthetic point of view was relatively straightforward – as much red as possible,” says Locke. Glass walls of the cellular offices have circular red manifestations, while other key walls are painted red, as are the light fixtures in the boardroom. In addition, a red goalpost detail pops up over various doorways, recycling stations and the reception desk. The other main aspect of the brief was to maximise the floor-to-ceiling height in the open-plan area, which was a challenge because cabling required a raised floor. The solution was to strip everything back and keep the ductwork and fan units exposed, albeit painted white. “We had debates about whether they were a feature, whether we give a sort of industrial look or blend them into the background. What we’ve ended up with is a white-out effect that isn’t as jarring,” Locke says.
Using functional aspects of the office as a visual bonus was a key element of the design, it seems. The new staircase linking the first and ground floors has been vital to the flow of traffic around the office, but it also lends a bit of character with bold graphics and colour. “It is the focal point of the business – it’s the hub that brings three separate wings together because you have the two wings from the first floor and the third wing on the ground floor. It acts as a crossover and transition space where people meet,” Locke continues. A wall was removed in the area at the bottom of the stairs, which now holds soft furnishings and cafe tables and leads into a massive kitchen facility. “Because a lot of the staff work on a voluntary basis, the breakout areas and lunch facilities needed to be top-notch. We’re in the middle of Vauxhall, so there’s not a multitude of restaurants on your doorstep, and also people who are working on low salaries or voluntarily are more likely to need to prepare and cook their own food,” Locke points out. “As I said, it was getting this balance between this practical working environment while not appearing too opulent,” Locke states. It would seem that the challenge was also in translating the Comic Relief spirit into a workplace – and with clever use of colour and materials, as well as thoughtful space planning, they pulled it off.
Traditionally, serviced offices were not the sorts of places to get excited about, at least not from a design perspective. Synonymous with bland, functional space, their convenience muffled any complaints about the aesthetics. So it went until the end of last year when The Interiors Group and Scott Brownrigg Interior Design completed an impressive transformation of 23 Warnford Court in the City of London for their client Esselco Services LLP. Combining the jazziness of a bespoke corporate office with the practicality of the serviced office model, Warnford Court is a bold attempt to blaze new trails. However, such an extensive makeover was not part of the original brief. “The client had originally bought the building with a view to simply refurbishing it,” explains Scott Brownrigg’s Cristiano Testi, the project’s lead designer. But as the economy nosedived so did the demand for large-scale upfront investment and the fully serviced office concept crept in. Revamping the aging interior proved far from straightforward. Constructed in 1884, Warnford Court’s handsome neoclassical facade hid a multitude of sins. Nearly a hundred office suites were spread out over six stories, while thick structural walls indicated a maze of disused chimneys snaking through the edifice. Added to this were large quantities of asbestos hidden, in some cases, under the floorboards and disabled access that, although compliant with guidelines, was far from ideal. “It looked dated and cheap,” Testi bluntly puts it. “The idea was to create an attractive environment that people wanted to go to work in, a kind of home away from home.” Of course, these words have a familiar ring, but its not often they refer to a serviced office.
They kicked off by reworking the reception, which was dominated by a lift in the middle of an open stairwell. Firstly, Scott Brownrigg transplanted the lifts to an adjacent lightwell behind the front desk clearing the slightly claustrophobic air. This move yielded an unexpected bonus: strip-out work on the shaft revealed an ornate wrought iron balustrade, a remnant of the original Victorian composition. It was decided to incorporate this into the refurb, creating a contrast between the modern feel of the space with the period detailing of the stair. Inserting a vertical light tube stretching the length of the stairwell further embellished the idea of old-meets-new. Again, this was not part of the original plan. “The initial idea was to build a back wall all the way up the stair with chandeliers and pendants, but we felt the light tube gave a continuity and could be appreciated on all levels. It creates a talking point,” says Testi. Another talking point is Hugo Nowhere, a suited shop dummy strapped to the wall with red gaffer tape. The bureaucracy-busting metaphor provoked a “Marmite response”, Testi says, explaining that its primary purpose is to “differentiate Warnford Court from being just another smart city building.” The main change made to the exterior concerned disabled access, where improvements were badly needed. Initially, Scott Brownrigg explored the construction of a platform lift at the main entrance, but ultimately it was felt this would compromise the openness of the reception. “We managed to persuade building control to allow disabled access at the rear of the building,” says Testi. To this end, a ramp was constructed to allow access to a small lobby where a platform lift carries people up the main flight of stairs to the ground floor. “It was a compromise, but in some ways the access was an improvement on the original plan as there is more of a lobby for the wheelchair user.”
The building’s bottom floor is devoted to meeting rooms ranging from 40-person conference suites to two-person interview booths. A business lounge featuring a large breakout space and touch-down areas forms a focal point. The icing on the cake, however, is the fully furnished flat on the fifth floor, which can be rented to clients or staff staying overnight. Sandwiched between these two contrasting spaces are a series of office suites housing 750 desks. Instead of cramming in as many units as possible (the conventional serviced office blueprint) Esselco went for a less-is-more approach. This policy in turn enabled Scott Brownrigg to fashion fluid, uncluttered office space, light years removed from the building’s previous incarnation. “It’s fair to say for my whole team it was quite a learning curve,” admits Testi. “Warnford Court was unique because it changed from office fit out to serviced office during the design process and everyone, including the client, had to take those changes on the chin.”