Genlser has created a diverse and versatile space for Airbnb’s SOMA HQ to fit with the company’s collaborative spirit.
The practice of working from home is given an unusual twist at the San Francisco offices of online property rental marketplace Airbnb, where employees can conduct meetings in rooms modelled on some of the homes listed on the company’s website. Upon entering the atrium of the former manufacturing facility in San Francisco’s SoMa district that houses the company’s new headquarters, the first thing staff or visitors see when they look up at the third and fourth storeys is a colourful cross-section of rooms borrowed from exotic locations including Bali, Milan, Hong Kong and Copenhagen. Airbnb’s lead graphic designer, Andrew Schapiro, who worked closely with the design team from international architecture firm Gensler on the project, says the intention was to immediately immerse people in the lifestyle of Airbnb’s users: “What we’ve been able to do in this new office is create a real tribute to the people who are building our brand every day around the world. It’s not about us applying an Airbnb aesthetic, it’s about choosing a diversity of places that create a sense of wonder and adventure.”
The design of the offices was the vision of Airbnb co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, who graduated from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) before moving to San Francisco in 2007. After renting out air mattresses on the floor of their apartment to cover rent, the pair recognised the potential for helping others let out space in their homes, and established the company with a third partner, Nathan Blecharczyk, in 2008. Since then, Airbnb has become a leading marketplace for temporary lodgings, with more than 500,000 listings in 33,000 cities.
“Throughout the office space you’ll see authentic designs by many of the world’s great designers”
Having outgrown its previous offices on nearby Rausch Street, the company was keen to create a space that feels like a home-away-from-home for its employees. It teamed up with Gensler, which was already involved in renovating the 100-year-old building at 888 Brannan, and set about designing the interior scheme around the unique collaboration spaces. Staff can work at a dedicated desk, or in one of the rooms inspired by some of Airbnb’s most inspiring homes. Employees were asked to suggest suitable properties, before the founders agreed on a selection that provides a diverse mix of characterful and practical spaces. Local studio Interior Design Fair took charge of developing the rooms, which were painstakingly recreated with the help of the homeowners.
The Airbnb team was keen to foster a collaborative spirit between staff, which it achieved by incorporating several breakout spaces where people from different departments were most likely to intersect. Clusters of seats, sofas and bookshelves create informal lounges in the main thoroughfare, while toilets have been strategically positioned away from the offices, in the atrium and next to a small gallery, so employees regularly meet on their journey (how they feel about the long trek to the loo goes unrecorded). A self-catering space modelled on a kitchen from a listing in Reykjavik provides a relaxed room where staff can congregate and chat while preparing a snack.
The designers also used unwanted furniture and hardware such as pinboards, easels and work benches donated by RISD to produce messier corners where teams can exchange and develop ideas. Schapiro says one of his favourite places is the production room that adjoins his team’s office, which contains storage, bookshelves, work tables and a 3D printer: “It provides an opportunity for my team and people from other departments to get away from their computers and actually start to make things, interact, share and create.”
“The office is a tribute to the real people who are building our brand”
A large, bright space at the top of the building houses the main cafeteria, with spectacular views of the city skyline and a wall covered in playful sketches by New York illustrator Timothy Goodman. This room can also be converted for use as an events and presentation space by rearranging the seating and employing projection screens and built-in multimedia equipment. Other special function rooms interspersed among the offices include a library and a circular meeting room based on the War Room from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 comedy, Dr Strangelove.
Having placed such an emphasis on celebrating unique design throughout the offices, Airbnb was disappointed when US furniture brand Emeco pointed out that a set of dining chairs seen in one of the publicity photos were unlicensed reproductions of its Navy chair. Airbnb responded by stating that it would immediately replace the chairs with originals, and Schapiro says its reaction reflects the value that the company places on original design. “Throughout the office space you’ll see authentic designs by many of the world’s great designers,” he says. “This incident provided a nice opportunity for us to bring in one more.”
While it isn’t particularly original for a San Francisco tech company to transform a redundant building into a quirky office – Twitter (see p40) and Pinterest (onoffice 82) have recently completed similar projects in the Bay Area – the success of Airbnb’s design is the way it acts as both a literal representation of its core brand values, and a diverse and stimulating workplace. Who wouldn’t want to join a meeting in a Parisian apartment or brew their coffee in an Icelandic kitchen?