MoreySmith has given Asos’s HQ an overhaul, giving it an eclectic edge without breaking the bank.
Climbing the steps through the two giant feline guardians of Greater London House, I join an army of fashionistas marching into work, and suddenly wish I’d planned my outfit more carefully. Home to online fashion retailer Asos (among other bodies, including the British Heart Foundation), the impressively grand Art Deco building in Camden was once the Carreras cigarette factory, before its 1960s conversion to offices saw it stripped of Egyptian-style adornments in an effort to modernise. Thankfully in the 1990s the facade was restored to its former glory, its 2.5-metre-high cat statues returned to their rightful territory (albeit replicas) and its columns given a colourful sprucing up. Now, the embellishments seem all the more fitting for its equally decorated tenants.
Looking at the workforce piling through the Asos sliding doors, it’s quickly obvious a) how young (and well dressed) everyone is, and b) how many of them there are. Since launching in 2000, Asos has grown exponentially – its active customer base increased 38% from May 2012 to May 2013 – and more employees are added every week. Its HQ, refurbished by MoreySmith, had to cater for 1,200 staff with an average age of 23, all within a tight budget and built in 20 weeks.
“They wanted something classic that wouldn’t date, but fresh and fun,” says designer Martha Nicholson Hart from MoreySmith. “Vintage, but not overdone, so there are certain finishes stopping it being too rough and ready. They talked about it being the shop window into Asos.”
The term eclectic is overused, but in this case it’s apt. The backdrop is white, open plan and light, with a lacquered MDF reception desk at the base of a triple-height atrium, discreetly inscribed with the brand logo. Past trendy receptionists atop Orangebox chairs is one of the project’s talking points: a set of floor-to-ceiling fins wrapped mostly in Asos’s own textiles. These aren’t structural, just a simple, clever link to the fashion-designer crowd, which can be rewrapped in new fabrics with the changing seasons.
“They wanted something classic that wouldn’t date, but fresh and fun – a shop window”
Beside reception, a dropped raft ceiling of reclaimed wood visually demarcates a waiting area, which like many of the breakout spaces features a spectrum of furniture styles and colours, as budget constraints compelled MoreySmith to use as many existing pieces as possible. Chairs from Hay, SCP, Vitra and Ercol surround another Hay piece, the Antique Quilt ottoman. With its textile patchwork, the ottoman came to epitomise the project and therefore reoccurs throughout. Opposite, four small meeting rooms are more corporate in monochrome, with a textile-pattern glass motif.
Asos previously occupied the second and fourth floors, meaning the employees were always jumping in and out of lifts. When the opportunity arose to take over the ground, first and second floors instead, they grabbed it, more than doubling their space. “They weren’t a joined company before, so our main brief was to unite them,” says Nicholson Hart. MoreySmith knocked through the middle, creating an atrium with a new central staircase, so giving the office a heart. An enormous projection screen brandishing the company’s promotional photography stretches from reception all the way up to the second-floor coffee bar, a structural feat that is by far the flashiest element of this project.
The stairs are made from reclaimed scaffold boards stencilled with numbers and symbols plucked from shipping boxes, tailoring measurements and washing instruction labels – a response to the client’s request for subtle visual brand reminders. “They wanted a link to what they do, but they didn’t want Asos plastered everywhere,” says Nicholson Hart.
A large cafe greets you on the first floor, with a mixture of canteen-style tables, chairs and benches providing plenty of scope for quick coffee meetings. The second-floor cafe is more chilled, with assorted soft seating from Morgan and two huge circular booths with oversized lampshades hanging over them. “Each floor has a different feel and purpose,” says Nicholson Hart. “The first is buzzy, colourful, a bit noisier. The second is calmer, more of a homey feel.”
Finishes tie through the scheme, such as ceramic tiles from Grestec and reclaimed wood, which is lime-washed or stained and used extensively on floors and raft ceilings. Geometric patterns also reoccur, from the entrance floor tiles to the translucent glass manifestations on enclosed meeting rooms.
“Each floor has a different feel and purpose”
When we finally go through the glass doors to the office space, a shock awaits. Rows and rows of bog-standard workstations are crammed into a drab setting unfit for the pages of onoffice, interspersed with countless rails of clothes. It comes as no surprise that MoreySmith had no input here; its budget was for communal areas only. Past miles of desks is an oasis, a breakout area named the ‘innovation space’ by Nicholson Hart due to its wall of mobile device docking stations for tech guys to test the website and app. Here lies another collection of mismatching but expertly curated furniture; battered leather sofas, Eames rockers, Vitra Tip Ton chairs, high stools… all vacant. Yet on our walk over, we see morning meetings awkwardly squashed around someone’s desk. Did no one get the memo?
“It’s a new thing for them,” says Nicholson Hart, referring to the idea of different settings for various types of work. “I don’t think they’ve worked out how they’re going to use it yet.” Clearly it’s a tricky behavioural shift, especially at this scale, and one that needs to be encouraged from the top down.
Back on the ground floor are other MoreySmith touches; a plush boardroom, more breakout spaces, a white ‘blank canvas’ room for press launches, and a large event space, equipped with a bar, foosball table and presentation area for talks. Apart from Friday drinks and the odd talk, this is another space that’s still open to interpretation by those guiding the Asos way of life.
Elsewhere in the building is the Asos catwalk, a white room where the clothing is filmed being strutted up and down, then broadcast online. When it launched, this made waves in the industry, proof that sos was not only fashion-forward but tech and business savvy. As far as modern workplace culture is concerned, the company is still learning, and its staid workspace remains disjointed from its public areas. Hopefully once Asos embraces the third space, it’ll give MoreySmith a call back to finish the job.