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01 Jan 2007

Let there be light

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LindaKerstin Zumstein discusses stripping out, lighting up and going it alone with workplace designer Linda Morey Smith

By kerstin Zumstein

What is it about Linda Morey Smith? Her company is persistently popping up on the workplace radar. The London-based architecture and design practice, MoreySmith, has done interior fit-outs for Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (SCEE) and EMI headquarters, and just this week Nokia announced it has chosen MoreySmith for its brand-new offices in both London and Helsinki. According to a recent survey by Metropolis Property Research, the company is ranked in the top ten interior architects for the London market, securing a place among the likes of Gensler and DEGW. The many awards aside, ever since doing the EMI headquarters in 2003 MoreySmith has managed to occupy a niche in the market – one of non-corporate, fresh office design. But Linda herself seems to keep a low profile. So we decided to meet her and find out just how she does it.

In 1993, Morey Smith started her own company. Was workplace design her aim from the start? “I didn’t have an aim, to be honest,” she says. “I just needed to escape from where I was.” She had left City-based practice TTSP to work for Andrew Chadwick, “who was lovely as he was,” she continues, “but I just had to move on. So I told a few clients I was doing my own thing and they went: ‘Well, can you do this for us’.” And that was the beginning – at just 30 years old and with a team that consisted of herself, her PA and a student.

Capital Radio was MoreySmith’s first project, in 1996, and Sony Music soon followed. While still at Chadwick, she was beaten by architect Harper Mackay in a competition to fit out Sony’s London office. The company saw her as the strongest link at Chadwick and believed she wouldn’t be around for too long. As predicted, she soon left, founded MoreySmith and developed a close relationship with Sony, working on smaller projects. Thirteen years later the relationship is still going strong: she has recently won the contract to do Sony BMG’s offices in Kensington, which includes designing Simon Cowell’s new office. On the day we meet she is about to rush off to meet Cowell, but due to repeated delays caused by Sony’s facilities manager and the company’s overpowering paranoia of corporate espionage, we get a little buzz from the thought that the onoffice shoot may keep the notoriously impatient X-factor celebrity waiting.

So, in terms of design, what exactly is Morey Smith’s signature style? It is apparent that the bulk of her clients are from the creative/media industry. Although there is one recurring theme that stands out in her work and creates a persistent leitmotif: light. Talking through her latest projects the brief is always the same: “Go in and lighten it up.” At EMI, SCEE and the new Sony BMG space – a 4,300sq m former department store with no natural light whatsoever – the original offices all seemed to suffer from a lack of natural daylight and Morey Smith was called in to brighten up the spaces.

“We go that step further across the board,” Morey Smith says. “We’re happy to take an old building, strip it out, gut it, give it a lift. I’d never do a new build. I think it’s about doing what you know you’re good at.” For example, at SCEE the MoreySmith practice achieves the characteristic lightening-up effect through two arresting features: firstly, by completely reworking the initial outdoor space into a bright glass atrium area, and, secondly, by exposing the original concrete slabs and leaving this raw finish to give the working areas an immediate lift. The concrete ceiling does look unfinished and I’d imagine it will take some getting used to. “Its rawness contrasts with the pure clean finish of the surrounding fit-out,” Morey Smith explains. “The thought behind it was that with the staff being so young and the gaming industry having a grungy image, this warehousey feel reflects the company ethos.”

I hate to do it, but in the light of Morey Smith’s predominantly male client base, I need to ask the “as a woman in the industry” question. She is 43, has three children and her own thriving business, which I imagine poses a number of challenges. “Oh don’t get me started, every once in a while I’ll have a feminist moment. In reality the world is generally still male-dominated. It’s not that the industry isn’t changing, but I can certainly say that I never get work in the City. It’s not that we don’t go there and tender but they simply don’t get what we do.”

“You still get men in the industry saying things like ‘Oh it’s easier for you, you get all the work because you’re a woman. You just flash your eyelashes’. If people think it’s easier for women they must be joking!”

She tells me a story about a particularly intensive clash of personal and business worlds. “It was the day after I’d had my second child: a client who I still work with now said, ‘Listen I know you’ve just had a baby but can we just come around and see you.’ I’d only just got out of hospital. ‘We know you so well, we just want to run something by you.’ So I had five barristers come to my house the day after I gave birth. That’s kind of nuts really – now, looking back, I think ‘what was I doing?’, I shouldn’t even have picked up the phone. But this is just such a personal, people business.”

Morey Smith compares her work to that of a psychotherapist. “You have to sit with your clients, listen to them, give them nice things so they feel ok.” I can imagine that clients feel in safe hands with her. She comes across as being genuine and down to earth – none of the usual architect’s airs and graces.

I ask Morey Smith about her predictions for the industry. She says that while it is experiencing a general shift towards domestic interiors for the workplace, the creative industry looks for a more unrefined finish, a warehouse atmosphere. “The direction I see office design going is linked to the fact that more and more clients share an aversion to the corporate thing. Of course there has to be a brand, but people want room for personality and to control their own workspace,” says Morey Smith.

MoreySmith successfully implemented the domestic style at property investment company Exemplar’s new offices just off Oxford Street, with rugs and a home ambience to it. At SCEE, the materials soften the rawness of the finish: reclaimed timber, leather walls with the PlayStation symbols stitched on to it. “I’m having quite a leather moment,” laughs Morey Smith. “I just love using different finishes, it’s so much more alive to look at than a uniform design.” The glass atrium at SCEE is a good example of this mix – one side of the old building shows reclaimed timber, the other brightens up the space with its clean white walls.

MoreySmith covered the space with a slightly sloping glass roof, took off the cladding, opened up the window spaces and added protruding glass boxes over the window on different levels. Especially in comparison to the original building, it is remarkable how this space suddenly seems so much larger – it’s completely opened up. “And the great thing about the timber, besides the look,” Morey Smith explains, “is that it prevents that echo-effect that you find
in most glass atriums.”

Morey Smith summarises her style: “I like to play with light and colour to prevent that formal business feel.” At Cardinal Place, she was called in by Land Securities because they felt there was something missing in the reception area. She revived the space with light installations and artwork. Her artist husband, Patrick Burrow, is connected to British arts association Artsource, which often supplies artworks for her fit-outs. She is particularly fond of using paintings by London-based artist Jonathan Huxley, and his works appear in projects such as her fit-outs for Channel 4 and Capital Radio, as well as in her own offices. “I love his use of ultra-violet colour that glows,” she says.

At SCEE, the committee pulled the breaks on a more colourful design. “What they were saying was that due to dealing with computer games they look at colours all the time, so the workspace should function as a backdrop,” says Morey Smith. But colour is nevertheless dotted around the building by the usual suspects – colourful chairs, such as Vitra’s classic Eames chairs in the boardroom, Tacchini’s red Moon chair by Pietro Arosio in the reception area and the Butterfly chairs by Magis in the cafe area, which creates a great pattern when looking down from the work floors. Together with Modular Lighting’s special light installations, the workspace does indeed give off a non-corporate feel. “I mean, if someone wants an institutional building, they are not going to come to us, are they?” says Morey Smith. “There are enough people out there doing that. I guess we found a niche. We made a conscious decision not to grow beyond a certain point and as a result we’re in the fortunate position that we don’t have to take on any bread and butter work.”

Morey Smith has developed a winning formula that looks set to continue unabated – letting in light and opening spaces out, she brightens up even the darkest of office interiors.

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