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01 Feb 2007

sevilSevil Peach, the founder of Sevil Peach Gence
Associates, holds the key to unorthodox office design. Kerstin Zumstein talks to the media-shy interior
designer to reveal the secret of her silent success

Sevil Peach was right there at the beginning as one of the first interior designers to shake up the conventions of office design, injecting life into the workplace. It all began in 1994, when she was commissioned by Barclays Bank to redesign one of its offices in Birmingham, and as a result created one of the first flexible, non-territorial workspaces. Since then her company SPGA has continued to challenge office design conventions for many a blue chip: the groundbreaking workplace for pharmaceuticals giant Novartis in Switzerland (May 2005), Deloitte headquarters in Prague (January 2006) and Microsoft’s new headquarters in Amsterdam, due to be completed in spring 2007. But dedicated industry insiders will know the London-based designer best from her strong link to Vitra.

However, Sevil Peach is not a Vitra story. Yes, the company’s legendary CEO Rolf Feldbaum is indeed a big fan of hers – he commissioned SPGA to do his own office in the Frank Gehry building next door to the Vitra headquarters, its showrooms in Los Angeles, Barcelona and Amsterdam, the Vitra shop’s relaunch and exhibition space in Düsseldorf, and Vitra’s Orgatec stands in both 2004 and 2006, as well as consultation sessions on new product ranges – but Peach is ultimately a story of experimental design.

“Workplaces are living spaces,” says Peach, turning down the music as I enter her office in London’s Butler’s Wharf. “Nowadays it’s common knowledge that offices function as a social hub. But I always felt that you can’t apply a formula to designing spaces, especially not if their success is based on human interaction.” We sit down at a large inviting table, and she looks me straight in the eye. “So, how does this work, what do you want to know?”

What I’m curious about is how Peach has remained in the background for so long, why SPGA has shunned the limelight despite working on prestigious projects for over a decade. Born in Turkey in 1949, Peach moved to Swinging London in the Sixties, “for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones”, later studying Interior Design at Brighton University and becoming design director at London-based design practice YRM in 1988. “As a design director you suddenly become more a manager than a hands-on designer,” recalls Peach, so in 1994 she established SPGA with architect Gary Turnbull – to do real design on a human scale.

SPGA’s workplace focus came through the nature of their first clients and their projects since convey an ethos preached by most workplaces designers today: anti-hierarchical open plan with break-out areas and home aesthetics. But Peach has been producing these spaces for years now. “We don’t have a PR agency, don’t really have time for marketing either,” she says. “We delve from one project to the next and because we swore from the start always to remain between six to eight people – and eight is already too many – our priorities lie elsewhere.” These priorities lie in challenging design.

Peach is not in the business for glory. In fact, she feels uncomfortable that the interview is focusing on her. “We’re a team here, everything is a group effort. Gary Turnbull is partner and then there’s Fiona Kelly who breathes inspiration.” Her workspace has a family feel to it – they all bring each other things from the shop, take turns in cooking lunch for each other, and no one is spared buying the toilet paper. SPGA lives the work model it teaches – collaborations without limits, a work flow without decree.

We start going through the models of Peach’s past and current projects that frame her office’s walls. “When designing open-plan areas, we tend to break the vistas down into well-digestible sizes,” she explains. “And that size is often modelled on our own offices here, a dimension that feels right to a human being: big enough to breathe while small enough to convey a comfortable sense of intimacy.” She always looks for an architectural solution to interiors: “We do architecture inside a building.”

Peach has often been asked if SPGA would consider product design, especially since she is known to have consulted Vitra on many a product. “In the process of our work we often come across needs for products, like a good coat hanger or simply a good executive desk. If the money’s there we’ll design a customer specific piece. I have at least ten product ideas in my head that the industry is missing. But if you turn each need into a product, you will end up with an office space that looks and – worse even – feels like a showroom. Not to mention the environmental aspects.”

It is the feel of SPGA’s designs that makes them successful. Peach remembers the company’s first hit – sketching plans for Barclays’ headquarters executive floor in Lombard Street from a balcony in Turkey and faxing it back to London. “We won the contract and worked from home, sitting at a big family table, exchanging ideas and energy. We thought it was a fantastic way of working.” And that work ethic of fusing energies is felt not only in the end product but continues in her current work style. The first pioneering project to follow was Barclays’ Property Holding Limited at the Kennedy Tower in Birmingham. While at YRM, Peach had worked on airports, retail and residential, but always feared an office commission due to the sheer monotony of office layouts at the time. However, this particular project struck a cord with Vitra’s Rolf Feldbaum. When Feldbaum saw the images he exclaimed: “This is the first time I’ve seen a great office.” What he was really seeing for the first time was a flexible workplace, encouraging dynamic work styles and breaking down office convention into a humanly palatable form. As a result, Feldbaum approached Peach to design Vitra’s headquarters in Weil am Rhein, Germany.

“First I thought he was joking but then he followed up and gave me a simple brief: he wanted a ‘breathing’ office. We had proper stage fright but then surpassed not only his but our own expectations.”

“I always call the Vitra HQ a room with a view,” Peach says, smiling. And indeed the design enables a view of the scenic Rhein Valley landscape from all areas of the previously dark and enclosed building. SPGA experimented with various ideas, such as incorporating a sleep room, which has since been taken out because no one really used it. Other elements, such as the bare bones of the layout, have stuck with many new projects since. Peach sees the office as a city, describing the corridors as streets, where people naturally move through the space.

She introduces platforms into an open-plan space to create a sense of action through areas rising from the floor. Canvas walls support interaction by functioning as white boards, inviting people to express their thoughts. “But ultimately,” Peach says, “we are asked to design spaces that will facilitate a transit from one work culture to another.”

One of SPGA’s key features is a sense of movement. It’s achieved firstly through visually flowing design elements, like variations of heights and strong curves, and secondly by the way people are encouraged to move within the space. This motion really comes to life on her floor plans. They work like a Swiss Army knife, with functions flipping out of each joint, something happening everywhere and at the same time visually tucked away to prevent a sensory overkill. SPGA’s relocation of fashion brand Mexx in Holland is a good example of creating this sense of movement within a building. “We manipulate height and colour to create motion,” Peach explains. For instance, a long table flows through the room with seating options in a variety of heights, sizes, materials and colours, visually bringing it to life. Movement is also created by people’s interaction with objects, for example when choosing how and where to sit. This coming together, this fusion of people is Peach’s trademark. She proudly points out the people in the project pictures: “These aren’t staged, it just shows how the employees are using the space.” Various work styles are demonstrated on this one photo. “It’s all about the end-user, they have to like working in the space. I’m not saying ‘we love end-users’ but we embrace them,” Peach laughs, but immediately returns to her passionate presentation. “It stems from the genuine empathy we have with people.”

“We also would never tell a client, ‘oh you are a nomadic worker’. We don’t preach the going terminology, but we are on a mission, a mission to create environments that support the human side of work,” Peach states. “What I don’t get, though, is if everyone is acknowledging that future work styles imply knowledge workers sharing knowledge, why are most office builds still the same? Why are new-built office blocks still complying with old standards? There’s only so much you can do as an interior designer going into a rectangular building with lift shafts and tight corridors. I guess it is a lack of visionary developers! But if anyone fancies taking on the challenge of redefining the layout of an office new build they can feel free to get in contact with us.”

The architecture that SPGA creates within the buildings is drawn from a set of tricks. Like a roadmap, the workspaces have posts along the way, signifiers to guide through the floors. “We use these signifiers to trigger associations, like the colourful rug at Deloitte or the rocking chair at Novartis,” Peach explains. “There’s a psychology behind it. Sometimes we like to use furniture as a sculpture, as with the Zanotta coat hanger, that we’ve used in various projects in different ways.” At the root of each floor plan is the aim to break monotony. “Not for the simple sake of it – each element has a purpose. In a vertical building it is crucial to create a heart. I’d say we are good at understanding the potential of a building.”

The knack for playing tricks was especially well demonstrated at Vitra’s Orgatec stand in 2004, where products and classic items were placed either larger than life or in miniature format on the walls, like Alice in Wonderland. “Work has got to be fun,” Peach exclaims, with a twinkle in her eye. “For instance, we’re currently designing an executive office for a client in Istanbul, who most of the team haven’t met. So we blew up a photo of him to life size, stuck it on cardboard and cut it out. Now it circulates the office, sitting on the desk of whoever is currently working on it as a reference point – why not?” Introducing an element of a project that’s work in progress into SPGA’s London workplace is common practice for the company. “When working on Vitra’s LA showroom, I fell for the pink bougainvillea and decided to make them the colour motif of the project, so throughout the duration of that job we had bougainvilleas in our office here in London.”

So that’s how Peach works – sharing inspiration, thinking aloud, inviting people to explore her thoughts. How did she
stay so down to earth in this notoriously attitude-filled industry? “You know, in the beginning of my career, I used to get really nervous, feel a certain stage fright. My father gave me a tip, an old theatre trick I still apply today. He said: ‘When you’re confronted with a client or designer, simply imagine them naked, then you’ll remember that we’re all just humans and that will ease the nerves’. So, in essence, I have undressed every single one of my clients, male or female, at some point or another. But don’t write that …” she laughs. But besides revealing her technique for keeping her cool, the story discloses the basics of her work. For Peach, there is a certain equality, a human dimension that everyone relates to, and that’s what she puts at the heart of her designs. It’s a truly holistic approach, and it’s a wonder it hasn’t caught on sooner.

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