An increasing number of international companies with a global reach are taking offices in London – and growing rapidly. Law firms are no exception, with many bringing American corporate specialists to London en masse to deal with legislation and mergers.
You might expect a slavish adherence to corporate colour schemes, perhaps beige or grey, for an American office. So the glossy, primary blue company sign of Bryan Cave’s London HQ, designed by HLW International, is an indication that this company is taking advantage of its London setting to break away from such precedents.
“It is a lot bolder than the company colour,” says HLW director David Siverson, who ran the project. “But it’s a colour that worked with the building.”
Siverson is no stranger to subverting expectation. “When we first opened Schroders Investment Management’s offices in Gresham Street, people would go in and ask for directions to Schroders because they thought they were in an art gallery,” he says.
This penchant for the unconventional, combined with the Richard Rogers-designed building chosen for the relocation, set the benchmark for the rest of the project.
88 Wood Street was originally commissioned for a Japanese bank in the 1990s, but when twin economic recessions in Europe and the Far East prevented the bank from moving in, it became a speculative build with a lot of character.
It has gone on to win awards aplenty for its jagged profile, mix of concrete and glass and quirky use of primary colours – mainly yellow and blue.
But that’s not all that sold the building to HLW, which had been commissioned to find a base in this area of the city into which Bryan Cave, cramped at its current premises, could relocate.
“Two floors were available, which means there is room for expansion down the line, but it is room we could use,” says Siverson. “We could have attorneys on the seventh floor and use half of the sixth floor, while renting the rest of it out. What sold it was the two separate lift cores, making the space easy to subdivide – each company with its own entrance. But in a building with such a strong aesthetic of its own, we didn’t want to work against this.”
Fortunately, Brenda Roberts, Bryan Cave’s director of administration, was prepared to jump onboard and run with the proposal put forward by HLW. “If we ever wavered from the original proposal, or compromised in any way, she pulled us up,” adds Siverson. “Now, if you compare our rendered concepts with the real thing, you can hardly tell the difference.”
Another party to respond positively to the brief was B&B Italia, known for its beautiful and à la mode furniture. B&B corporate manager Paul Statham got behind the idea of producing top-quality furniture for the partners’ floor and offices. “For us, it was perfect,” says Siverson. “We wanted to move the office away from something overly corporate to something more hotel-like, or homey. As a result, we took B&B standard components never used in an office before and turned them into work walls, complete with a tall thin unit wardrobe for suits.
“The long-hours work culture here called for something with a feel of luxury about it. B&B ironmongery and hardware, with its soft-close mechanisms, creates luxury with minimalism.
“B&B is known for choosing only five per cent of the best wood stock. The wood we used had been rubbed down seven times to bring out the colour and veneer, and then treated with a subtle, silvery stain, created exclusively for the project.”
The grey is an important part of the colour scheme, softening the blue and white, and working with the two unadorned concrete lift columns that run through the building. “The task chairs arrived first time around in black, but we returned them for grey,” says Siverson. “The soft grey and dark grey really take the edge off the scheme.”
Large, shiny-grey porcelain tiles have been used on the floors. The blue sign is back-painted glass, while in the open-plan areas, the desks are chrome-framed white lacquer.
The combination keeps the project as glassy and reflective as possible, “to give a more luxurious and expensive feel”, explains Siverson. Despite the floor-to-ceiling glass, buildings on all four sides of the London Wall location mean that there is not as much light as expected, so the reflective surfaces help to keep the environment as light as possible. “The key is to use darker or mid-range colours to avoid glare,” says Siverson.
Another way of keeping the space light is the white, helical staircase, which leads from the sixth-floor reception and boardroom up to the attorney floor. “The only steer we had was that they wanted a spiral staircase,” says Siverson. Bringing together each layer of the shell-like structure turned out to be “the most stress-inducing part of the job”.
“We had a contractor to do the steel core, and another to build up the wet plaster glass reinforcement,” explains Siverson. “Doing this around curves was hard, and people were back in four or five times to make this perfect.
“Then there was another contractor for the stainless-steel slots and handrail. And another for the stairs and tread. From the outside, it is a very clean and simple staircase, but inside, the different materials meant it was our responsibility to make sure all four sub-contractors did a perfect job.”
The need for privacy was also a driving force behind the design. “Lawyers need a lot of reading and thinking time,” says Siverson. “Status is also important, so people want their own office. The floor zigzags and corners create a feeling of little neighbourhoods. We wanted to avoid that anonymous open-plan feeling.”
Roberts took a brave move in not showing the partners the final product until the closing stages. “We were in the final week of snagging, and she was showing the partners round,” recalls Siverson. “We were listening out with our fingers crossed.”
Although it’s a bold departure from Bryan Cave offices on the other side of the globe, the response was good. “The managing director sent pictures to all the other offices – Chicago, Washington and St Louis, the city where the company started out.
“It is as if, being in London, you are allowed to do things: use colour and be daring. London is one of the best centres for architecture and design. People soak it up in restaurants, clubs and so on. And so do we.”