Banking on Branches *
Individualized design by Soffes Wood Architecture &Interiors pays high dividends for North Fork, New York
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 12/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Mark Green, New York's former public advocate, is trying architecture criticism: "It's modern," Green observes, "yet inviting." What he's describing is a North Fork Bank branch in the Graybar Building, a 1927 classic linked to Grand Central Terminal. Green has come in to sign some papers, but he can't help observing how the bank's interior "perfectly complements the outside of the building."
In fact, Soffes Wood Architecture & Interiors intentionally alluded to Grand Central with a transportation theme. The teller's cages look like ticket windows, and photos of railroad cars hang on walls and against the windows. While the art moderne furniture recalls a Normandie stateroom, a niche contains a striking sculpture: a ship's propeller rendered in smoky glass. Fluted aluminum covers walls and ceilings, deco style.
At a time when Citibank and Chase have taken blue plastic as far as it can go, and newcomer Commerce Bank is working on its own version of fast-food architecture, North Fork is matching branches to their surroundings. "It's been phenomenally successful, judging from the feedback we've been getting," says the bank's vice chairman, John Bohlsen. "We're sure that design is a big factor."
According to Bohlsen, the bank "just fell into" the contextual approach after leasing space in an Upper West Side landmark in 1997 and hiring architect Eliot Soffes and designer Jim Wood, experts in preservation. When the community rallied around their sensitive renovation, Bohlsen was hooked. The firm has since completed an incredible 52 projects for the bank.
A major challenge is doing it all on a budget. Because North Fork is a public company, every expenditure is scrutinized, Wood says, but he maintains that individualization doesn't cost more, even if it takes more work: "I've looked at Chase and Fleet budgets, and they're spending about what we're spending per branch." In fact, he points out, good design can even save money by drawing customers to less-than-prime mid-block spots. (Commerce Bank, by contrast, goes for high-rent corners.)
One of the oddest North Fork locations is a 27-foot-wide, 187-foot-deep space on Union Square—on the second floor, no less. "Who would put a bank in a slot like that?" asked Wood. Nevertheless, his firm rose to the occasion with a glass facade that appears to hang from the surrounding buildings. That facade and a striking white terrazzo stairway lure customers up to the branch, its pitted concrete floors and exposed ductwork suggesting a photographer's studio crossed with a hotel lobby.
For a midtown Madison Avenue space, which for 60 years had housed Church's English Shoes, the partners deployed fittings redolent of a gentlemen's club, including dark mahogany paneling, leather upholstery, and a glass-fronted cabinet containing sports trophies and an old badminton racket. As at all of the branches, photos—many taken by Soffes—hang in double-sided frames against the windows.
"We like to have people walk up to the glass," Wood says of the photos' street appeal, adding that they "help start conversations between customers and employees, which is good for business." The images show non-financial subjects such as shoes (in the former shoe store) and fruit (overlooking the Union Square green market).
Making every branch different makes North Fork different. "It's no-brand branding," says Wood. In Chelsea, a branch appears to be a former gallery space. (It isn't.) A brand-new branch near Madison Square Garden features a sports theme. And the firm has begun designing an eastern Long Island building that resembles a shingle-style carriage house.
One flaw to the approach is the occasional mixing of metaphors: shoe store with men's club, train station with ocean liner. Then, too, the computer terminals and other equipment needed to run a bank are always visible, Normandie decor or not. In isolated instances, it's a case of overusing the obvious. The SoHo branch features glass-tiled walls, Christophe Pillet chairs, and stands of bamboo sprouting from beds of polished river stones. While the Madison Avenue men's club will probably look good in 50 years—classic is classic—SoHo may soon seem as dated as a passbook.
Still, most customers appear to appreciate the attention to detail, even if they're not aware of North Fork's overall plan. "It's the most beautiful bank branch I've ever seen," says one customer at Madison Avenue. As for employees, they may soon be asking for assignments on the basis of design. "It's a little cold for me," one teller admits of the Union Square branch. The Graybar Building location, she offers, is more her style.
North Fork Bank's branch in the Graybar Building, next to Grand Central Terminal, features color photos of locomotives.
The Graybar branch ceiling's fluted-aluminum cladding echoes the 1927 building's exterior deco detailing.
At the Union Square branch, photos reference the green market outside.
In Chelsea, laminated-birch lounge chairs by Alvar Aalto shout, "Not your grandfather's bank branch."
On Union Square, a terrazzo stairway lures customers up to the second floor, with its sectional seating and brushed-aluminum pendant fixtures; flooring is concrete.
SoHo's design includes stands of bamboo growing out of beds of polished river stones.