Hitting it Out of the Park
Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum has moved up to number two on the Interior Design Giants list for 2004
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 11/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Big-time clients usually want it all. And Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum aims to give it to them, says Susan Mitchell-Ketzes, a principal at HOK Atlanta. "Bring it on," she likes to say. "Just bring it on—anytime, anywhere."
New numbers suggest she's serious. According to the 2004 survey of the top 100 Interior Design Giants, HOK vaulted over three rivals to land in the number-two spot, right behind Gensler. That's partially because HOK is truly willing to tackle projects that other global firms consider impossible. "We tell clients, 'Good, quick, or cheap—pick any two,'" Mitchell-Ketzes jokes.
Founded in 1955 as an architecture practice, HOK made its reputation with skyscrapers and stadiums. Occasionally, however, the spaces inside got short shrift. "If we did the interiors, they weren't that strong," notes HOK New York's Juliette Lam, chair of the firm's interiors group.
Rick Focke, design director for interiors in New York, says he initially resisted joining HOK. "The management was top-heavy," he says. Aware of these shortcomings and sensitive to the rewards of interiors work, president Bill Valentine has overseen a stunning transformation based, he explains, on a "heritage of problem-solving" and a hands-on approach.
Even Valentine, who works out of San Francisco, spends about half his time designing specific projects, a point that came through loud and clear when he and 11 HOK colleagues from around the world visited Interior Design's office to conduct a roundtable discussion. Valentine provided the keynote. "If we acted like a corporation," he said, "it would be a bore." Toronto's director of corporate interiors, Don Crichton, concurred: "In some ways, we think small. We're intimate with our staff."
The effects of this collegial spirit can be felt at all of HOK's 21 locations, from Saint Louis to London to Hong Kong. "Now," says Susan Grossinger, who directs interiors at HOK in Los Angeles, "we collaborate with architects as equals." (The closer relationship also helps the architects win new business from former interiors clients.)
HOK offices are large, averaging 100 architects and designers even after the dot-com bust, when staff was shifted into the more active, profitable sectors of higher education and health care. And the advantages of size extend far beyond the traditional economies of scale. HOK's pitches are strengthened by flexible staffing, which permits the participation of key players from different cities. "We can assemble a crack team and make it look seamless," says Sandra Paret, the chief administrative officer in Dallas.
The depth of talent and resources also allows innovation in certain key areas. It was none other than Jane Fonda's husband, Ted Turner, who introduced HOK to sustainability by requesting eco-friendly offices for Turner Broadcasting System in L.A. in 1998. "Sustainability is an issue a big firm can take on," explains Karen League, head of interiors in Atlanta. Adds Mitchell-Ketzes, "We've really made a commitment to carry the flag in the industry. When we put our book on sustainability in the center of the conference table, that answers a lot of questions."
The creative thinking doesn't stop there, either. HOK's largest branch, in London, is a leader in the development of office environments without assigned workstations.
"Quality of space is starting to matter more to clients," Lam notes, adding that the new Chicago office designed for ad agency J. Walter Thompson sports fashionable pink polka-dot upholstery. "Now that's a shock at HOK!"