An Exercise in Design
Brent Capron, designer, gets a second-floor space into shape as New York fitness center Clay
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 11/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
As health clubs proliferate like Starbucks, the stakes keep mounting in the exercise game. Gyms are trying harder to distinguish themselves, touting more state-of-the-art equipment, more spa treatments, and snappier names for classes. Fitness and nutrition enthusiast Robin Brown set out to do away with conventions and comparisons when she opened her first gym, Clay, in New York. Neither purely gym nor undiluted spa, Clay displays elements of both: treadmills, recumbent bikes, free weights, and facilities for Pilates and Spinning as well as yoga studios and massage rooms. The programming innovation comes in the form of nutritional seminars and the like. But what really sets Clay apart is the finesse of the interior.
Considering Brown's holistic philosophy of well-being, not to mention her musings on clay as an organic material that's shaped and molded, you might expect Clay to suffer from New Age clichés. Fortunately, Brown hired the New York office of Studios Architecture to steer clear of Zen-flavored earnestness. Working closely with designer Brent Capron—they clicked immediately, she says—she watched as texture, space, and especially light came together to create calm amid the urban bustle. "Brent just got it, designwise," says Brown.
Capron points out that Clay is absolutely not a spa: "Members are there to work out, not be pampered." Still, the 20,000-square-foot second-floor space intentionally evokes a sense of relaxation. "It's about eliminating distractions," he says. "A lot of the design was driven by minimal detailing, natural greens and browns, no bright primary colors or loud music."
Capron kept the materials cool, and sleek, with a few flourishes. "We picked things that feel good to the touch," he says. Indirectly lit chain mesh makes a slinky, vaguely industrial curtain draping the walls that define Clay's core zone, which houses the locker rooms. Inside the locker rooms, separating the men's and women's shower areas, aluminum honeycomb panels laminated between acrylic sheets read as a shadowy, patterned veil.
Sunshine became a primary material, too. Capron cut numerous skylights in the building's roof, even above the showers. Exercise areas benefit from a south-facing wall of windows at the height of the treetops outside. Members get a leafy screen during the warmer half the year; winter's bare branches make for a grittier street view but let in sunlight when it's desperately needed. Throughout the workout areas, clear and frosted mirrors not only let members check their form during routines but also bounce natural light deeper inside.
Brown asked Capron to incorporate specific sensory experiences into his design. Because she likes the feeling of sitting by a fireplace in a lobby, a skylit conversation pit and synthetic-stone fireplace found a surprising home between cardiovascular equipment and the weight-training area. She also pictured, in the innermost part of the core area, a secluded lounge where members could unwind as part of their daily routines: watching CNN, checking E-mail, or sipping cappuccino. So she set aside a skylit area off the locker rooms and furnished it herself with Mies van der Rohe chairs, Saarinen side tables, and a fuzzy ottoman.
The rooftop offers a spare outdoor oasis in downtown Manhattan—and borrows a page from Philippe Starck's hotel designs. Lounge chairs are for sunning; tables are for alfresco takeout (organic salads and protein bars from Clay's downstairs café). Treated-canvas curtains shelter cabanalike spaces for post-workout or post-massage interludes. For livelier moments, there's an all-weather pool table, with a playing surface of waterproof acrylic.
The conversation pit and the lounge aren't the only spots where residential-scale fixtures and furnishings keep Clay's atmosphere soothingly non-gymlike. They make their presence felt even on the shock-absorbing rubber exercise floor—which Capron customized to match a leather sample the color of tea leaves. Units of ebonized cherry, topped by reading lamps, serve as towel holders. A dispenser for chilled, scented washcloths is actually a wine refrigerator that he sheathed in ebonized cherry, replacing metal racks with glass shelves. Even the weight machines, benches, and Pilates equipment take on a lighter, less institutional touch with faux-calfskin vinyl upholstery instead of standard-issue black.