Top of the Class
Kostow Greenwood Architects thought of Smart Design's headquarters as a homeroom—blackboards and musical chairs never looked so cool
Jessica Dheere -- Interior Design, 3/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
When one designer hires another, the potential for creative differences runs high. But so does the possibility for creative synchronicity. Such was the case when Smart Design's founder and CEO, Davin Stowell, brought in his longtime friend Michael Kostow to handle the interior of Smart Design's headquarters in New York.
Smart Design is the company known for retooling the vegetable peeler for Oxo, the toothbrush for Johnson & Johnson, and the portable photo printer for Hewlett-Packard. "We're about products that make an emotional connection with people," Stowell says. "To look at a product the way we do takes an ability to work together from the very beginning to the end."
For the company's 25,000-square-foot office in the landmark Starrett-Lehigh Building, "the very beginning to the end" meant two years of back and forth between Stowell and Kostow Greenwood Architects as they proposed, tested, and tweaked every element. "It makes such a difference to have a client who really understands what he's getting," Kostow says. "In other cases, we often end up making changes and don't know why."
The why was rarely in question with Smart Design. In an ongoing quest to encourage the collaboration so essential to innovation, Stowell believes in an open plan with few walls and fewer doors, furnishings that can be easily reconfigured for laptop-toting guests, and—most important—special bays where all the items related to a single project can be kept, from every type of floor-cleaning device imaginable to samples of potentially dirty flooring. "Not the typical program," says Kostow, whose firm has built a reputation on work for creative clients such as MTV and CNN.
A glance behind the 16-foot-high red linen curtains screening the project bays from unwanted scrutiny, perhaps by competing clients, makes that mode of working look like a lot of fun. So do the large red and black letters spelling SMART across the top of a partition in the reception area. In the kitchen, foosball and air-hockey tables wait for some spirited competition. Whimsical "grade-school" elements, as Stowell calls them, include a blackboard wall—a requisite in a Smart Design office—as well as 'the white crossing-guard figures that appear on the walls, floor, and doors. The Shaker-inspired milk-paint palette is blue, yellow, orange, and green.
As for the desks in the open studio, Kostow suggested 120s, shorthand for the boomerang-shape models that "corner" at 120 degrees to make clustering easier. Stowell initially shot down the idea, fearing that the arrangement would make him and his staff feel like they were working in a beehive. But then a Smart designer mocked up a four-desk cluster that would allow people to face outward—and catch one another's glance or strike up conversations. Just like that, the boomerang came back, complete with seamless epoxy work surface, wrist-friendly edges, and adjustable-height legs. Equally changeable are the studio's lottery-drawn seating assignments, which evolve with project teams. "Getting new neighbors means getting new perspectives," Stowell explains.
Comfort was clearly a priority—every employee was asked to sit in every task-chair candidate for at least half a day. Still, Stowell and Kostow agreed that some of the rawness of the space should be preserved. The concrete floor wasn't covered, only sealed. And many furnishings and materials have an industrial feel: the refectory tables of processed alder in the staff lounge, the fiber-cement panels cladding the enclosures of conference rooms, the black polypropylene pinup surface that looks like so much smushed elbow macaroni.
The industrial accents lighten up considerably on sunny days, when south-facing clerestories above the project bays turn their swath of curtains a Christo orange. And that's not the only contemporary-art allusion. A trip toward the north windows passes the three main meeting spaces, in the middle of which stands a tilted arc built of translucent resin panels—a reference to the structure's monumental cousins by Richard Serra. This sculptural wall offers privacy to the open meeting area, directly behind, but doesn't obstruct the million-dollar view through the Starrett-Lehigh Building's stunning ribbon of 20-pane windows. Now that's smart.