A glorious tapestry
Deborah Berke wove elements of a 1950s floor-wax factory into a state-of-the-art Connecticut headquarters for rug maker Elizabeth Eakins
Jane Margolies -- Interior Design, 6/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Elizabeth Eakins peered skeptically into the building. A 1950s floor-wax factory, it was the latest stop of a year-long journey in search of larger production headquarters for her namesake company, known for its exquisite handmade rugs. At 22,000 square feet, the factory was certainly big enough. Its location in South Norwalk, Connecticut, was also a boon: just a half mile from current quarters, so her workforce could stay together. But the cinder-block walls were filthy, the cement floor was cracked and stained, and the windows were so grimy that she could not see out. "It was a hole," recalls Eakins, who nevertheless spied a glimmer of possibility in the dreary darkness.
"It had potential," agreed architect Deborah Berke when she came out for a look at the wooden rafters, 18-foot ceiling, and sheer volume of space. "I could tell that it could be beautiful." Today, thanks to Berke, it is. The Interior Design Hall of Fame member and her staff at Deborah Berke & Partners Architects transformed something decrepit into wide-open brightness, reflecting the straightforward Elizabeth Eakins aesthetic. Offices, production areas, and warehouse operations are organized to optimize efficiency, eliminating the bottlenecks that previously plagued the manufacturing process. Better yet, the night-and-day transformation took a mere three and a half months, due to mutual admiration and Berke's experience renovating Eakins's house in nearby Westport. (Berke also has several Elizabeth Eakins rugs in her own home.)
Gutting everything but the building's shell of steel and cinder block was the first order of business for Berke. Up went the garage doors, big enough for delivery trucks, and in roared two bulldozers to plow down interior walls. After ripping out the sealed windows, the architect replaced them with crisp aluminum-sash versions. She repaired the cement floor and power-washed it. Having salvaged a collection of old industrial canopy fixtures, she installed them alongside high-output compact fluorescent pendants. She also preserved existing rolling fire doors and sprinkler valves as well as a steel staircase leading to a 1,000-square-foot mezzanine. "At $35 per square foot, the budget was strict. So we did a lot with paint," says Berke. Eakins and her business partner, Scott Lethbridge, chose white for the walls, taupe for the floor and staircase.
An even greater challenge than watching the budget was accommodating the work areas of Elizabeth Eakins's two divisions: the wool division, which handweaves textiles from yarn painstakingly dyed to customer specifications, and the cotton division, which designs less expensive rugs handwoven overseas. "It's the difference between couture and ready-to-wear," explains Eakins. Though the divisions could share some facilities, each needed its own domain, so Berke proposed a twofold solution. Placing wool and cotton on opposite sides of the factory, she defined the space as a whole with 12-foot gypsum partitions rather than full-height walls, so as not to disrupt the openness of the interior. Providing access to both divisions is a single lobby—where a wall of cubbyholes displays rug samples, and a massive old sprinkler valve stands like sculpture.
In the center of the factory, Berke positioned such shared facilities as two bathrooms, a staff kitchen, a cloakroom, a computer lab, and, most important, the production floor. This 36-by-92-foot raised surface of smooth oak strips is where rugs are rolled out, inspected, and finished.
Toward the back is the dyeing kitchen, with commercial ranges for bubbling pots of color, and the weaving studio, with four hardwood floor looms. "Because of the vapors from the dye pots and the fiber dust from the looms, these functions need their own ventilation system and air supply," explains project architect Robert Schultz. Berke's team handled the situation with transparent glass doors, so staff in the sealed areas feel less isolated.
Just as Eakins and Lethbridge had hoped, their business has benefited from the move. The larger space has allowed the cotton division to meet increased demand, while the more efficient layout has enabled the wool division to reduce the time it takes to go from order to finished product. Morale is another measure of success. "I like it here. It's comfortable," says Liz Parrish, head of cotton production, as she glances at colleagues stitching bindings onto rugs—and chatting like ladies at a quilting bee.
[photo to come]
A cotton-linen rug sample; photography: Eric Laignel.