Art & Industry
MR Architecture + Decor creates an unexpected assemblage of architectural objets trouvés in the Valentine Group's new Chelsea offices.
Julia Lewis -- Interior Design, 3/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
DAVID MANN OF MR ARCHITECTURE + DECOR confides that the first phase of work on the Valentine Group's new, super-spacious offices and studio commenced long before the project's official starting date in September 1999. In fact, says the New York-based architect, "work on the new space began while we were still planning the firm's previous offices in Tribeca and attempting to fit the mercurial Valentine functions into a wide variety of Manhattan real-estate types." Even then, founder Robert Valentine, a graphic designer who has since become one of the country's most sought-after creative directors, ran a multi-faceted business (with clients such as Martha Stewart, Pottery Barn, and J. Crew) that challenged the limits of a conventional office. After nearly a decade in his "tight, low-ceilinged" Tribeca space, which Mann helped to make "workable" over the years, Valentine recently joined New York's creative exodus to Chelsea.
A protracted search for new quarters led Valentine to the city's gritty industrial edge, where he found a 6,000-sq.-ft. floor of a former factory building. The new location is ideal, he says, for the group's myriad activities, which include, but are not limited to, strategic brand positioning, advertising, and design, as well as photo-shoot art direction and production for companies ranging from Neiman Marcus and Aveda to Williams-Sonoma and Interface. "I always loved the West Side Highway with its industrial vernacular of parked campers and construction machinery, " says Valentine. Mann was brought in from the very beginning, he adds, "because I knew what he could bring to the project." The assignment, insists Mann, was "very much a collaboration," and the process, adds Valentine, "was brilliant and perfect." With a shared sensibility and profound mutual respect, the architect asserts that he and his client have long established a design shorthand that facilitates an ease of communication and ultimately "yields a better project." Valentine agrees: "We already have a dialogue. I love throwing out an idea and having someone else make it better." Indeed, the design process began with Valentine's creative vision and strong point of view. "Robert made a book for us-usually it's the other way around-filled with images that conveyed many moods. There were images of futuristic homes, historical spaces, and Jean Prouvé furniture alongside his own snapshots of garage doors, shuttered factory windows, and construction trailers. He gave us the basic elements."
Having established an aesthetic derived from the neighborhood's vernacular architecture and the space itself, which was "raw and industrial," Mann set about planning the interior to best accommodate the company's needs. Flexibility was a requirement, as was an inviting, communal plan. Above all, Valentine wanted a "pleasant, unique work space designed for the whole 12-person staff." Mann conceived the office as an "interior urbanscape of architectural follies" organized around the perimeter of an open, rectilinear space. Each of the sculptural "follies" serves a particular purpose so that the office's various operations and activities are neatly contained within distinct zones. Although there is no formal reception area, visitors are monitored by the administrators and freelancers who occupy an open, corner office made of wire cage walls and doors. Nearby, a pair of sawtimber-faced cabins contains private offices for accounting. Along the same wall, the architect placed a bank of rolling aisle storage units for books, files, samples, and other materials that can quickly clutter up an office. The glossy "Valentine red" mobile containers add a splash of color and create a corridor to an otherwise concealed storage room.
Positioned on the opposite side of the space, the design studio is defined by a six-ft.-tall wall of stacked railroad ties and a raised concrete tile flooring system that contains wiring for telephones and computers. The elevated studio features work stations assembled from industrial shop bench components and a magnetic pin-up wall made of metal floor panels. Also furnished from the pages of industrial catalogues, the adjacent mock-up area features an overscaled layout table and a wall of "graphically composed" metal storage cabinets, drawers, and shelves that are also painted vibrant red. Although Mann is known for his elegant furniture designs, he is an avowed fan of off-the-shelf pieces from industrial supply houses. "The furniture is not only less expensive than conventional office furniture but also more sturdy because it is built for industrial use," he says. But he favors its use for aesthetic reasons, too. "Because the pieces are so utilitarian, there is a simple honesty about them."
The design studio is flanked by Valentine's office and a kitchen area. The principal's corner office is fenestrated with factory sash doors, windows, and clerestories, which allow precious sunlight into the rest of the space. Furnishings bear Valentine's affinity for off-hand arrangements of tastefully worn vintage pieces, sleek custom designs, and modernist icons. Here, and elsewhere in the space, walls have pale blue painted wainscots, a graphic gesture that is in keeping with the loft's industrial past. With its ebony-stained cabinets and honed granite countertop, the fully equipped, working kitchen is among Valentine's favorite aspects of the new space. "The kitchen area is used not only for photo shoots, but also for meetings. When work is crazy, we actually prepare and eat meals here. We often cook and serve breakfast." For Valentine, this homey room reflects "a different business philosophy" and a "more livable" working environment that defies the conventions of the stereotypical office.
The vast, central expanse is a convertible space that Valentine likens to a playground. "I've always wanted a gallery-like space," he says. "It allows constant reinvention; we can adapt it to our needs." Designated for photo shoots and entertaining, this zone is occupied at one end by an elevated conference pavilion that alludes to the design of construction trailer. Fitted with translucent sliding doors and wall panels, the "minimalist-inspired" volume seems to glow and hover over the dark stained wood floor. This ominously beautiful form imparts a sense of mystery that delights Valentine.
A calming foil to a frenetic business, the office is now an important part of the Valentine Group's own brand identity. "The space fits with our philosophy of design," says the satisfied client. "It has a balance that I believe all work should have."
The project was completed in approximately six months. David Mann extends credit to project architect William Clukies.