Welcome to The Showroom
At Keilhauer in New York, Yabu Pushelberg's interior encourages customers to sit down and stay awhile
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 10/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
It's key to the mission at Keilhauer, the Toronto manufacturer of contract furniture, to ensure that companies make excellent first impressions. Keilhauer's big, welcoming upholstered pieces are prominently situated in corporate lobbies throughout Canada, the U.S. and U.K., Asia, and the Middle East. But the manufacturer's New York showroom pushes old notions further, showing reception to be not only a place for furniture but also, more important, an event.
Just inside the showroom's front doors, a tea bar replaces traditional lobby furnishings. At the far end of the bar, which is built of cement-board, a small glass-fronted cooler holds complimentary bottled drinks. To boil water for brewing, an electric hot pot is concealed in a drawer. Other drawers hold tea bowls and a supply of delicate, crunchy cookies. It's tempting to pause for a moment to chat and indulge.
Keilhauer's hospitality exists in stark contrast with the real and perceived barriers that design showrooms put in customers' way. "They should feel they can stop by even if they don't have business with us that day," says vice president for sales and marketing Jackie Maze. Extending that idea, she instructed Canadian interior designers Yabu Pushelberg to approach the space as something of a home base for visitors. Two computers on steel-and-glass stand-up workstations are programmed to default to the Keilhauer site but are also available for checking personal E-mail or shopping elsewhere on the Web. And a generous coat closet allows visitors to stow bulky winter gear while visiting other manufacturers in the New York Design Center.
Keilhauer has occupied space there for seven years, but the new showroom doubles the size of the previous one. It wasn't easy to take advantage of the full 10,000 square feet, though, because it's distributed over an odd-shaped floor plate with a dogleg, explains Tara Browne, Yabu Pushelberg's design director for the project. She rejects the idea that showrooms should be a labyrinth, like lines at Disneyland: "Often, they've got a beginning and an end. Keilhauer allows the visitor some flexibility, but it's not just a warehouse. It has architecture and bones." Each of the building's exposed structural columns is framed with a large frosted-glass shadow box; within the frames, fiberboard panels painted the color of electric lime sherbet are up-lit with an integral spotlight mounted slightly above floor level.
To mark a division between the entry bay and a long gallery that runs parallel, Yabu Pushelberg commissioned Toronto craftsman Scott Eunson to provide an abstract screen. His solution: slim strips of reclaimed wood that rain down over a long tray of white stones. The installation subtly defines the two zones, while furniture groupings beyond remain relatively visible.
Furniture displayed in the gallery benefit from 14 large windows, an advantage rare in Manhattan showrooms. Unfortunately, the abundant natural light also came with a view of a bland, anonymous building across the street. To soften this sight, Yabu Pushelberg employed what Browne calls a "cocoon" of panels curving up and over the wall of windows and hovering just under the ceiling. In the daytime, the panels are semitransparent; at nighttime, they become opaque, making the space more intimate. They also hide the confusing tangle of white-painted pipes and ducts overhead.
Because this modular cocoon was being shipped in pieces from Canada, the fabricator suggested panel surfaces of white PVC, a polymer that Keilhauer avoids in its products. As a substitute, Yabu Pushelberg specified sparkly polypropylene netting from the same Canadian supplier that developed the mesh upholstery for Keilhauer's Simple conference chair. Track lights are bolted to the concrete floor behind the panels, shining upward to graze them from the rear. Opposite, fluorescent tubes up-light a long display wall with horizontal plaster stripes.
In lieu of any permanent signage inside the showroom, a video screen celebrates the strong family tradition at Keilhauer. Projections include childhood home movies of the five Keilhauer brothers and more recent footage showing important moments in the development of the company from its beginnings as a custom shop two decades ago. Since those days, the business has evolved a great deal. "In the Chicago showroom 10 years ago, when we were still a young company looking for credibility in the industry, we used dark wood-veneered walls for a traditional and sophisticated feeling," Michael Keilhauer says. "The new showroom in Manhattan reflects who we are now. We've discovered how to use design in the business to make it successful."