A Stuttgart, Germany, insurance company receives a heavenly assist from Ippolito Fleitz Group
Mairi Beautyman -- Interior Design, 11/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Mortality is a delicate subject. At the headquarters of Württembergische Gemeinde-Versicherung in downtown Stuttgart, Germany, life-insurance clients are cocooned in three intimate meeting spaces—glass-enclosed circular booths with upholstered partitions that provide a degree of aural and visual isolation from the bustling office. "The outside world disappears," says Peter Ippolito, principal of Ippolito Fleitz Group, which designed the freestanding privacy pods.
WGV, one of southern Germany's largest full-service insurance firms, recently expanded the headquarters from one building to a block-long compound comprising two nondescript 20th-century buildings. Hascher Jehle Architektur was engaged to join them with a new structure, and WGV held a design competition for a ground-floor, retail-like service center where clients meet with agents. The 6-year-old Ippolito Fleitz Group, known for an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates architecture with graphic and interior design, was selected.
The multifunctional nature of the 11,000-square-foot service center dovetailed nicely with Ippolito Fleitz's practice. When the project was nearly complete, the firm was also asked to design the staff cafeteria, a last-minute addition to the master plan. The client introduced its own unique parameters: Because WGV's pitch is high value at low prices, interiors couldn't be opulent or flashy. Reception seating shouldn't be too plush or comfortable, as that could imply long waits. And less-than-luxurious cafeteria chairs would benefit the bottom line by discouraging long staff lunches.
The appropriate tone of quiet understatement is achieved with minimalist furnishings—nearly all tables and desks are clad in white, seamless acrylic surfacing—set against a palette of black fabric, maple, and swaths of backlit glass painted a crisp blue-green, an updated version of the company's corporate color. "In the 1970's, turquoise was hot," Ippolito notes. "Now, not so much."
Although the bulk of the mostly open-plan, L-shape service center is in one of the older buildings, it acts as the entrance to the entire complex. At reception, IFG's desk is lit from below by fluorescent tubes so that it appears to float above the floor. The nearby waiting area is distinguished by another IFG element: A 26-foot-long, S-shape bench, its double-sided design allowing customers to face either the large windows looking out to the street or the interior wall of woven polyesterpanels. "It's about different people and different needs," says principal Gunter Fleitz. "Some like to see the front desk. Some would rather hide." Pendant fixtures in the form of large neon circles hang above, either individually or in overlapping groups, Olympic logo–style.
Customers are assisted in four zones. To the left of reception, a wing of six enclosed offices for making auto-accident claims is the only major exception to the open plan. Immediately to the right of reception, two service kiosks in white-painted steel allow the snappy renewal of auto-insurance cards. Beyond, agents sit at eight uniquely shaped custom desks. Each is a ribbon of white acrylic that flows from the ceiling down to the terrazzo floor in an angular U that Ippolito likens to "an upside-down omega." The black cotton covering the desk chairs—barrel-back versions for customers, high-back swiveling ones for agents—ties into the terrazzo's black-and-white confetti pattern.
The three circular life-insurance pods sit at the far end of the open area, a mostly glazed corner visible from the street. Accessed by sliding glass doors and fitted with white semicircular pedestal tables, the pods vary in diameter, and their enclosing partitions, upholstered in white faux leather, are different heights. Above each is a fixture in the form of a heavenly oculus, 9 feet in diameter and lit by incandescent lamps. Seen from the street at night, when further illuminated by the blue-green glass walls behind, the trio looks like a contemporary art installation.
The 3,200-square-foot open-plan cafeteria, located on the ground floor of the other existing building, is divided into four zones. In the entry, vending machines and a freestanding, Y-shape counter offer employees on the move a spot for a quick break. The hot-service cafeteria counter faced in the same terrazzo as the floor occupies a corner of the main dining area. Across from it, a cantilevered bar and four chrome and faux leather stools face an oak canopy enclosing eight railway-style booths, each with a table in the same wood and black faux leather–covered seating.
The central dining area is bifurcated by a floor-to-ceiling screen of bronze-painted MDF loops, which Ippolito describes as "a frozen mesh textile." On one side of the screen, square bistro style tables serve a wall-length banquette, its back paneled in padded leather—the real stuff, selected for its perfect off-white shade.
On the screen's other side is the dining room's main event. Crisp white Eero Saarinen chairs with seat cushions in the corporate color surround seven black marble topped Saarinen tables. Above each grouping, an illuminated dome glows like a guardian halo, an appropriately reassuring touch for an insurance company.
Photography by Zooey Braun.