100 and Counting pix
Swanke Hayden Connell celebrates its centennial
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 1/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
The Fuller Building in New York, 1929.
A mansion nearby, 1931.Cass Gilbert's West Virginia capitol dome, repaired and regilded in 2005.
Restoring the Statue of Liberty, 1986.
British American Tobacco in Moscow, 2005.
The Atlantic Terminal Office Tower in Brooklyn, New York, 2004.
Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. in New York, 2003.
A rendering for Moscow's Project Slava, six mixed-use buildings slated for completion in 2010.
|Mega-firms can also be powerful brands, often as not borne aloft on the surnames of founders and partners. One century in the business has seen a parade of principals on the letterhead at the New York firm currently known as Swanke Hayden Connell Architects. Consider the resourceful and socially connected Alfred Easton Poor, whose last name is familiar from its connection with Standard & Poor's. He presided over the firm when it was called Poor Swanke & Partners. "I want the Swanke design for the Poor fee," new clients would quip—frequently enough to give the ambitious young architect Richard Seth Hayden a serious headache. "People fell off their chairs laughing," Hayden recalls, in a tone that could never be mistaken for nostalgia.
Times change, and names change. Today, Hayden is senior principal as well as resident historian. "I've been here for almost half of the 100 years," he says with a laugh.
From the earliest days, he notes, his forebears were distinctive for a hybrid practice combining interiors and architecture. Law firms were among the first corporate interiors clients, though the architects also designed the Fuller Building and scads of tony neoclassical residences in the city and on the North Shore of Long Island.
Hayden identifies the building boom after World War II as an era that diverted attention away from interiors. The 1960's and '70's saw the resurgence of interior design industry-wide but especially at this firm, thanks to changes on Wall Street and the rise of huge corporations. "We struck a vein," Hayden says. "It was important for the design community and the pocketbook." More historic commissions followed, from the construction of Trump Tower—in 1983, when Der Scutt was a principal—to the preservation of the Statue of Liberty in 1986.
Besides the Donald and Uncle Sam, patrons have ranged from American Express to Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. For the McGraw-Hill Companies, the firm experimented with modular offices. More recent innovations have included hoteling and one-size-fits-all work spaces that give giant law firms the flexibility they need. What does consulting principal Richard A. Carlson say about senior law partners who object to working in cubicles? "Pay them more."
Progressive as Swanke's ideas about space planning may be, the firm philosophy seeks to avoid pushing any particular aesthetic. Of course, hindsight is twenty-twenty, Carlson admits: "In the '70's and '80's, we used the same chair on every job." (A bucket chair by Ward Bennett.) These days, Carlson makes it his business to share the history of the firm with new employees at a lunch every six months.
Now 300 strong, Swanke has grown both organically and through strategic acquisitions of potential competitors in fields such as health care. "It's easier to acquire, provided you have a pocket that's deep enough," Hayden says. What must follow, however, is an all-important campaign to maintain continuity—retaining employees and providing uninterrupted excellence. "You don't buy the relationships. You buy the introductions," he notes.
Annual interiors fees of $12 million, generated by eight locations worldwide, place Swanke in the 49th spot on the list of Interior Design's top 100 Giants for 2007. New York is the flagship, with satellites in Miami and Washington, D.C. International expansion has helped to offset hiccups in U.S. economic cycles, since Europe generally runs eight months to a year behind North America.
Swanke's petite office in Paris tackles lots of law firms. London is known for higher education. There's a busy outpost in Istanbul. And Moscow is designing a complex of six buildings that will incorporate class-A office space and retail, plus parking for 4,000 cars.
The firm produces a dizzying array of architecture and interiors, in roughly equal proportions. The next several years may see interiors swing as high as 70 percent, Hayden says. Carlson mentions retail and restaurants as potential sectors for further exploration.
How will that firm of the future be branded? "Clients like to deal with the living, not with the dead," Carlson notes. Hayden mentions the controversial possibility of switching to an acronym. Just as likely, he may find himself repeating advice that the late Albert Homer Swanke gave on his way out the door: "I'm leaving my name to you, Richard. Don't misuse it!"