How Hut Sachs Studio designed an executive suite to showcase the contemporary-art collection of Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio
Neville Wakefield -- Interior Design, 8/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
All too often, corporate art collections see the light of day only in foyers, lobbies, and other common spaces inhospitable to the artwork itself. Not so at the New York headquarters of Barnes & Noble, where founder and chairman Len Riggio displays his personal collection of contemporary art throughout the 10th-floor executive suite. Designed by the partnership Hut Sachs Studio, the sumptuous interior serves art and literature while fulfilling the demands of business.
If the materials palette of the Hut Sachs design—travertine, brass, walnut, and glass—is idiomatically corporate, the overall composition and polish are anything but. From the white-bronze bathroom sinks and solid-ash bookcases to the custom metal door pulls, the level of craftsmanship has more in common with a high-end residence than the executive offices of a multimillion-dollar company.
Similarly uncorporate, says Thomas Hut are the "layering of spaces and use of translucency, bringing daylight into the interior." A wall of etched bronze glass, for instance, separates east-facing windows from the corridor angling inward to the sanctum of the library and conference room. Unlike the plastics that Hut Sachs used in a similar context at MTV Networks, the etched bronze glass at Barnes & Noble acts as a visual thermometer that registers both changes of position and balances of natural and artificial light—fluctuating between oblique, steely blue-gray and a brighter, backlit luminosity. Additional lighting, cleverly concealed in ceiling soffits, contributes to the overall effect of cool geometry and contemplative serenity.
All in the service of art. Riggio's interests lay very much in creating a space around the work. In the reception area, a black-and-white Ellsworth Kelly painting sets the tone for the play of architectural and pictorial forms. Elsewhere, major pieces by Andy Warhol, Dan Flavin, On Kawara, Donald Judd, and Alighiero Boetti speak to Riggio's longstanding passion as well as his firmly held belief in art's equal footing with literature and graphics. (The task wasn't always easy. A Nam June Paik television assemblage intended for the lobby proved too large, so a quietly allegorical video projection by Jeremy Blake now greets visitors instead.)
Interestingly, in matching Riggio's design brief, Hut and partner Jane Sachs found that much of their architectural input was in not attracting attention to itself. "Throughout the project, we faced the challenge of making sure the design wasn't turned up too high," says Sachs. Partition walls tend toward simple, clean surfaces that, rich in materials, nonetheless defer to the defining aspect of the art. Even a surface usually as inhospitable as glass is modified with a reinvented picture rail, allowing a series of portraits to punctuate an otherwise blank expanse.
A similar balancing act takes place with furniture. "Like the architecture, it plays second fiddle to the art, supporting it and enhancing it but never out-stating it," says Sachs. Contemporary versions of a Jean-Michel Frank chair attend the conference room's centerpiece, a 16-foot-long table. Finding a good conference table is notoriously difficult. Sachs and Riggio had been fretting about it when the latter recalled having seen something that met the requirements at Delorenzo 1950, a store on Lafayette Street. The only problem being that five years had passed since then. Taking a chance, Sachs and Riggio went back. They discovered that the table, designed by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings for Conrad Hilton in 1937, was still there but that someone else had expressed interest in it. Riggio was undeterred. As Sachs recalls with a laugh, "I've never spent so much money at such short notice."
The perfect domestic counterpoint to the industrial reiterations of the Judd wall sculptures dominating the conference room are the organic repetitions of the library's impressive table, made from hundreds of milled sections of end grain by New York furniture fabricators BDDW. The wall dividing the space from the hallway is clad in soft burnished bronze, and natural illumination from a skylight makes walnut wall panels and marble counters glow.
Riggio's preferred location for lunch and meetings, the library is where art, literature, and design become almost indistinguishable. Here, he is doubly indebted to the Dia Center for the Arts, where he chairs the board of trustees. Not only did the late Jay Chiat, a friend and fellow board member, introduce Riggio to Hut Sachs Studio—which had designed the boldly graphic office of Chiat's Internet content provider, ScreamingMedia, and his beach house on Long Island—but it was also through Dia that Riggio became familiar with Jorge Pardo, whose colorful tiles transformed Dia's ground floor two years ago. Pardo's work defies categorization, and the orange-and-yellow PVC forms of his pendant fixtures, hanging above the library table at Barnes & Noble, add warmth and quirkiness to a traditionally austere setting. "If there's one defining moment for me, it would be the Pardo lamps," says Riggio. "Without them, this would be a very different kind of space."
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