Banking on Design
Neil M. Denari rebranded Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group with retail branches throughout Japan
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 11/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Five projects in three years. You do the math. And make sure to factor in the number 5,500. That's about how many miles separate the Los Angeles studio of Neil M. Denari Architects from the bank branches the firm designed for Japan's Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group—in Tokyo, Nagoya, Umeda, and Kobe.
The story starts when a consultant, CIA, hooks up the architect with the client. First order of business: an overhaul of retail banking, with design-intense interiors to signal the bank's significant branding and marketing efforts following a 2005 merger. The cool factor definitely came into play. Cool, in fact, was the conversational constant. Denari's challenge: designing offices and lounges that were experiential yet not too experimental.
For the test-market site in Tokyo's Shibuya district, Denari faced the added challenge of construction work limited to nighttime hours—no way would the bank shut down during the day. "We couldn't do more than surfaces," he says. So he gave the two-story building a facade of white-painted steel panels punctuated by computer-controlled color-changing LEDs. The ground level became a jazzy ATM hall to attract kids just starting out their banking relationships. Upstairs, their moneyed elders enjoy a crisp environment strong on horizontals: Corian and honeycomb acrylic panels, for example, transform an existing transaction counter.
The 20,000-square-foot project's success was measured by a business bump—a 100 percent increase, Denari reports. So he got a thumbs-up for the other branches. Streamlining the programs, he went full speed ahead.
A year later, Denari completed the 13,000-square-foot Nagoya location. That's where he developed the vocabulary that would recur through the remaining projects. "They were quick to OK our brand of fluid architecture for shapes," he says. "But we had long discussions on materials."
Here's the basic scheme: Each lounge has a swirling canopy as an architectural motif, its shape cued by the building itself. To play up the geometry, he made the canopies high-contrast compositions of dark wood veneer and white drywall. "Wood was the best way to deliver traditional warmth," he says. "We applied very thin veneers that are almost like paint—color with grain." After wood, the signature material is embossed anodized aluminum, found paneling accent walls and cladding columns. Each project has its own color: bronze, silver, gold, platinum.
The Shibuya facade's painted steel panels returned, in black, in Nagoya. Solid on the ground floor, they're lacy with cutouts above, giving the lounge a garden view. The perforation pattern might seem random. But those who know Denari know, too, that the composition of circles and blobs is precise to the nth degree.
Furnishings were left completely in Denari's hands, and they're what pumps up the space-age vibe. If NASA were to have an elite lounge for astronauts, any one of these venues could be it. For seating inspiration, Denari went right to the modern source. "I took the profile of a low Eames sofa as a model," he explains. "I know it from memory." Meanwhile, coffee tables consist of stainless-steel frames topped by translucent glass rectangles with plastic interlayers.
While furnishings help brand MUFG as an entity, different colors identify each branch—from the striped rugs set into the white floors on up. The sofas' two-tone vinyl upholstery follows suit. "It's an orange world in Nagoya," Denari notes. The palette goes green at the 3,500-square-foot Kobe branch, the least expensive renovation. In Umeda, various browns prevail. And in Tokyo's Ginza district, where MUFG keeps tony company with Yves Saint Laurent and Apple shops, the palette is an appropriately elegant chocolate brown with creamy white.
Both the Umeda and Ginza branches, at 4,000 and 2,600 square feet, respectively, were designed in tandem and opened within three weeks of each other. Technology, of course, made it all possible, lengthening the workday to 24 hours. "We'd submit digital files to the architect of record at 5:00 PM our time, which is 9:00 AM in Japan," Denari says. No foam-core models for this global enterprise. Fabulous design was no more than a mouse click away.