The J Records Jam
To make his office rock, music legend Clive Davis called in architect Mark Rios and designer Vicente Wolf
Donna Paul -- Interior Design, 5/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
"Architecture," said Goethe, "is frozen music." At J Records, music and architecture unite to make a hit. But that's nothing new for Clive Davis, founder and chairman of J Records. He's used to hits. Legendary for turning musicians into pop icons, he also knows how to assemble a winning design team. Always a key player, involved with each and every detail, he hired two principal collaborators for the 25,000-square-foot Manhattan office: Los Angeles architect Mark Rios of Rios Associates and New York interior designer Vicente Wolf, who'd previously worked together on a guest house at Davis's property in Westchester County. Gensler came on as executive architect.
Davis chose the office for its location, in a 1929 building on Fifth Avenue. "The crossroads—the center of the most important city in the world," he says. The first hint that something unexpected is about to happen appears when the elevator doors open. Rios says he viewed the spare sixth-floor lobby as a "decompression chamber," and watery blue light washing the walls creates a subliminally cleansing effect.
To pass from the reception area to the inner sanctum beyond, one ascends a short stainless-steel ramp inspired by the bridges of traditional Japanese garden design. "One must cross to enter a new reality," Rios explains. At the top of the ramp, a 6-foot-wide frosted-glass door acts as a scrim, suggesting the drama to unfold.
The door slides open. Enter the world of J Records.
Two large video monitors with images of five-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys share the stage with spectacular views of Central Park in a VIP waiting area intended to make everyone from rapper Busta Rhymes to the rock group Soil feel comfortable. A curved chenille-covered sofa anchors the seating area. The scale of the furniture is exaggerated, the glass floor is lit from below, and walls are curved to enhance the surreal quality. The space seems to float above the city, says Rios, thanks to the huge windows. Strong elements in their own right, they were skillfully incorporated into the design by just "letting them be," he adds.
As the space unfolds, ceilings soar to 14 feet, unusually high for an office. The central spine functions as a wide boulevard where employees commute up and down to interact. The activity of continually crossing paths generates community spirit and creative energy, essential for visiting musicians as well as the staff. "We have an enormous work ethic," Davis says. "We live and breathe the music business—people are spending 12-hour days here, so this place had to have soul." It also had to be state-of-the-art, integrating technology into the design. This technological flexibility is evident in the raised floor, a 5-inch platform that allows the wiring to be updated with ease.
Partitions that divide workstations in the open section of the plan terminate in light columns that extend to the ceiling. Ceremonially marching down the center of the space, these strong vertical elements imbue it with rhythm, drama, and scale. Private offices ring the perimeter, separated from the workstations by walls of frosted glass.
The two conference rooms are independent entities, one located at each end of the central spine. These prismatic volumes lean and tilt, their geometry deliberately askew. "They're sculptural geodelike forms, designed to be gems," Rios observes. Unconventional, perhaps, but a typical conference room would be out of place. "This company is as uncorporate as corporate gets," Wolf says of J Records, which is partially owned by BMG. "It's all about the music and the artists." Because Rios saw the conference rooms as primal cocoons for listening to music and shaping ideas, the spaces are detached—not only from the rest of the office but also from the rest of the world: no windows, no distractions. Wolf's touch is evident in walls and ceiling uniformly clad in taupe textured wool to make the space appear, he says, "as if it were carved out of one block of stone."
In the larger of the conference rooms, an extraordinary 26-foot-long table, Wolf's design, was made from one massive bubinga trunk intensely lacquered to shimmer like water. The top, 2 solid inches thick, keeps the piece earthbound, while the three individual metal bases allow it to float. The unusual shape of the table is a response to Davis's request that he be able to see each person seated at meetings; a typical long rectangle wouldn't do. Wolf's concept, a bowed shape with tapered ends, solved the problem for the company's weekly lunch meetings, when 40 staff members assemble with Davis at the head of the table. Strategy is discussed, and music is played—often very loudly. Specialized acoustical engineering, integrating double-wall construction and an independent shock-absorbing system, accommodates such activity, turning the room into a sound-isolation chamber.
Grand double doors mark the entrance to Davis's private power office, on a corner overlooking Central Park and the Plaza hotel. The magnificent desk—with panels of claro walnut burl, a stainless-steel border, and a black leather inset on the top—is a sensuous curve echoing the wall behind; walls wear tobacco-toned suede set in a grid of walnut burl and stainless steel. The deluxe materials bring a residential graciousness to the fast-paced business environment and consummate audiovisual equipment. High-fidelity ceiling-mounted speakers produce sound of studio quality. There's a plasma-screen monitor and a spectacular preamp, too, but the primary requirement was that components be integrated to handle any conceivable format—if it's recorded, Davis can play it. Here, ideas are shaped, deals brokered, careers launched, artists discovered. This is where music happens, where music is made.