Glenn Leitch romanced Playboy's office in Midtown
C.C. Sullivan -- Interior Design, 9/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
The chance to renovate the Midtown office of Playboy Enterprises meant a walk down memory lane for Highland Associates principal Glenn Leitch. A raft of recollections both sweet and salty informed his design impulse—from the bunnies in their leotards to anxiety about being caught with them. This deep brand affinity, let's call it, worked wonders. The resulting concept locked the deal, convincing CEO Christie Hefner, Hugh's daughter, to ditch the nine other local firms that had been invited to participate in the prolonged and speculative charrette.
Although Playboy recently announced plans to shutter its New York operation, Leitch's efforts are currently intact, as is a skeleton staff. The company reportedly hopes that the brand-new renovation of the two-level, 70,000-square-foot space will help command premium rents for a sublease. If that happens, a few alterations will be needed. As with several other projects by Leitch, the Playboy office is organized around clever branding devices. Most conspicuous is the double-height atrium's focal wall, completely given over to an illuminated version of the famous rabbit-head logo. Less noticeable to prospective tenants, no doubt, is the way that, in plan, a long wall on each level traces the curve of a rabbit ear. But that's not the only purpose of these arcs. They also visually unify both sides of the office: the main part in the Crown Building, a 1921 landmark by Warren & Wetmore, and a smaller section in a conjoined tower.
Leitch likes to start his projects in plan, but it was specific elements in the elevation drawings that probably won the Playboy project for Highland Associates. The first is that atrium logo wall, fashioned from cherrywood slats installed in front of a glowing white expanse of stretched PVC. Nearby, stainless-steel mesh curtains off a recessed display of magazine artwork while suggesting fishnet stockings—Leitch's term is "architectural lingerie." And a real flash of brilliance is a wall made of thousands of stacked Playboy magazines. "That's a fabulous idea," Hefner said when he approached her in the middle of the design competition. "How many copies would you need?" Figuring each spine was about ¼ inch thick, he suggested 15,000. She answered, "Yes, I can get you that."
Truckloads of magazines arrived a few weeks later at a fabricator's shop, where they were glued and stapled into sets of about 25 issues apiece and placed in 14-inch-tall steel boxes to dry. Back at Playboy, Leitch stacked up these building blocks between 8½ and 10 feet high. "We think the magazine wall got us hired," he continues. That's because it not only obviates the need for signage in reception but moreover creates a unique and memorable image, instantly reinforcing the bunny brand. The renovation was meant to reinvigorate Playboy's identity, reminding employees and visitors of the company's varied businesses, from its publishing base to television and Internet subscription adult entertainment and product licensing.
This injection of self-awareness, coming on the heels of Playboy's 50th anniversary, has some history itself. When the Crown Building office debuted in 1993, Anna Nicole Smith was Playmate of the Year, and the interior by Chicago's Himmel/Bonner Architects was every bit as flashy as the cover girl. (This reporter was there—nary a bunny in sight.) The opening heralded exciting plans for expansion and Hefner's ascendancy as CEO. The 2009 makeover, closing the circle, followed her resignation from dad's company. The elegant and relatively low-key new decor belies the intense pressure for executives to cut costs and compete more aggressively with lad magazines such as Maxim and proliferating free online competitors. The bunnies were feeling the pinch. By May of this year, Playboy had put itself on the auction block, seeking a buyer with $300 million or so. The New York office would be disbanded.
There's no better timing, then, to appreciate a shrine to the myth of the rabbit head. In fact, it's an earlier generation's Playboy that appears in much of the artwork displayed at the Crown Building. In reception, a 1950's bunny-waitress proffers a bottle of champagne in a photograph hung near a Harry Bertoia chair and an Eero Saarinen table. Leitch's stiletto-heel shapes and lipstick-and-leather finishes, all carefully integrated into their surroundings, seem like a gentlemanly throwback amid the current industry's explicit images. Of course, the Playboy Clubs were already shuttered when Hefner took over, closed in favor of dot-com and cable ventures. So while the new Playboy caters to the media needs of today's customers, the New York office may be remembered, mistily, as subtle and sophisticated.
Photography by Eric Laignel.
PROJECT TEAMANTHONY CAPRIO; HECTOR HERNANDEZ; TOM HAUCK; DEBORAH LORENZO; KATE SHERWOOD: HIGHLAND ASSOCIATES. RS LIGHTING DESIGN: LIGHTING CONSULTANT. ARCHITECTURAL SYSTEMS: WOODWORK. MASPETH IRON WORKS: METALWORK. EMPIRE METAL & GLASS: GLASSWORK. ANDRÉ JOYAU: MAGAZINE-WALL CONTRACTOR. TRISTAR CONSTRUCTION: GENERAL CONTRACTOR.
PRODUCT SOURCESFROM FRONT KNOLL: CHAIR, TABLE (RECEPTION), CHAIRS, TABLES (BREAK ROOM), FILE CABINETS (ART DEPARTMENT). EDELMAN LEATHER: COLUMN COVERING (RECEPTION). P&P ARTEC: BALUSTRADE MATERIAL (ATRIUM). FORMGLAS: CUSTOM CEILING PANELS. NEWMAT USA: STRETCHED WALL SYSTEM (ATRIUM), STRETCHED CEILING SYSTEM (HALL, ART DEPARTMENT). CAMBRIDGE ARCHITECTURAL: CUSTOM CURTAIN (ATRIUM). LOUIS POULSEN LIGHTING: PENDANT FIXTURES (BREAK ROOM). TO MARKET: FLOORING. MASTER COATING TECHNOLOGIES: PAINT. HERMAN MILLER: CHAIRS (ATRIUM, CONFERENCE ROOMS). HÄFELE: CABINET PULLS (CONFERENCE ROOMS). ABET: CABINET SURFACING (SHOWROOM). LIGHTOLIER: RECESSED CEILING FIXTURES (SHOWROOM, ART DEPARTMENT). TANGO LIGHTING: PENDANT FIXTURE (ART DEPARTMENT). THROUGHOUT BENTLEY PRINCE STREET: CARPET. BENJAMIN MOORE & CO.: PAINT.