Gensler stocks a New York workplace with commissioned artwork for the renowned Swedish distillery. Skäl!
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 8/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Absolut's branding brilliance is indisputable. Who can't conjure up the absolutely witty images of Absolut Manhattan, Absolut L.A., Absolut Marilyn, or Absolut Squeeze, all anchored by the iconic frosted-glass vodka bottle? The ongoing campaign, launched by TBWA\Chiat\Day in 1981, two years after the Swedish distillery introduced its product to the U.S., has evolved beyond advertising for the thinking class. The success of the ads sparked a commissioned art program, begun in 1985 and now encompassing pieces by over 400 artists. The artwork itself, the "clarity, simplicity, and perfection" of the branding message, and the company's Swedish heritage coalesce at Absolut's new American headquarters, where Gensler transformed 10,000 square feet into absolute Absolut.
The art program had an improbable but auspicious start, courtesy of Andy Warhol. At a dinner with the president and CEO of Absolut's distributor, the artist expressed his admiration for the Absolut bottle and proposed painting an interpretation. The offer was accepted, and a $65,000 check was written for Absolut Warhol, which depicts a bottle in pure black with colorful lettering and background. At first, Absolut had no art-marketing, plans but Warhol's acrylic on silk screen proved too tempting to resist. A campaign—and a collection—was born.
Warhol's inspiration led to a commission for protégé Keith Haring, followed by one for Kenny Scharf. Edward Ruscha, Armand Arman, Robert Indiana, Ross Bleckner, and Nam June Paik, to cite a few names, collaborated subsequently. With the assistance of corporate curators Marion Kahan and Lieven Van Den Abeele, Absolut also broadened the art attack to tackle undiscovered painters such as Romero Britto, whose neo-pop Absolut Britto brightens the conference room. "Britto credits the Absolut campaign with catapulting his career into the mainstream," says Kahan. The program has furthermore expanded to include photography, sculpture, digital or computer art, furniture, glass, and jewelry. Regardless of medium, Absolut president Carl Horton says, "Participants are given complete artistic freedom. We ask only that the bottle be visible in the work."
For the company's New York office, a 30th-floor midtown space, it was Horton's wish that art and architecture meet. Recalls John Bricker, Gensler's vice president and design director, "Carl said, 'Give us a working office,' and I suggested celebrating it with artwork.'" Fortunately, Bricker says, he came to the project with 20 years of experience in "developing the brand side of the built environment," especially in retail design.
Following a cultural-immersion trip to Stockholm, Bricker embarked on his own translation of the marketing message as well as a cross-pollination of Swedish and American design traditions. Whereas wood flooring, gray walls, and private offices characterize the Swedish headquarters, New York attitudes are embodied by a layout of enclosed perimeter offices and an open core, plus a conference room seen through pivot doors adjacent to reception. Gensler responded to wood's prevalence in Scandinavian architecture with a healthy dose of oak. There are slatted screens in the elevator lobby, a similar treatment for the ceiling in the open work area, and oak flooring throughout the public zone. Classics and classics-to-be—Eames and Saarinen seating, Zographos tables, and Spencer Fung chairs—"evoke the spirit of simplicity and clarity," Bricker says, once again tying design into brand message.
But it is product placement, in literal and witty figurative incarnations, that establishes the strongest connection between Absolut the vodka and Absolut the interior. Starting at the glass entry, visitors and staff actually walk through a version of that famed bottle, depicted in transparent glass silhouetted against a translucent background. Just inside, behind the walnut reception desk, is a glowing steel-and-glass display case incorporating virtual vodka: bottles etched in a full-height tinted-glass panel. Adjacent, clear glass fronts shelves stocked with bottles of the real thing.