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When Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield approached Studio O+A to design his company’s new San Francisco headquarters, he talked about wanting a design that would embrace the natural beauty of the West Coast, from the Cascadian forests of his youth to the California mountains where he loves to hike. It was up to the designers to figure out how to pack the wonder of landscapes like Joshua Tree and Yosemite into the 132,269 square feet of office space spread across six floors of a midrise downtown building. Sure, you can hear them saying, no problem.
The Studio O+A team came up with a neat conceit: The headquarters would be organized like the Pacific Crest Trail, with each floor mimicking a biome that a hiker would travel through on his or her journey. The lowest floor is covered in the warm brown tones of the Southern California desert, with potted cactuses to match, and successive floors above climb through climes, culminating in a forest-themed level with dappled overhead lighting and birch bark screens. The design is meant to orient workers as they navigate the building, a helpfulness inspired by the ethos of hiking, according to Primo Orpilla, Studio O+A cofounder and principal. “There’s a certain trail etiquette about helping people along the route—it’s about learning and discovery, and we used that as a design philosophy.”
Rather than mimicking nature literally, Studio O+A loosely translated landscape features like waterfalls and mountain lakes into custom details like cascading seating steps and sculptural lighting installations. Circular meeting nooks on the forest-themed floor are inspired by rings of trees known as “fairy circles.” To finish these designs, the team selected materials “you might not expect inside,” said Verda Alexander, cofounder at Studio O+A. “We were able to bring the outside in…with plants and materials like concrete block and gravel.”
The Slack office is an evolution from Studio O+A’s earliest work for tech giants such as Facebook, for which the firm stripped back warehouses to their raw industrial bones. “That was workplace 1.0,” Orpilla said, “and this is workplace 3.0.” While parts of the Slack office do flaunt exposed structural surfaces, overall the design is more additive than subtractive—more focused on building the company’s unique visual identity than creating a tabula rasa.
Such evolution is part of how Studio O+A keeps its designs original, even after working on dozens of tech offices. “We aim to never repeat details; we want the work to be special,” Orpilla said. “People come back to spaces like that.” Not that it’s easy to constantly rethink the way people work. “It does drive us crazy,” Orpilla said, “but it’s a good crazy.” Nothing a nice hike wouldn’t fix.
Small Spaces, Big Impact
AN Interior explores the best "Small Spaces" from our Best of Design Awards
GRT Architects has designed a bold interpretation of classical details in tile
She's a Brick Hus
Take a deep dive into Olafur Eliasson's first completed building
Fjordenhus in Vejle, Denmark, is the first completed building by artist Olafur Eliasson and architect Sebastian Behmann. Together with Studio Olafur Eliasson, the duo have created a thoughtfully conceived and crafted structure in the bay of a Danish fjord. In their earlier architectural collaborations—like the curtain wall design for the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland—their work has displayed an attention to detail, composition, materials, and craftsmanship that carries over into this unique commission.
Once they convinced their client, Kirk Kapital, to build its headquarters in the water of an underutilized shipping port, they created a cylindrical concrete structure as a reference to the area’s surrounding grain silos.
The building is composed of four intersecting concrete volumes arrayed around an open public space and faced with nearly a million custom-designed bricks. The four-story volumes morph in elevation from ellipses to circles, and out of these are carved porous openings that dramatically frame views of the fjord. Built atop a man-made island with a basement foundation, Fjordenhus looks like a medieval rampart as imagined by Louis Kahn. But up close, its exterior walls are a pattern of endlessly and beautifully textured color.
The designers created 15 different hues of unglazed brick, added a smattering of blue, green, and silver glazed bricks, and then meticulously laid them out in digital drawings to create a patterned composition for the entire building. The brick colors were selected to reflect their immediate surroundings (more blue at the top of the building and gray for the stairwells), and they are meant to embody the changing weather and light conditions of the site. The torqued elliptical forms are intended to create a series of dynamic, flowing spaces that are “constantly calibrating to allow the user to trust themselves,” according to Eliasson, as they enter and pass through the building. The artist cited Erwin Panofsky’s criticism of neoclassicism and how it prescribes the inhabitation of buildings as an example of what not to do in designing architectural space. Eliasson wanted to move away from classical hierarchical planning to a more democratic, participatory architecture that he considers a hallmark of Danish democracy.
The building is entered from the quay by a footbridge that leads into a circular public space with three of the artist’s sculptures and a mirrored ceiling piece that reflects the light of the fjord back into the occupied public space.
A circular elevator that features dramatic top and bottom lighting, along with a surrounding stair that rises on splayed armatures, take users up into workspaces fitted with furnishings, lighting, built-in cabinets, and interior stairs all designed by the firm. The placement of furniture is purposefully haphazard so that users “democratically” negotiate their own paths through the space, giving them co-authorship of the building.
In addition, Eliasson designed table and floor lamps made of deep green glass and metal, as well as built-in lighting that is equal parts functional lighting and sculptural object. Lower floors have elegant, circular concrete pads with coffered lighting overhead. The top floor has a globular, faceted sculpture placed below a skylight that throws sunlight over the space. In addition, the rooms have a series of Eliasson-designed fixtures elegantly cobbled together from a hanging LED light fixture that casts light upward through a glass lens, creating a pattern of concentric circles on the ceiling.
This unique practice is based on an artistic sensibility devoted to materiality, craft, and an understanding of form, developed through Eliasson’s years of experimentation as a trained sculptor. As a result, it is a challenge to more traditional architecture practices. Furthermore, the designer’s insistence on the necessity of creating a democratic, user-controlled space means Fjordenhus comes as close to a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk (or total work of art) as we have yet experienced in the 21st century.
Hardware the Wild Things Are
Finely detailed hardware that people can't keep their hands off of
These finishing touches add a glimmer of light and polish to any project. Rendered in gold, silver, bronze, and glass, this is hardware that is meant to last.
Top: Brass Pull Bar Buster + Punch
Right to left: Flex Knob Belwith Keeler
Tab Edge Pull Atlas Homewares
Vale Knob Belwith Keeler
Atlantic Knob O&G Studio
Hollywood Hills Cabinet Bar Baldwin HardwareClockwise from top: U-Shape Pull INOX Voile Pull Klodea Chrome Knob Elisabeth Norse Interiors Loop Pull Atlas Homewares Hollywood Hills Knob Baldwin Hardware
Background: Adamo & Eva cotton velvet DedarClockwise, starting at top: Flex Knob Belwith Keeler Atlantic Knob O&G Studio Art Deco Pull INOX Vale Knob Belwith Keeler Newport Rosette with White Knob Grandeur Hardware
Hollywood Hills Knob Baldwin Hardware
Vale Pull Belwith KeelerCirculaire Rosette with Coventry Knob Grandeur Hardware
Background: Splendido velvet Dedar
Top to bottom: ESOR Pull Sugatsune
Nouveau Handle Häfele
Flex Knob Belwith Keeler
4 Off Center Pull Atlas Homewares
Vale Pull Belwith Keeler
Nouveau Knob Häfele
Ultra Euro Pull Atlas HomewaresClockwise from top:
Clear Fluted Crystal Cup Pull Nostalgic WarehouseGather Vase Good Thing Grab Bar Newport Brass Cheetah Glass Square Knob Atlas Homewares Carre Tall Plate with Baguette Amber Crystal Knob Grandeur Hardware
Clear Crystal Cup Pull Nostalgic WarehouseHorn Handles Viking Handles Leather Handles OCHRE