Brooklyn firm Leeser Architecture renovated a Gowanus printing press to create a 43,000-square-foot office space for text annotation startup, Genius.
Courtesy Leeser Architecture
Tech startups, like birds of a feather, tend to flock to specific areas—migrating to such hubs as Silicon Valley, Silicon Beach, and the Brooklyn Tech Triangle. But, when the founders of Genius—an online platform that allows users to annotate lyrics texts—realized the company was outgrowing its warren of small offices in Williamsburg, they took a different route to find a more cohesive home for their expanding team of developers and editors. They did so by informally plotting the home location of their employees, and found that most of them were clustered around or near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, explained Russell Farhang, Genius’ director of operations. As they narrowed their search, they stumbled upon a fitting place for their own modern-day textual endeavor: an abandoned factory that was a printing press in a former life.
“We wanted to establish ourselves as an anchor in a community that isn’t known for anything such as tech. We chose our location more analytically than that,” explained Farhang. “It filled out the requirements we were looking for: great location, burgeoning in a good way, and the space itself is a lovely former industrial loft. And there is something very appropriate to our company—we are fascinated with texts so it is interesting to be in a former printing press.”
The company then tapped local firm Leeser Architecture to design the interiors of the new headquarters. Eschewing the popular open-office plan adopted by most startups, the founders asked for a mix of two- to three-person private offices and open workspace peppered with breakout areas and conference rooms. After experiencing the isolation and fragmentation of their prior offices, they wanted a more transparent and collaborative work environment, especially to facilitate dialogue between departments, while also providing “some privacy, and peace and quiet,” said Farhang. “We didn’t want an open plan office specifically for our developers, who need collaboration but also silence for creativity.”
The build-out not only had to include both private and shared workspace, it also needed to accommodate the projected growth of the company, which is expected to reach over 100 employees in the next few years.
“They needed flexibility and didn’t want everything set in stone,” added Thomas Leeser, principal of his eponymous firm. “As the company grows, the space will also be defined and grow with whatever the demands will be.”
Genius occupies four floors, totaling 43,000 square feet of the building. At the lower level (one beneath ground level), the company has a cafeteria and a large double-height performance space with a mezzanine—intended for hosting private and public events, exhibits, and concerts. “We also wanted a way to connect to the community. A place where we could actually build an assembly place for us and for the community,” said Farhang.
The L-shaped third and fourth floors contain private workstations on the periphery as well as several breakout areas outfitted with couches and coffee tables. Bookending one end of each floor is a large conference room, providing a more private place for board meetings or chatting with visiting artists. Fishbowl conference rooms and kitchen islands, made of polished chrome laminate, anchor the space and add a sleek counterpart to the lovely rough-hewn features of the building.
The renovation was an exercise in restraint: the ceiling, bricks, and wooden columns and beams were left exposed. “We want to keep the space as raw as possible. We didn’t want to lose that sort of rough old factory feeling,” said Leeser. “The idea was to change it as little as possible.”
Leeser and his team employed minimal yet strategic design elements to enhance the overall space and maintain the interior’s industrial aesthetic. One such standout component is a special dichroic glass used for the outside of the bathrooms and conference rooms, which produces an enticing, rainbow-like mirage effect. Depending on the angle and time of day, the glass changes color, reflecting different light and movement. (The glass has been popular among employees for taking selfies.) The firm placed this glass in “spaces that needed to be kind of discreetly made invisible. That is what is great about this film, it doesn’t look like a wall,” said Leeser. “There is a mysterious beauty to it.”
Oversized LED tube lighting is suspended from the ceiling and serves, Leeser explained, as a “tongue-in-cheek play” on the florescent tubes that were originally found in warehouse buildings and a “reference to the stark factory environment.”
It has only been a few months since the employees at Genius settled into their new digs, but already they’ve noticed some changes in the office culture and workflow.
“Now it is really interesting to walk around and see developers coding and building new things. It makes people more cognizant of what every teams’ priorities are,” said Nat Guevara, senior communications officer at Genius. “At a startup, things change everyday and so now we don’t have to wait until the company lunch on Friday [to find out what is happening]. We are able to see things in real time.”