Up to the Minute
At Time in New York, outdated office space gives way to a contemporary conference center
Kimberly Goad -- Interior Design, 11/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
New York's Time & Life Building, known fondly in journalism circles as the Shabby Palace, happens to boast some decent design credentials. Built in 1958 by Harrison, Abramovitz & Harris, the Rockfeller Center tower once had an Isamu Noguchi ceiling installation in the lobby, and even now it retains a Josef Albers mural and a rippling terrazzo floor pattern called Copacabana. That modernist legacy was precisely what Time executives hoped to tap into by hiring Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum to transform the building's nondescript second floor—formerly leased by a separate company, Gilman Paper—into a multiuse conference center worthy of the largest magazine publisher in the world.
Versatility was the operative word for principal in charge Rick Focke, senior principal and director of design. Specifically at issue: accommodating both corporate summits for media honchos and glittery receptions for the kind of VIPs who appear on the pages of People and InStyle. To accomplish this, HOK first gutted 75 percent of the 20,000-square-foot floor plate, leaving only the kitchen, a corridor, and a wide gallery intact.
It's this gallery, leading visitors from the escalator to reception, that sets the tone for the entire conference center and its dozen separate venues—ranging from a meeting room for eight to a multipurpose space for 150. "We maintained the proportions and integrity of the original parts of the interior, then made sure that the new design was in harmony with the existing," Focke says. "It had to be seamless from the escalator to the exit."
The same English sycamore veneer used for detailing in the gallery repeats for credenzas and wainscoting in a parallel corridor and the various meeting rooms off of it. To complement the gallery's blue-patinated steel floor, HOK custom-colored the meeting rooms' carpet in charcoal and beige. Photographs and memorabilia from Time's archive are showcased not only in the gallery but everywhere else as well. For additional continuity, Focke retained and extended the existing datum line.
The gallery's neutral palette carries through to mid-century classic furniture. Along the main corridor, Eero Saarinen's marble-topped Tulip tables stand between unobtrusive club chairs covered in stone-colored leather. Meeting rooms' chairs are black leather-padded Executive seating by Charles and Ray Eames.
Because of the meeting rooms' large glass surfaces—curtain wall overlooking the street and window wall facing the corridor—acoustics were a major concern. Not just any sound-absorbing solution would do, however. Beyond ensuring the kind of privacy warranted by high-level discussions, materials had to offer the elegance and durability required for entertaining.
So HOK covered nearly all of the rooms' remaining walls with creamy-white Ultrasuede, a treatment carried through to the corridor as well. "It's acoustically effective, and it doesn't stain," Focke explains. "We also liked its soft visual texture."
When he first presented the wall covering to Time executives for approval, though, they refused to believe him. How could white Ultrasuede be anything but high-maintenance? To quell their concerns, he took home a swatch and doused it in red wine, then experimented with a cold-water wash to ensure that the material would, indeed, come out spotless. (It did.)
Red wine is most likely to be served in the multipurpose Sixth Avenue Room, once the corner office of Gilman Paper's CEO. Now, Time uses the 1,700-square-foot space to host lunches, dinners, and presentations, the latter facilitated by the drop-down projection screens that HOK installed in the ceiling. And if that's not sufficient spectacle for Time's guests, there's always Radio City Music Hall right across the street.