History In The Making
Lever House's new owner prized it so much that he moved his own office there—and brought back the building architect, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, to give the Park Avenue interior some downtown cool
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 9/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Aby Rosen is no Donald Trump. Favoring jeans, white T-shirts, and designer sandals, he looks more like a gallery owner than the principal of a huge real-estate developer, RFR Holding. And Rosen's art-world sensibility doesn't stop there. Among the properties that he owns with his partner, principal Michael Fuchs, are two icons of the International Style: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson's Seagram Building and, across Park Avenue, Lever House by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Lever House was such a jewel in RFR's crown that Rosen and Fuchs moved their company there. "It's a mecca of modernist design," Rosen says. "Students, art lovers, and architecture buffs all come to visit. As the owners, being here makes a strong statement."
Part of that statement has entailed realizing Bunshaft's concept of Lever House as a civic- minded gesture to the city. Instead of filling the ground floor of the slender green-glazed tower with shops, the architect set it back on a two-story pedestal sheltering a courtyard designed for a sculpture garden by Isamu Noguchi. That original project was never built, but Rosen recently brought in landscape architect Ken Smith to redesign the outdoor area, working in Noguchi's seating scheme and installing a long-term exhibition of his sculpture.
In addition, Lever House engages the public as a hub for contemporary art. Rosen has commissioned the likes of Jorge Pardo and Peter Wegner to create site-specific installations for the lobby—pieces that then become part of the Lever House collection. Last spring, "to break the rules a bit," Rosen says, the courtyard gained a controversial 34-foot-tall sculpture of a naked and pregnant Madonna by Damien Hirst.
Her head is more or less on a level with the former Lever Brothers corporate cafeteria. When Rosen decided to turn this 12,000-square-foot space into RFR's 40-person headquarters, he went back to SOM, which had just finished reclad-ding and preservation work for the building as a whole. "Lever House is such a big part of SOM's heritage," says partner Stephen Apking. For this new interiors job, he and SOM associate Woodson Rainey, Jr., designed a minimalist space that both respects the landmark and reflects Rosen's laid-back style and love of contemporary art and modern furniture—uptown, but with downtown cool.
The gallery vibe immediately comes through in reception's cement-colored polymer-resin floor, white-painted walls, and quirky Jeff Koons sculpture of deflated basketballs and soccer balls. From here, a long corridor extends axially through the space, and this circulation route also functions as an art gallery. Its walls are currently lined with large, powerful canvases by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. (The art will rotate over time.)
Given the narrowness of the floor plate, just 48 feet across, the architects chose not to carve it up into cellular offices. Instead, offices flanking the gallery-corridor are pavilionlike. Each glass front projects outward, like a porch, beyond dividing walls of pale gray aniline-dyed maple, giving the look of a single flowing space. The crisp tailoring harmonizes with the machined precision of Bunshaft's curtain wall.
Fuchs and Rosen's offices, naturally the largest and most dramatic, are separated by an assistant's desk at the Park Avenue end of the floor. Fuchs's office is more minimal in terms of furnishings and colors. A marble slab and simple aluminum legs compose his desk, a matching credenza combines those two materials with drawer fronts of anodized aluminum, and the seating of a small lounge is upholstered in pale gray. Art displays a uniform black-and-white palette but contrasting forms: the overlapping florals in a painting by Christopher Wool versus the sharp profiles of kitchen knives in a silk screen by Warhol.
Rosen furnished his own office with favorites from his collection: a George Nakashima English oak bench, Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand's éta-gère in bent steel and lacquer—filled with art books and exhibition catalogs—and original Barcelona chairs by Mies van der Rohe, transplanted from the Seagram Building. As with the art in the corridor, his furniture rotates. "There's a casualness and joy about furniture and art coming and going," Apking says.
Both Fuchs and Rosen's offices enjoy sprawling landscaped roof terraces. In the 1950's, Lever Brothers employees played shuffleboard here. Today's activities include meetings, lunches, and a cocktail party to raise money for the New York Landmarks Conservancy. "This building," says Rosen, "has always represented what corporate America could do more of."