Rios Clementi Hale's four coprincipals practice multidisciplinary design in their lyrical Los Angeles studio
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 3/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
At Rios Clementi Hale Studios in Los Angeles, design knows no boundaries. From macro projects, such as the California Endowment's 150,000-square-foot, ground-up headquarters on a 6-acre campus, to micro ones, like the firm's sprightly patterned coffee cups in their notNeutral product division, RCHS does it all.
"My fantasy is that we're a design think tank," says Mark Rios, the architect and landscape architect who founded Rios Associates in 1990; he changed the firm's name in 2003 to acknowledge coprincipals Frank Clementi, Julie Smith-Clementi, and Bob Hale, all licensed architects. "People come to us with their problems, concerns, and inspiration. Our diverse backgrounds incorporate many disciplines." Hale was vice president of design and planning for Universal Studios, Clementi practiced in Italy with Ettore Sottsass and Matteo Thun, and Smith-Clementi began her career at Hodgetts + Fung Design Associates.
"Multidiscipline defines how we organize ourselves," Rios continues. "We mix up everyone in the office with assignments." That ethos comes through loud and clear at the firm's two-story Hollywood headquarters, where the upper level is given over to an open studio.
The current 9,000-square-foot digs, purchased in September 2002, came not a moment too soon. Having outgrown their 3,200-square-foot offices just two miles away, the expanding firm had resorted to a construction trailer hauled onto the parking lot and two additional cramped rentals. Rios hit pay dirt when he located the '1960's modernist box in which the firm now resides.
First, it had a street presence. Its 80-foot-wide facade was the perfect storefront for notNeutral, which RCHS launched in 2001; selling tabletop items, children's furniture, and fabric goods, the business takes up 1,200 square feet of retail and storage space. The rear parking lot, however, was ready for an extreme makeover. Barren blacktop has given way to the de rigueur urban garden decked out with a prototype Adirondack bench, a copper carrot weather vane, and a 10-foot-high privet hedge.
While the building's overall configuration was ideal, its other attributes were not: The exterior was a motley mix of fake brick and a vintage curtain wall, and the interior, befitting the former video production house, was a warren of choppy spaces.
After installing a new facade of steel and glass plus five skylights, RCHS turned the office into a testing ground. There's no better place to show off the firm's embrace of layered modernism. "Because we were interested in patterning glass, we experimented with four or five densities through fritting," Rios explains. A floral super-graphic adorns the street-front windows. The laser-cut vinyl screen, which adheres like Con-Tact paper, is part of the firm's exploration of culture and scale. The same motif is employed on notNeutral's carpet and ceramics.
Inside, removal of rugged wood siding led to the discovery of a wall of green and orange mosaics in the double-height ' entry. "It's our modernist Pompeian wall," Hale comments. Another find was the steel stairway's original terrazzo treads, revealed when its faux-brick veneer was removed. Once the stairway was updated with paint and a perforated metal guardrail, Smith-Clementi injected whimsical notes with large-graphic pendants. "That patterning is in my blood," she says. "My mother had Marimekko all over our house."
Cued by the accent tiles, the architects built a desk and bench unit of tangerine back-painted glass and lacquer to define reception. The piece faces the all-important conference room. "It's really a charette room wired with computers," Clementi notes. Arne Jacobsen stacking Ant chairs and aluminum folding tables ensure flexibility. The model room next door, a cornerstone of planning, eases exploration of 3-D solutions. The garden, accessed through sliding doors, encourages fresh-air breaks.
Upstairs, the 4,500-square-foot studio centers around a 60-foot-long, white-painted wall, where various inspirations and renderings for works-in-progress—from designs for the Cornerstone Festival of Gardens in Sonoma to fashion-magazine clippings—are pinned up for shared viewing.
Workstations for the staff of 30 are arranged in pods of six. The units couldn't be simpler: laminate-clad MDF cabinetry with work counters cantilevered off 4-foot-high partitions. In this egalitarian culture, no one claims status upgrades.
The studio's background enhances its resemblance to a busy urban loft. Vinyl insulation material covers the ceiling; striped, commercial-grade nylon carpet softens the floor. Though not destined for LEED certification, the office is still sensitive to its tenets. Natural ventilation comes from operable windows on the south side, and abundant daylight pours in from the north-facing elevation.
Today, the workload breaks down to 40 percent landscape design, 40 percent architecture, and 20 percent interiors, graphics, and products. "But we're not interested in the core of any of the disciplines," says Clementi. "We're interested in the margins." That's breaking the modernist mold.