Orange is the New Green
Bradley Lincoln -- Interior Design, 6/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Founded five years ago in architect Joe Hamilton's basement in Minneapolis, 20 Below Studio went on to larger digs in the derelict Saint Anthony neighborhood. The firm began to feel growing pains yet again as staff swelled into the double digits. Luckily, Hamilton and his fellow partners, Heather Rose-Dunning and Kevin Rolfes, needed to look no farther than across the parking lot. There sat an abandoned warehouse, a 1920's concrete eyesore that Hamilton—the father of this baby—has transformed into a stylish, versatile 6,400-square-foot work space.
It's just this sort of creative recycling that drives the firm's hospitality and office work. "I'm proud that we gave our warehouse one more opportunity to be useful," Hamilton says. "We corrected things to make the structure stable, of course, but we kept a lot of the wrinkles and bumps." Although those included cracked walls, pitted floors, and shifting lintels, the architect maintained restraint.
The concrete floor's pentimento was actually a plus, he says: "After we peeled up the indoor-outdoor shag, we decided to keep the patina basically as is." Anyone who might inquire about such quirky visual carpeting as a trapezoidal patch of orange-red concrete is told, "It's there because it was there."
Hamilton considered eco-friendly options in almost every aspect of the transformation. Low-VOC paint covers the few surfaces that are actually painted, but he generally chose surfacing with an inherently interesting finish and texture. Some walls, for example, are an untreated cement-board with a subtle texture evocative of suede. Movable walls, bisecting the studio, are padded in an industrial felt inspired by Enrique Norten's installation for "The Aztec Empire" at New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The panels serve as bulletin boards and presentation walls as well as sound insulation.
Lighting and airflow were also cleverly handled. North-facing windows maximize sunshine but don't require blinds to cut the glare on computer screens. "And while, honestly, fluorescent lights can be ugly and harsh, we mounted strips tightly to the cedar ceiling beams—the honey tones of the wood influence the light in a positive way," Hamilton explains. Dancing gracefully across the ceiling is a long, thin operable skylight. Cranking storefront window panels open further cuts down on air-conditioning.
Despite the eco-centricities, the interior is anything but earnest. Lounge furniture is routinely pushed aside for yoga classes, a pile of Wiffle balls entices ersatz snowball fights, and two scooters provide an easy commute around the studio. Floor-to-ceiling string curtains undulate like minimalist macramé. Desks and tables have tops finished with creamy poured polyester paint, which Hamilton touts as more durable than plastic laminate and possessed of a very forgiving low sheen. The stainless-topped kitchen table, as at most dinner parties, is the heart of the operation.
While 20 Below attracts IIDA and AIA awards and scads of conservation-minded clients, its location is easy to miss. "We're on the wrong end of a one-way street that abuts another one-way street. There's no visibility, and we're limited in the amount of signage allowed," Hamilton explains. To combat that anonymity, he designed a 16-by-25-foot "billboard" of orange Lexan, a recycled resin panel material that has 250 times the impact strength of glass. This beacon covers one third of the low-slung facade, angling slightly away to catch sunlight and spread a glow over the parking lot.
"It's like a big hand waving in the air," Hamilton says. "Hey, we're over here!" We see you, Joe.