Martha Stewart Working
For her New York command center, the doyenne of detail calls in architect Daniel Rowen
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 1/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Martha Stewart's singular genius lies in her ability to make labor-intensive projects—from gingerbread houses to floral arrangements—look deceptively easy. Perfectly rectilinear pastry requires no more than a T square, a pizza cutter, and the right attitude. And what could be simpler than using a touch of dried foliage and a glue gun to enliven the centerpiece for your next lavish dinner party? Effort, however, has never looked quite so effortless as it does at Stewart's recently completed center of command in New York. Architect Daniel Rowen's elegant design for the Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia office in Chelsea's postindustrial Starrett-Lehigh building calls no attention to the amount of thought, sweat, and occasional angst that went into the building process.
Stewart initially planned to lease only half of the 150,000-square-foot, full-floor space to house a photo studio for her magazine, Web site, and catalog, but securing the entire floor allowed her to consolidate related editorial departments. The resultant design "benefits from 10 years of trial and error," says Rowen, who has collaborated with Stewart on all of her New York offices. "It allowed us to start from scratch and to organize everything in a way that best suited her needs."
The project, recounts Rowen, was "daunting—it was enormously ambitious. The floor runs a full city block, and we had to wrestle with an enormous amount of information in a very short time frame, 13 months from start to finish." The effort was made possible by the contributions of many consultants, including Berger Rait Design Associates, and Rowen's faithful articulation of Stewart's vision. Despite the project's vast scope, Stewart's requests were simple: She wanted as few walls and as few private offices as possible. "Martha took a hard look at the office environment and asked herself why people need separate rooms and privacy," says Rowen. She concluded that an open plan would best foster creative collaboration among staffers and showcase the inherent beauty of the raw space, with its high ceilings, wraparound windows, and rhythmic procession of columns. "The project wasn't about making an architectural statement. The statement was already there," asserts Rowen. "It was a matter of enhancing the existing architecture while making the program work." Gutting the floor completely, he oriented the flow of space around a core that houses mechanical operations, passenger and truck elevators, a loading dock, and stair towers. The layout was then divided into two zones.
One quadrant accommodates photo studios, painting and woodworking facilities, a series of interconnected test kitchens (one of which doubles as a set for TV taping), and a comprehensive prop library for fabric, tabletop accessories, and other styling necessities—a world unto itself. Because of the enormous size, organization is paramount. "It would have been useless if she couldn't find anything in there. Martha is all about presenting information clearly to her public," Rowen points out, and his extensive network of open shelving and storage bins supports her every effort in that capacity.
The office area posed another set of organizational questions. "The primary challenge was determining how to accommodate work space—as well as power, wiring, and storage—without building walls," Rowen says. His solution was rows of desk modules that peel off the east-west circulation corridor like side streets off a main avenue. Each unit, which includes space for eight to 14 employees, group tables, storage, and private lockers, is like a small design studio. Together, the modules make up what he refers to as "super ateliers," matrixes for creativity.
Gray linoleum bulletin boards line the partitions separating the bays from the main corridor. "The design language is tightly minimal," Rowen says of the limited palette of putty, white, and aluminum throughout the offices and conference rooms. Aluminum office chairs have white mesh seating; all metal components, from the lockers to the cable trays, are powder-coated in the same Martha Stewart hue, Georgica Mist. Color and decoration come from the "liveliness of the Martha Stewart product," he explains.
"The architecture is no-nonsense. It's very restrained to allow the light and the character of the building to read," he continues, likening the office to a factory—"a place where things are made"—albeit an elegant, minimal version with a pumice-hued cementacious floor surface and exposed ductwork and wiring painstakingly laid out to create the least visual clutter. "There is an enormous amount of organization on the ceiling: steam, HVAC, data, power, fire alarm, security, and lighting. These systems ate up 75 percent of the construction budget, so it made sense to use the infrastructure as a design element."
Stewart's office in the southwest corner is as bright, efficient, and lovely as one would expect, glassed in to respect the democracy of the view. A vintage Saarinen table is paired with a low credenza, Rowen's office-friendly take on a Gordon Bunshaft piece Stewart had inherited. The unit has a false front that flips down to form a desk, and a drawer pulls open to reveal a fax and printer.
Nearby is the real heart of the project: a dramatic two-story atrium where light pours in through clerestory windows, illuminating the columns, which are thinner at this end of the building. "Martha calls it her cathedral—it has an almost reverential quality," says Rowen. For all the design that went into the sprawling facility, he concedes, "There's something really great about raw space."