FTF Design Studio creates a capacious Chelsea atelier for photographer Michael Thompson.
Jeff Hill -- Interior Design, 9/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
When Michael Thompson, a prodigiously successful fashion and celebrity photographer whose work has appeared in W, Vogue, and Harper's Bazaar, decided to build the ultimate photography studio, he turned to West Chin of FTF Design Studio. Chin had already designed Thompson's New York apartment, and has worked predominantly in the fashion world, with clients such as supermodels Christy Turlington, Amber Valetta, and Shalom Harlow, and photographers François Nars and Regan Cameron. Given this background and his own penchant for a "clean, simple, yet warm" aesthetic, Chin was an ideal candidate to realize Thompson's dream. "Michael wanted maximum flexibility in the space, with very few fixed elements, so that backgrounds are always changeable for different shoots," Chin comments. "But beyond that, he didn't really have to tell me what to do. I knew what he wanted."
Located in Chelsea, from the exterior Thompson's studio looks not unlike many of the cavernous art galleries that have come to dominate the neighborhood's landscape. The façade itself is quite pristine, although the raw steel awning intimates the preponderantly industrial, functional character of the interior. A former auto repair garage, the space offers substantial square footage (the final plan incorporates 6,500 sq. ft. on the first floor, 1,200 sq. ft. on the mezzanine, and 5,000 sq. ft. on the roof terrace). Aside from flexibility, Thompson's paramount concern for the design of the studio was the division between the public spaces—known as LUX Studios—and the private, which serve as offices for the photographer and his staff, production facilities, and archives. Chin established a logical separation between the two areas with a 22-ft.-high wall of poured concrete, perhaps the architect's most dramatic gesture. This wall is no less commanding in the photographer's private domain than it is in the public realm of LUX Studios. (The latter serves not only as the arena of the shoots, but can also be rented out for large events, like fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez's spring 2001 show.) Besides its function as the primary element in the articulation of the studio's spaces, this wall is structural as well, supporting the mezzanine above. And the concrete wall appealed to Thompson as yet another possible backdrop for shoots.
As this is a working studio rather than a display environment, sturdy materials that could withstand a great deal of quotidian wear and tear were essential. Floors throughout are poured concrete, with one notable exception: a terrazzo floor in the conference room, which is a vestige of the original garage. The extensive use of exposed steel throughout the studio continues the industrial aesthetic. Anodized-steel decking that supports the concrete floor of the mezzanine has also been left exposed. "Usually, the decking is covered up, but we didn't hide it," Chin adds.
But the architect didn't stint on details that render the studio inviting as well as functional—for example, he installed a gravel-filled koi pond at the base of the concrete wall facing LUX Studios. He also employed walnut throughout the studio in his custom furnishings, an element that endows the overall industrial palette with a sense of warmth. "There's some hint of luxury," Chin says, "but just to make people comfortable, not to the extent that it would interfere with work."
Light penetration is an overriding concern in the design of a photo studio, and Chin approached the problem from several angles. For the façade, he used translucent laminate glass, permitting the infiltration of daylight but maintaining privacy. Within, translucent and transparent glass are used as appropriate—for example, the latter for the windows in Thompson's office at mezzanine level. "If Michael wants privacy in his office, curtains can seal off the space," Chin explains, "but at the same time he wanted to be able to survey what's going on in the studio below. The use of clear glass also keeps the space open, instead of breaking it up into little rooms."
The most stunning exploitation of light, however, must be the studio's 21-ft.-by-21-ft. pyramidal skylight with motorized shades. The original structure had a two-story window facing the Hudson River, but because of unforeseen site restrictions Chin decided to install the skylight in order to maximize the availability of natural light. "I wanted to emphasize the juxtaposition between the heavy concrete and the skylight, between light and dark."