What Would Bunshaft Do?
Lissoni Associati and Highland Associates channel a modernist legend for the Elie Tahari fashion studio in New York
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 1/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
For Elie Tahari, fashion and architecture go hand in hand. "They both change with the times," he notes. Occasionally, the times call for a classic, which is what Tahari got when he acquired a former Manufacturer's Hanover Trust Company building in New York—a modernist glass box completed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1954. So when Tahari moved the studio of his namesake fashion label to the fourth floor, the question was: How do you renovate an icon?
First, some background. Though an unremarkable five stories tall, the building stands apart with a landmarked curtain wall of crystal-clear glass sheets that, at the time, were the largest ever used. (Up to 10 by 22 feet each.) Thanks to the transparent volumes, International Style details, and a 30-ton vault still visible from the street, the structure represented a new concept in bank design. Then, over the decades, motley renovations chopped up the interior's luminous open spaces. It was only good luck that the modernist hallmarks were left mostly intact in the second-level banking hall: expansive glazing, downlit ceilings, creamy terrazzo flooring, and, especially, a dazzling 70-foot-long geometric partition of brass, copper, and nickel by Harry Bertoia.
The banking hall now houses a branch of JPMorgan Chase & Co., but Tahari eventually hopes to see it fully restored. Until then, it finds new life as the inspiration for his studio by Lissoni Associati principal Nicoletta Canesi and Highland Associates principal Glenn Leitch, both part of the team that designed the Tahari flagship in East Hampton, New York, two summers ago. The 15,000-square-foot Manhattan studio—a hive buzzing with more than 90 design and production staff and sample- and pattern-makers—offered Canesi and Leitch a blank slate. "There wasn't much to save," Leitch says. Having stripped it mostly bare, Canesi adds, they set out to reinterpretively "take the building back to its origins."
Echoing the flooring on the public levels downstairs, off-white terrazzo now flows through the studio, while original details were restored. Brought back, for example, are the beige linen curtains that float inches behind the building's glass walls and, above, the glowing ceiling panels of translucent corrugated acrylic—closer to what Bunshaft first installed than the smaller, flat kind that have replaced them on lower levels. The pièce de résistance, visible upon entry, is a sculptural screen that hints at Bertoia's partition. This one is by Erwin Hauer, a recent Interior Design Hall of Fame inductee known for his pioneering architectural screens from the 1950's and '60's. Tahari was planning the studio when he stumbled upon the work of the artist-designer. Before long, the two met, and a new piece was born. Hauer's 45-foot-long perforated white partition, derived from a 1950 version, "separates the space without dividing it," Leitch says.
"In fashion," Tahari adds, "it's important to see natural color." That means lots of sunlight and few shadows. Luckily, his directive to create an "open, elegant environment where everyone sees the sun wherever they are" meshed perfectly with the transparency of the building itself. Between the generous glazing and the field of ceiling illumination, the studio is like a walk-in light box. What's more, it was essential to him that his staff be able to observe the entire clothes-making process, from the designers sketching to the seamstresses sewing. To that end, the necessary enclosed offices, conference rooms, and fitting rooms were pushed to the perimeter, behind a glass storefront system.
Of course, there were challenges. Upgrading the HVAC without lowering the 9-foot ceiling was tricky—until Leitch cleverly disguised linear diffusers between the acrylic panels. Extending the lobby's elevator wall, with its gray marble, required poaching stone from other levels to achieve an exact match. And throughout the studio, every mullion, partition, and panel had to be perfectly aligned, in keeping with high-modernist rigor.
Modernism can also be inviting. Proving the point is mid-century furniture, some upholstered in pleasing charcoal or cream. Reception is a cozy assemblage of three replicas of Hans Wegner's Papa Bear chair and a vintage Florence Knoll sofa, surrounding a low table by Vladimir Kagan. The conference room boasts a Danish 1960's table and credenza, both in rosewood. Other mid-century nods include the staff café's chairs by Charles and Ray Eames, tables by Eero Saarinen, and bar stools by Bertoia. In one of the two fitting rooms, another period Knoll piece holds pride of place: a table with a round walnut top and a stainless-steel X base. "It's incredible we found it," Tahari says. It just happens to come from Bunshaft's landmarked CIGNA campus in Bloomfield, Connecticut.
Project Team Eric Scott: Highland Associates. George Sexton Associates: Lighting Consultant. Anthony M. Giudice: Structural Engineer. Empire Architectural Metal & Glass: Glasswork. D. Magnan Co.: Flooring Contractor. Richter + Ratner: General Contractor. Product Sources From Front Erwin Hauer Studios: Screen (Reception). Vladimir Kagan Design Group: Coffee Table. Through Regeneration: Sofa. Fabrica: Rug. Maharam: Chair Fabric. Modernica: Chairs (Reception), Stools (Reception, Fitting Room). Knoll: Roundtables (Reception, Café), Stools (Café). Herman Miller: Chairs (Café). Through Modernlink: Table, Credenza (Conference Room). Kvadrat Through Maharam: Armchair Fabric (Fitting Room). Through Gallery 33: Table. Throughout Vitra: Task Chairs. Unifor: Desks, Custom Storage. Zetaquattro: Curtain Fabric. Deglas Acrylics: Custom Ceiling Panels. Anemostat Products: Diffusers. Benjamin Moore Co.: Paint.