The White Wave pix
This Seattle studio represents a creative crescendo for the young firm SkB Architects
Lawrence W. Cheek -- Interior Design, 5/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
The studio's signature sculptural element is supported by a frame of tubular-steel headers. To turn a 90-degree angle smoothly, the drywall was painstakingly sanded.
Plastic laminate surfaces the studio's custom workstations.
The studio accommodates 21 designers, including the four principals.
In the gallery corridor, the top of a steel display cabinet incorporates a laser-cut ruler to help clients visualize the scale of models.
The mezzanine's materials library also hosts client meetings.
Rayon-polyester blend damask covers the seats of the studio's Leap chairs.
Flooring in the gallery corridor is smoked oak.
In addition to a skylight, the library features metal-halide, incandescent and fluorescent lighting, so samples can be viewed under various conditions.
A beehive pattern enlivens the brushed stainless steel of the custom table in the lounge.
Tom Dixon designed the lounge's pendant fixtures in chrome-finished polycarbonate.
Red identifies the hall to the mezzanine's restrooms.
Both conference rooms feature stretched-fabric mounting systems for flexible displays and acoustical control. Eero Saarinen designed the chairs, also a common feature.
The building's original north-facing windows are 14 feet high, with the lower 6 feet banded in translucent privacy film.
A team area's Livingstones ottomans are covered in wool.
The area is anchored by a nylon rug.
Jens Risom's stained-maple table furnishes the "den."
In the studio, the architects stripped the walls' plaster and gypsum board, then sandblasted the concrete behind.
A vinyl-appliqué manifesto defines the stair landing.
The principals of SkB Architects in Seattle have not yet hatched a properly professional term for the long, swoopy, white thing that greets clients walking in the door. The Element is the best that anyone can manage. By whatever name, however, the white thing performs remarkably well on several fronts: effectively dividing public and private spaces while inviting thoughtfully orchestrated interaction between them; providing a frame for architectural models below; and offering a dramatic introduction to the young firm's creative culture. "It's open and welcoming," says Doug McKenzie, one of SkB's four principals. "It also says, 'Casual but aggressive.' That's how we see ourselves—we like to work hard and play hard, but we don't take ourselves too seriously."
Working hard was becoming increasingly difficult for the 15 architects and designers in the firm's tight downtown office. When a raggedy 1951 bank in the hip-fringe Belltown district appeared on the market, SkB jumped at the opportunity. The bank needed a total renovation but offered 8,000 square feet to grow in. McKenzie's fellow principals—Brian Collins-Friedrichs, Kyle C. Gaffney, and Shannon Rankin—designed the new space, and construction took six months.
From the outset, the partners envisaged a renovation to resonate with the culture of their firm and the diversity of its work, which includes ground-up houses and commercial buildings along with retail and office interiors. SkB likes to weave residential intimacy into commercial work and, similarly, to transplant the sophistication of contract projects into home designs. This might sound like pure marketing, but it actually plays out in the carefully tuned layout on the public side of the Element.
A pair of conventional conference rooms offer seating for eight and 12. Between the two, a smaller, denlike retreat is furnished with a casual low sectional sofa and an amoeboid Jens Risom coffee table. A floor lamp, track lighting, and a glass-block window furnish the relatively soft light. "This room is all about intimacy. It's where we bring our residential clients, so they don't feel like they're in a power conference room. It makes them more receptive to 'conversation,' rather than 'meeting,'" Collins-Friedrichs says. "Interestingly, it's the most popular room for us, too." Still more casual in the hierarchy of meeting spaces is a team area that's little more than an empty space defined by a square brown rug and wool-covered ottomans meant to resemble rocks. Staff members use this spot, of course. Clients who bring kids also park them among the squishy boulders—with happy results.
There's yet another possibility for designer-client interaction upstairs on a 700-square-foot mezzanine formerly home to mechanical systems. (They've been exiled to the roof.) This level is now a materials library stuffed with samples of everything from fabric to stone. "We have a lot of client meetings up here, too," Gaffney says. "It helps them feel less like they're being presented to, more like they're involved in the process."
The dividing line between these public-oriented spaces and the private realm of the studio is a 35-foot-long bookcase used for displaying architectural models on top: A "ruler" laser-cut in the surface helps clients visualize scale. Between the models below and the Element curving above, clients can also get a glimpse of the studio, where principals occupy workstations, just like the grunts do. Informal interaction is actively encouraged—the designers call it "professional eavesdropping." As Collins-Friedrichs explains, the advantage of the big, bustling room is that it helps designers tap into the firm's collective knowledge as well as the frenzied energy of the work. The disadvantage, he admits, is "exactly what you think it would be. It's definitely better for type A personalities."
Each custom workstation provides a designer with a world of flexibility. There are two movable task lamps, an LCD monitor on an articulated arm, and a glass "music stand" for posting personal inspirations or scribbling down notes with a dry-erase marker. There's also a personal drafting table off to one side. Even though most SkB designers grew up on the computer, they still believe in the tactile connection of drawing on paper, at least part of the time.
If a design firm's own digs imprint a positive impression on a visitor, the investment should pay off—and these ones decidedly do. They suggest creativity, within a framework of discipline, and a level of user-friendly openness that's rare for any studio. That's demonstrated again and again at monthly get-togethers for clients, suppliers, and neighbors. The party always takes place in the lounge, at the far end of the white thing.