The Mega-Studio of Modernism
C.C. Sullivan -- Interior Design, 11/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Most design firms preach collaboration. The best live it. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, falls comfortably into the latter category.
This legendary interdisciplinary approach has produced the icons from which design-school case studies are made. SOM has infused the modern corporate citadel with innovative interiors, most famously at New York's Lever House, 1952. The firm has produced heroic architecture bulging with muscle, as at Chicago's John Hancock Center, 1970. And the firm's planning work has created landmark landscapes, among them the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, 1963.
Forging a large partnership with high-design ambitions has entailed many challenges. But the payoff has come often. In breakthrough building types and pure research, in new construction methods and computer tools, in bold vision and bottom-line efficiency, SOM—it's safe to say—usually got there before anyone else.
Some 10,000 buildings after its founding, SOM is the fifth-ranked U.S. commercial design firm. It also holds a perennial top-10 spot on Interior Design's Giants survey. Total interiors fees hit $42 million last year on work by about 200 designers in eight large and decidedly competitive offices.
SOM spreads its interiors talent across a new organizational map that dispenses with traditional boundaries. Overlapping disciplines include "research, sustainable design, and development" and "product design and development" in addition to the more conventional architecture, interiors, and graphics. "Interiors are as integral to the architectural design process as engineering or anything else," says Craig Hartman, design partner in San Francisco.
"We're focused on innovation and renewing our practice," says SOM's first-ever interiors partner, Stephen Apking. "The next-generation partners felt there was an imperative to rethink who we were." That means wooing hotshot hires—from graphic designers and software programmers to industrial designers, even filmmakers and fashion designers—and landing like-minded patrons.
A sleeping giant, reawakened, SOM has made the most of the last few years. Fresh ideas in interiors have blossomed, many in the hotel, residential, and product sectors, not traditionally SOM mainstays. And while the firm has had some recent losses, notably the departure of partner Adrian Smith in Chicago, the pendulum is on the upswing. On the firm's 70th anniversary, the entity that Nathaniel Owings called the "King Kong of architectural dynasties" has begat a Son of Kong: an interiors practice with a birthright of innovation.