Clive Wilkinson takes over five floors of a Midtown tower—with a renovation for ad agency JWT
C.C. Sullivan -- Interior Design, 9/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
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In today's advertising world, top creatives and account executives shun such long-standing buzzwords as image and message as oh-so-Mad Men, classic but passé. Current industry lingo emphasizes experience and storytelling, two ideas that inform the Midtown headquarters of JWT, the agency once called J. Walter Thompson. The 250,000 square feet of airy, energized open plan are punctuated by vignettes, events, poems, encounters. Clive Wilkinson, an Interior Design Hall of Fame member known for media work, thought of these moments not as separate 30-second spots but rather as elements tied together in an experiential über-narrative—like so many twigs on a tree. And Clive Wilkinson Architects tapped into his tree theme to drive design solutions. "It's a metaphor for storytelling, but we also extended it as an organizing form and connective tissue between the branches of the agency," Wilkinson explains.
An impressive atrium, 32 feet tall, is the "trunk." Representing "branches," on the levels above, are green cylinders that house small meeting rooms and even smaller huddle rooms. Some are painted drywall, though the most memorable are acoustically padded awning material. All 15 of the latter bear quotations from a wide range of novelists, with individual letters partially cut out of the green fabric but left hanging limply like so many summer leaves.
Wilkinson's tree conceit translates successfully into creative, fun-filled collaboration spaces. The bigger story, however, is that the proliferation of meeting zones resulted from a top-to-bottom recasting of the agency's business model. Step one in the process: JWT tapped Rosemarie Ryan as president in 2004. Step two: Ryan lured Ty Montague from a rival shop to be co-president, chief creative officer. Step three, Ryan's most legendary act: ripping off all office doors. Plainly, transparency and accessibility would be vital for this new regime. But could interiors really help make more effective storytellers out of 900 employees? "From inception, it emerged that JWT was reframing its core vision about how it engaged the public," Wilkinson says. "The project became a long interactive process, involving visioning workshops and a program-investigation phase with lots of interviews." He enlisted workplace strategist DEGW, a frequent partner, to help link office and technology solutions to the core business mandate. The result of DEGW's strategizing and Wilkinson's artistry is five floors of effective, talent-inspiring workplace.
Every office besides the chairman's and the finance director's went open-plan—in a rainbow of partition colors. The ratio of meeting spaces to staff members jumped, and each space took on a distinct personality and name. As at any ad agency, meeting and reception areas had to be energizing enough to wow even the most jaded clients, and it's here that Wilkinson's mastery is most in evidence. He drew on his experience with West Coast warehouse conversions, encouraging JWT to raise its sights quite literally. Dropped ceilings disappeared, an especially dramatic move on the 18-foot-tall main floor, at the back of which he inserted the Treehouse, a cluster of mezzanine meeting spots connected by steps and ramps. Floor slabs were cut away, creating two atria. The lower one allows a switchback flying staircase to ascend from reception, interrupted by a landing furnished with acid-orange seating—a hipster's hangout.
Across the main floor from the entry, a potent sense of arrival continues in two conference rooms. Oak paneling and a complex, deconstructivist system of soffits and fabric-covered ceiling panels characterize the Cathedral. Its polar opposite is just out the door and a few feet up a ramp: The conference room known as the Deck centers on an internally lit acrylic conference table, and the lower half of the surrounding walls is glazed, matching the profile of the building's ribbon windows and offering staffers a glimpse of activity inside.
These moves, taken together, are a velvet-gloved upper-cut into a faceless office building. Yet, with low-key finishes and a seemingly endless array of informal furnishings, Wilkinson makes his stylish knockout look easy.