Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 5/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Design firms sell eye-popping, break-the-bank solutions to clients every day. A true test of resourcefulness is that first office a young firm designs (and finances) for itself. Dagnall Folger and Bradley Zizmor met in the graduate architecture program at Columbia University, then founded A+I Design Corp. Recently, they'd been working like nomads, moving from a cramped studio inherited from a former employer to a client's warehouse and then to a tiny office on Fifth Avenue before landing in a loft with wonderful windows and city views. Customizing the new layout, an extravagant 6,000 square feet, meant cutting costs to the bone—and the firm became its own toughest customer.
The renovation's opening gesture serves to camouflage what was once the elevator lobby's peeling, nicotine-stained focal wall—the first thing anyone saw when arriving on the 11th floor. Hiding the mess behind artwork wouldn't do for a couple of reasons. First, a valuable piece hung that close to the elevator ran the risk of being stolen. Second, Folger points out, artwork could be off-message: "This isn't a gallery. It's an architecture office. We needed a strong visual impact related to that."
So A+I boxed in the problem with studs and gypsum-board and applied two kinds of special paint. The top coat is blackboard paint, which comes in handy for client demonstrations. (When Metropolitan National Bank inquired about the ergonomics of teller stations, A+I used chalk to draw full-scale cash drawers and counters right on the wall.) But thanks to an undercoat of magnetic paint, the wall is typically covered with small round logo-printed magnets—an inspired bit of guerilla marketing initiated by associate Victoria Partridge, who ordered 10,000 of them as souvenirs for visitors. "Friends, family, and clients all have them on their refrigerators," Zizmor brags.
Existing features include the lobby's shiny black rubber floor. New flooring was necessary in the carpeted remainder of the space, partly because A+I demolished a corner office and a conference room, combining them into a large drafting room with abundant northern light. High traffic ruled out simply painting the floor glossy black. Instead, the partners used a grant from the landlord to remove the carpet and skim the asbestos-laden underlying tiles, a health hazard to remove. Now they're encapsuled beneath gypsum-based concrete and concealed by highly polished 12-inch black vinyl squares.
Rather than standard pinup surfaces, Zizmor channeled Martha Stewart's obsession with old-fashioned ribbon-crossed bulletin boards. To render the concept a bit more architectural, he used 20,000 feet of plastic tubing from an online surgical-equipment supplier. Tightly wound around the boards, the tubing has sufficient grip and stretch to hold everything from single sheets of paper to bulky materials samples.
For the reception desk, workstations, and a bar in the kitchen, A+I purchased chromed space-frame elements but skipped the matching tops and panels in favor of custom versions in less expensive melamine and marble. The quest for other furnishings turned into something of a scavenger hunt. A rotating selection of framed large-format photography is on loan from art-dealer clients Bonni Benrubi and Peter Garfield. An Eero Saarinen–style table, it turns out, was a fortuitous street find of questionable provenance, but three tiny orange pendant fixtures are verifiably Verner Panton's, as are a cluster of orange polypropylene chairs.
The best bargain—the main conference room's 13 Aluminum Group chairs by Charles and Ray Eames—came courtesy of a job for Vivendi, which sold them to the architects after relocating from its former office in the Seagram Building. Upholstered in the original green synthetic fabric, they still look like a million bucks.