Seen from the new Lehman Smith McLeish office, Washington, D.C., has started to look like a capital of progressive design
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 8/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
After 13 years among the policy wonks and lobbyists in downtown Washington, D.C., Lehman Smith McLeish headed west, to Georgetown. The move was not only a testament to the architects' success but also proof that D.C. is no longer such a bastion of stodginess. (Which is saying a lot.)
LSM's dream office overlooks the early Federal main drag of M Street, which has seen such an influx of high-end home-furnishings purveyors—Bulthaup, Ligne Roset, Waterworks—that Georgetown has started audaciously billing itself as the New Center of Design. By setting up shop here, LSM has affirmed design's coming-of-age in D.C. as well as the firm's own pivotal role in that process.
After a fruitless search to buy real estate in a manic market, LSM ended up leasing in a two-story building developed for retail. Debra Lehman-Smith and James McLeish convinced the landlord to let them take over the top floor, fill in the slab, move the front door around to a brick-paved alley, and reposition the main staircase. The landlord also agreed to throw in 230 previously inaccessible square feet, free, if LSM would construct a short secondary stair. (This loft is now a library with Eero Saarinen furniture.) An elevator connects the upstairs to additional space in the basement.
Visitors ascend the main stair's concrete steps to find a pair of Poul Kjærholm's gracefully curved leather-padded lounge chairs. Reception desk? Conspicuously absent. You're already in the studio, and one of the dozens of architects perched at 20-foot-long stainless-steel and glass tables jumps up to greet you. "Yeah, you've got to work it out," McLeish says. "Having to go through a gatekeeper just sends the wrong message."
The firm also skipped the conventional gauntlet of photos of past projects. Instead, the stair landing doubles as a gallery, displaying a set of six contemporary color photographs of empty rooms with open doors and windows. "They give a slight nod to what we do," Lehman-Smith explains.
Not that there isn't plenty to brag about. "I think that we as a design community are guilty of not raising the bar," she adds. "So often, I hear other architects say about one of our projects, 'Oh, my clients would never do that!' Which is ridiculous. I mean—we're all out there pitching the same people."
As its own client, LSM chose all-white for the 9,000-square-foot skylit space. Even the phones are white. And almost everything is open. "Visual accessibility is important, because there are behavioral clues people pick up by observation and osmosis," McLeish says. Still, despite the lack of walls, the atmosphere is quiet bordering on serene.
Employees are expected to clear their desks before leaving at night, a requirement that "forces people to be organized," says Lehman-Smith, who's something of a clutter cop at heart. (Don't ask to see that basement space, aka the "lower studio," where the messy jobs of building models and printing plans take place.)
Of course, as in every LSM project, the art shapes the design. "We're always thinking about artwork early on, not as an afterthought, even if we don't have all the pieces yet," says Terese Wilson, the principal in charge of the office project. "Knowing that a wall will be primarily for art, we purposely choose finishes and lighting to make it shine."
Punctuating the white envelope here are graphic, colorful works by Barbara Kruger, Julian Opie, Damien Hirst, and Josef Albers—visible from almost any spot, including the two partners' glazed offices along the far wall. The only places devoid of art are the samples library and the conference room, where the walls are frequently covered with pinups for projects.
Lehman-Smith confesses to going beyond her comfort level in terms of money, but the returns have been worth it. "The office is an enormous recruiting tool," she says. "If architects are on the fence, and they see this space, they're more than likely to come."
That's even before they discover the other perks: weekly catered lunches on the terrace, free Häagen-Dazs in the fridge, and a 110-car underground garage, a rare commodity in Georgetown. Lehman-Smith likes to joke that, for Christmas, LSM should send clients three-hour parking coupons.