The Discovery Process
HLW took the time to ascertain a New York law firm's needs
Judith Davidsen -- Interior Design, 5/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
What do you do when you don't have all that much experience in the field where your prospective client is active? HLW International faced just that situation with an international law firm—and still managed to land not only an initial project, in Philadelphia, but also a second, larger one: a 230,000-square-foot office in New York. To gain the confidence of the attorneys, HLW showed examples of its previous offices for media and software companies with similar issues, including a need for openness and maximum occupancy. "We showed solutions rather than focusing on the concept of law firm," HLW senior partner John Mack says. And, perhaps more important, according to Mack, "We listened."
HLW's discovery process, a procedure for gathering evidence to achieve a required goal, is not too different from the law's. The designers, however, often base their discovery on a card game they developed for such projects. While looking at pictures of offices, clients in focus groups throw out cards printed with descriptive words: professional, casual, sophisticated, exciting, welcoming, permanent, hierarchical, boring. "It brings up a lot of questions, like: 'Why is that boring?' We get them thinking outside what they perceive the issues to be, not jumping to conclusions," principal Jennifer Brayer says. "Design is a solution-based profession, but we have to make sure we're solving the right problems." By the end of this process with the lawyers, the HLW mantra had become "a better experience for everyone."
HLW looked at five buildings during site selection, ultimately choosing floors 25 through 31 of a glass tower. Tucked between the decorum of Bryant Park and the razzle-dazzle of Times Square, the law firm feels anchored at the center of the world. Vistas from perimeter offices and conference rooms take in nearly the entire history of the skyscraper.
Their glass fronts allow the open work areas in the center of each floor plate to enjoy the sunlight. That's because only the top and bottom of the glass remain transparent; for the sake of privacy, translucent film was applied in between. Anyone roaming the halls will experience snatches of sky, a soft daylight glow, or the twinkle of city lights as well as the occasional ankle. To spy on office-mates, a snoop would have to engage in the kind of public contortions that guarantee getting caught.
A flying staircase connects most of the floors. On the conference level, the stair passes through the center of reception, where a raised seating area is tucked between the stairs and the window wall. On each practice floor, the stairs rise alongside a glassed-in conference room.
In an attempt to de-clutter individual offices, HLW set up plenty of nearby storage to hold files temporarily before they're shipped to the warehouse. (Lawyers always assume they're going to need the papers of recently closed cases.) The emphasis on storage carries over to the coffee rooms, where some simple options encourage clear surfaces: built-in dispensers for cups, drawers for tea bags and sweetener packets, closets for coffee supplies.
The main café, on the conference level, has a clear view of the Times Square crystal ball, stored in plain sight from one New Year's to the next. Opposite the café's windows, the kitchen and service area are concealed by a partition of ribbed glass. Low fluorescent lights are left on here at night—as Mack points out, "A dark kitchen reminds you that you're working late." Once a week, caterers commandeer the kitchen and a buffet staging area to serve lunch to as many as 75 partners. They're split between two pairs of conference rooms, each pair combined to form a larger single space, thanks to a shared wall that retracts into the ceiling. The conference tables are broken down into smaller squares, which are then moved into a restaurantlike configuration. Presto—lunch is served.
Deliberate design surprises that mitigate the same-old-same-old of work are part of the subtle discovery process in this law office. And the discovery continues over time—it's not just an initial wow. Take the hourly and seasonal changes of light, the endless intellectual questions raised by the considerable art collection, and the occasional glimpse of an upholstery fabric that seems too stylish to be quite legal.
Photography by Eric Laignel.
Susan Boyle; Suzette Subance; Colleen Hass; Lisa Knip; Fran Goldstein; Gerard Robertson; George Sucato; Owen Lee; Vladimir Belogolovsky; Susan Kaplan: Hlw International. Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design: Lighting Consultant. Costello Maione Schuch: Audiovisual Consultant. Robert Silman Associates: Structural Engineer. Ama Consulting Engineers: MEP. Acoustic Dimensions: Acoustical Engineer. Midhattan Woodwork Corp.: Woodwork. Gardiner & Theobald: Project Manager. J.T. Magen & Company: General Contractor.
From front Knoll: Chairs (Office, Conference Rooms, Meeting Room), Table (Reception). Geiger International: Desk, Credenza (Office), Tables (Conference Rooms, Office). Walter Knoll through M2l: Chairs (Reception). Spinneybeck: Chair Upholstery. Kea Carpets and Kilims: Custom Rug. Designtex: Solid Wall Covering. Karastan: Carpet (Stairwell, Conference Rooms, Office). Coalesse: Bench (Hall). Joel Berman Glass Studios: Paneling. Shaw: Carpet (Hall, Buffet Area, Meeting Room, Café). Paul Downs: Custom Table (Meeting Room). Skyline Design: Custom Paneling. Herman Miller: Chairs (Café). Caesarstone: Tabletop Material. CF Group: Table Bases. Chairmasters: Custom Banquettes. Arc/Com Fabrics: Banquette Fabric. Yoma Textiles: Patterned Wall Covering (Stairwell). Throughout Armstrong: Ceiling System. Stone Source: Stone Supplier. Benjamin Moore & Co.: Paint.