WHETHER YOU’RE languishing in a plastic cubicle several floors below the executive suites or trying to navigate the tube slides and trampolines of a Silicon Valley startup, workplace options seem to range from soul-crushing to stroke-inducing. But in a boutique financial firm in Midtown Manhattan, Deborah Berke—dean of the Yale School of Architecture and founder of an eponymous architecture and design firm—created a combination of structure and comfort that transformed the view from the water cooler from flat to sparkling.
“On the spectrum between Google’s open office with foosball tables and Park Avenue law firms with senior partners in the corner offices, I think this space is exactly in the middle,” Ms. Berke said of the 10,000-square-foot workplace. The client wanted “a sense of transparency and community balanced with a respect for privacy and concentration, and a non-hierarchical, less corporate, more residential look that would still feel dignified.”
Communal spaces include a fully-stocked lounge and library that provide a variety of environments and experiences, including relaxation, a notion borrowed from the dot-com world, without being slouchy or juvenile.
Sweeping glass walls rather than solid partitions separate rooms. The glass that demarcates individual offices is covered with sheer curtains to provide privacy without alienating anyone—even in the partners’ offices, none of which are sited in corners. The design honors the team. “It says, ‘If you work here, we work together, aiming for the same goals, and your opinion matters,’” said Ms. Berke.
Here, the specifics of how it’s done. CC: your boss.
Adjust Your Set
“I think that today we work in many modes of thought, documentation and idea provocation,” said Ms. Berke. “It’s not all screen based.” She describes this industrious scenario: The person in this somewhat traditionally set up private office could be on the computer either sitting in his chair by Jasper Morrison or on his feet before the standing desk. He could be talking to someone sitting in the Le Corbusier LC7 chair at the height-adjustable glass table. And he could get up to scribble notes on the white board. “People think in a lot of different ways simultaneously,” said the architect. Throughout the office, greenery appears in midcentury pots of different size and scale. “The plants are more than just beautiful,” she said. “Someone has to keep them alive, and an office should give the impression that care is taken in all aspects.”
Proper Business Attire
The conference room is among the more conventional spaces, noted Ms. Berke, but a few factors place it in the 21st century. The handles on the sliding glass doors are wrapped in leather, “another instance of unexpected softness and attention to detail,” she said. Around the Carlo Scarpa table sit vintage Frederick Scott chairs, with their remarkable chrome backs. “When you walk past the room in the hallway you see that beautiful reflective surface.” Overseeing the scene is a commanding painting by New York painter Joe Bradley. “The art shows employees a level of respect, much more than some generic piece that just gets thrown on the wall.”
Democracy in Action
In a break from traditional office structure, Ms. Berke made any room that might have been a status-conferring corner office into communal space, as with this eating lounge. “Many business leaders understand that a less-stratified workplace is more productive,” she explained. The room’s furnishings allow for many types of activities: social or working lunches at a long table, lunch by yourself at the counter, afternoon coffee with a colleague in one of the custom-made banquettes under Poulsen pendant lamps. “The same person can go to the lounge multiple times a day and not have the same experience,” Ms. Berke said., illustrating how a space doesn’t have to feature an excess of stimuli to be continuously interesting. It need only be versatile.
The firm’s private offices temper the transparency of glass walls and doors with Knoll drapes, whose soft, floor-sweeping lamb’s wool feels more residential in character than shades would. Not only do the curtains contribute to acoustic privacy by dampening sound, they can shut out distractions in an instant. “One reason we chose to go sheer was that a degree of light can still come through, and the glow creates a sense of warmth and inhabitation on both sides of the glass,” Ms. Berke said. This lets employees know that they’re not the only ones burning the midnight oil. “You feel part of something beyond your little space.” The pale vertical surfaces also provide contrast to the rich and bold hues found elsewhere. Within the offices, pops of color were introduced in the form of cheery file-storage benches from USM. “People have different colors in their offices, yellows or greens. There’s consistency because it’s part of a scheme, but it’s also surprising—not just endless repetition.”
The library in the offices of a New York financial firm boasts an acrobatic level of flexibility. A group can meet informally over coffee in the comfy chairs or conduct a teleconference with better posture at the glass Norman Foster table. “The clients even said they might gather here to watch the World Cup one morning,” said the space’s designer/architect Deborah Berke. The room, though, remains respectable. “I think spaces can be young and still dignified, if there’s attention to material and a historic pedigree to the furniture and art,” she said. Should a worker decide to clear her brain by spending 20 minutes with the fiction, nonfiction or art books stocked on these shelves, she could prop her feet on a Poul Kjaerholm PK65 table and curl up in a red leather Le Corbusier chair. Not too shabby.