MDC Exclusive Series: The InterviewArchitect Clive Wilkinson on that Desk for The Barbarian Group and the Human Psychology behind his Designs for Business
The project that garnered 2012 Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Museum National Design Award winner Clive Wilkinson, a great deal of mainstream press last year centered on a single piece of furniture. A desk—known as Superdesk, actually—that ribbons throughout The Barbarian Group’s New York headquarters, organizing space as it arches, drops, creates nooks, and seats an entire company together. Adweek dubbed the piece ‘4,400 square feet of undulating awesomeness.’
Like his work, Wilkinson is optimistic and gregarious, but the ideas that underlie it are, also like the man, quite serious. When we asked him what would be the next advance in terms of office design, his answer surprised us. (Hint: it wasn’t the latest hot technology.) We were talking about the typology because although his studio currently hosts a wide range of commissions, from institutional to educational to residential, his experience with the work space presents a unique opportunity to gain insights in the area. Wilkinson was introduced to the typology when, still working in Frank Gehry’s office, he was the Project Architect for the interiors for the Binocular Building. Today, he frequently interfaces with the creative minds that are Jay Chiat’s successors.
But we began by querying Wilkinson, a prolific user of social media, about something he posted on a personal page a couple of years back. When we brought up “Facebook”, Wilkinson laughed, and then we settled into the interview.—Tibby Rothman
MDC: Around 2013, you posted up that “It’s never too late” on Facebook. What did you mean career wise?”
Clive Wilkinson, FAIA, RIBA, IIDA: The peculiar challenge of being an architect is you don’t get really good at what you do until you’re old and that has everything to do with the learning curve of an immensely complex endeavor. It takes an awful lot of time to learn how to put buildings together well, and it takes an awful lot of time, it seems, to understand the users as well.
I turned sixty last year and it’s very liberating because I feel like my education is over. I feel I finally know what I’m doing. A lot of people are thinking of retiring at sixty. I’m thinking of starting.
MDC: Many of your clients are advertising and digital marketing agencies at the forefront of their field, TBWA\Chiat\Day, The Barbarian Group, Ogilvy & Mather, JWT. Agencies often emphasize their unique approach to clients. I’m wondering if any of them have influenced your approach to commissions…
Wilkinson: Oh, yeah! We learned about the office from ad agencies. When I came from England in 1990 and joined Frank Gehry’s office, I don’t think I’d ever really done a work place project. I’d done some interiors for things like tv stations but never actual ‘work place’ projects and I got the job of running the interiors in the Binocular Building—working with Jay Chiat and all his people. It was a completely mind-opening experience because they had so much more of a sophisticated idea about how creative space works and how the work place can support that.
I remember thinking, ‘My God! There’s nothing in my training that has prepared me for this. And if I just listen to these people and work for these people, I’ll pick it all up!’ And that’s, kind of, what happened. Jay had some really provocative and great ideas about the work place. One of which was—“I’m not interested in my people being comfortable. I’m interested in provoking them.” He wanted to create a friction in the work place, so that people felt challenged. There were lots and lots of thoughts along that line.
MDC: It’s interesting to see the span of commissions you’ve done in this typology. From the Binocular Building, to an early project at your office, the Pallota TeamWorks interior, in which you created playful, adaptable space on a very tight budget. You convinced Google to eliminate the cubicle for Googleplex. What’s the next big change we’re going to see in office space?
Wilkinson: I think, it’s mostly behavioral, and less about architecture. Curiously, in the last year, we finished two projects roughly at the same time. One was the SuperDesk for Barbarian Group. The other one was much more modest in architectural terms—a project for a company called GLG, the GLG Global Headquarters in New York. The Barbarian is obviously an architectural fetish; GLG is about human behavior. We’re interested in both things equally–perhaps even more so on the behavior side.
People look at all the firm’s published work, and think ‘these are cool stylistic designers and that’s where it starts’ but the amount of effort that goes into the human behavioral side, the user experience side, is really what drives us at the firm. We worked with the client on the GLG project to persuade them to adopt something called Activity Based Working. A lot of people use the term these days, but there’s not that much accuracy about it. It’s second-generation mobile working—which is highly supported by a suite of different types of work settings for different types of work. It really re-energized GLG as a community in an extremely strong way. That was quite a different project to Superdesk but in behavioral terms more impactful.
MDC: So, today, the value of the office is in the communal?
Wilkinson: We believe quite strongly that the work place is all about community. It’s about knowledge sharing. People don’t go to the office so much anymore to do concentrated work. To think about the office as having a sustainable future—is about community.
That brings a lot of hope for cities in the future in as much as we’ve averted this thought process that was quite prevalent about ten years ago in which everyone was going to work from home, and mobility meant you could live in the middle of the Rocky Mountains and be participating in business in New York City.
That kind of thinking was really a threat to cities. It was ‘suburbia was the new dream,’ not the energized city. So the emphasis of community in the office has been a very worthwhile development in the last ten years.
MDC: The focus on user experience is so tied into digital technology’s emergence, but now that ideology is going back to the brick and mortar world. Has it become easier to talk to clients about these issues?
Wilkinson: It definitely has.
When we talk about user experience, I don’t think we are in the realm of social engineering, which was a hot button topic back in the 1960s. It’s a case of facilitating relationships. The traditional work place is an environment that’s mired with obstacles, barriers to productivity, barriers to community, etc. etc. So a lot of the time, being able to identify and remove obstacles has a massive rejuvenating experience for communities. People will always make their own decisions about how they engage or don’t engage, but you can do so many subtle things that can affect their use of space.
MDC: What’s an illustration?
Wilkinson: Well, at GLG we created a new atrium that was through two separate floors–with a skylight above so that it got natural light into a lot of the building–always a good, very simple thing to do. At the edge of the atrium, we put a coffee bar and the client had the foresight to actually hire a barista. And it’s astonishing, how that’s facilitated community. It’s very visible and you see it from the front door, and you see the flow around it all time.
The idea of flow isn’t just about organization that looks like it’s moving around nicely. It’s about the connections that happen, the way in which people interact and stop and have conversations with each other and become aware of what each other are doing. That movement around the work place we think is incredibly powerful for, not just physical health, people’s bodies, but people’s sense of engagement. On multiple levels it will have an impact on a company.
MDC: When you were honored for your Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Museum National Design Award for Interior Design, you went to lunch at, probably the country’s oldest functioning office, we call it The White House, How would you change it?
Wilkinson: (Laughs.) It had a wonderful sense of an architecture welcoming you at a scale that was personal and not intimidating. I was expecting something very palatial and it’s really quite an intimate house. So many government and civic buildings […] in their desire to make a monumental impact, they alienate the users. I wouldn’t want to change anything about The White House because I think it’s really quite delightful.
This interview has been edited for cohesiveness and brevity.