August 07, 2019
In this new interview series, Shop Talk, we chat with friends and collaborators of Rich Brilliant Willing about the ideas, discoveries, and inspirations that drive their design process. For our first installment, we feature the architect behind our recent studio expansion at Industry City.
Photography by Dean Kaufman
As we continue to celebrate our ten-year milestone—yes, ten!—the excitement can be felt in our new and improved workspace, which we recently expanded and revamped this spring to meet the demands of a growing team. To help us along with the transformation, we collaborated with local architect and designer Neil Logan to refine our sixth-floor loft space at Industry City, which combines a purpose-designed factory and design studio under one roof.
We were lucky to work together: Neil has worked with more than a handful of legends, from Toshiko Mori, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Philippe Starck, and Andrée Putman; to brands like Herman Miller and Maharam; and artists including Rirkrit Tiravanija and R.H. Quaytman. Neil’s precise work is rigorous as it is elegantly minimal, and as a hands-on independent architect and designer, we felt his creative ethos resonated with our own.
We recently caught up with Neil to get to know him a little better, and discuss his design process and thinking behind our new workspace.
Tell us about your studio. When did you first start your own practice?
I started my office in the early ’90s, after having worked for some larger offices and smaller offices, some interior people, some famous people—and then kind of slowly went on my own.
For my first solo project, I was lucky to have a project with Art and Commerce, a company that represented photographers and people in the fashion business, mostly, and advertising. And then that led to many other contacts and other projects; I also have several clients who are prominent artists, for example. I find that I tend to work well with people in the visual and creative fields.
Was redesigning our studio your first time working in Industry City?
To be frank, I had only been to Industry City one time prior to working with RBW! And I was quite impressed to learn how the team assembles all of their fixtures themselves and at that location—that was very surprising and impressive, to see these high-quality, design conscious products being made, well marketed, and presented all in one space. These days, most companies farm out that kind of manufacturing work, or you assume they’re made by robots, or something [laughs].
"That was very surprising and impressive, to see these high-quality, design conscious products being made, well marketed, and presented all in one space."
It’s an actively industrial space, both historically and the way we use it today. What were your initial thoughts about how you might redesign our workspace within that context?
In a building of that type, where the existing structure is so prominent, so strong and dominant, it’s important to organize your space with the structure, as opposed to fight against it. When we started the project, there was a concrete block wall dividing the existing space with the additional one, and once we removed that, a lot of the interior divisions were really the result of using the columns and beams as markers.
The biggest challenge, for us, was figuring out how to arrange all of the different workstations and distinct needs for our team within that grid—while still keeping us together, social and collaborative in one space.
There were three main different functions to address, as I saw it. The assembly, which could be quite noisy at times; and the studio and office areas, for quieter, more focused desk work. Then, a mix of meeting rooms, private offices, and shared spaces—which, in a big, open space like that, is a challenge to make without breaking it up into too many little rooms.
Our studio and workshop at Industry City now spans the entire floor, structured by three large bays partitioned by a grid of columns and beams that are original to the building.
So instead, we introduced this big box of smaller rooms, and then had a bunch of ideas of how to animate those areas that we were building out. The modular rooms and sliding doors brought a lot of sheet rock and blank surfaces into the space. With the added structural repetition of the building columns and beams, our approach was to use color to break up the monotony and act as a visual marker. The colors also help distinguish each of the spaces from one another, allowing for a kind of wayfinding.
Neil chose tones from Polychromie Architecturale, Le Corbusier’s swatch of architecturally significant paint hues, to visually punctuate each of the different rooms and stations with a cohesive pop of color.
What were some of the other major spatial interventions and design changes you felt were needed?
The other thing I noticed, after visiting a couple of times, was that the assembly and workshop areas at the center of the studio were rather very dark. But there was a giant skylight right in the middle of the space! So we opened those up, and that was a great way to balance all of the natural light coming in through the windows on either side of the building.
Let there be light: Activating skylights at the center of our floor-through space brightened up our communal areas.
One of the best things about what you’ve done with our space—and furniture—is how it supports and promotes collaboration among the RBW team.
I was happy that the team decided to have custom furniture for their special needs, rather than going and just buying things off the shelf, because then the whole thing can be more tailored to their setup. In the case of the conference room, they wanted to have these high tables, which is slightly unusual. The idea is that they would have shorter and more informal meetings, and people would be encouraged to stand up or perch on strong stools while discussing or reviewing products together. And then in the kitchen and pantry area, we designed and had fabricated open and exposed stainless steel countertops—kind of like an industrial restaurant supply—and added a more conventional but very large table, so everyone could casually sit together as they prepare and eat lunch or take a break.
I think the way that RBW works is very special and admirable, because it shows less of an interest in separating out the different kind of tasks—and even the different work cultures that may exist between the people in the assembly or stock department, with those in design or accounting, and so forth—and trying to mix and integrate them all together.
Our group meetings tend to happen standing, while workshopping and reviewing prototypes and models, so Neil custom-designed a set of counter-height tables with stools.