Rooms with a View
The Airbnb Headquarters in San Francisco may be the ultimate reflection of both the brand, and the tech world’s new way of working.
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A green living wall anchors one end of the atrium, opposite the conference rooms.
Courtesy Carlos Chavarria
While it’s not a prerequisite for Airbnb employees to have seen the 1964 Stanley Kubrick movie Dr. Strangelove, which features as its visual centerpiece a famous—and famously anti-conflict—War Room, it does help the layout of the company’s conference room make a lot more sense. “It was one of those spaces where we had the chance to do a cylindrical room,” Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia says. “And when the concept was revealed, everyone’s face turned into a huge smile.” There were two other possibilities that Gensler floated to their clients, but nothing delighted the late-20s/early-30s employees who by now have spread out across every differently designed inch of this 72,000-square-foot space in a recently renovated building in San Francisco quite like the Strangelove look.
Design isn’t only about making all the employees smile, though; it’s about making things work. “What happens is that you put people at a level playing field,” Gebbia explains of the white circular table surrounded by comfortable gray chairs, an exactingly referential nod to the War Room’s aesthetic. “And then it’s less hierarchical and more collaborative.” He’s quick to say that the company was that way even before their meetings took place at circular tables, but of course it’s always better when the design not only reflects what was an existing value, but pushes new ideas into sharper play.
And that’s what the design of the new Airbnb office does: It represents the young and fast-growing company’s ethos of openness, collaboration, and constant enterprise, while at the same time encouraging even more happenstance, randomness, and play. The San Francisco office, which currently has more than 200 employees and adds on in the neighborhood of four programmers, developers, analysts, or designers a week, took over one and a half floors of 888 Brannan Street. The 96-year-old warehouse building in the city’s rapidly developing SoMa neighborhood had just undergone a renovation at the hands of Gensler, the global design firm that did both the entire shell and bones of the structure and significantly assisted Airbnb in the redesign of their office space. The look is one part new Internet bubble, one part San Francisco–handmade, one part newly iconic brand, and one part design school chic. Together, the parts are emblematic of not only the new economy but also a new spatial blurring: one in which features that used to be considered part of home—a kitchen, a library, a nerd cave, a place to nap—are now integrated into both the space and practice known as work.
The company’s founders, Joe Gebbia, Brian Chesky, and Nathan Blecharczyk, pose in the President’s Room.
Courtesy Shidume Lozada
There were two Gensler teams at work. One, led by Lisa Bottom, was embedded with Airbnb for four months, and worked closely with two of the founders—Gebbia and Brian Chesky, both Rhode Island School of Design graduates with serious eyes towards design (Gebbia’s official bio mentions his history as a designer for Chronicle Books and his dual degrees in graphic and industrial design; Chesky received his BFA in industrial design); the other was focused on the overall building. “It was sort of this poor old thing on the corner where they had painted over all the windows,” Bottom says, explaining that the curious cover-up of light (in a city so overrun by fog, it’s rare to see anyone purposely block it out) was because one of the building’s original tenants needed bright, artificial lights to make its rubies, diamonds, and cubic zirconia sparkle in its jewelry mart. Not only were there repurposable windows, but there were also skylights, something that the Gensler team wanted to work with.
The building also offered a massive central atrium reminiscent of Brad Cloepfil’s game-changing adaptive reuse project for Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Oregon—all seating possibilities and extruded frames that, even if abstractly, represent different Airbnb listings across the world, as well as walls of glass that offer peeks into the conference rooms that un-abstractly represent the company’s listings. “We wanted to use the atrium as a front door to the Airbnb space,” Bottom explains, a process that led to another major design move: the decision to use existing Airbnb listings, as the company calls the properties it features, to inspire the office’s aesthetic and visual organization.
Airbnb employees have the freedom to work wherever they want. The 72,000-square-foot facility contains few fixed workspaces. Here, employees hold an impromptu meeting in the Ate Ate Ate cafeteria (the name is a cheeky play on the address of the building, 888 Brannan Street).
Courtesy Carlos Chavarria