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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The Milan living room and the Milan 2 dining room were both inspired by an active Airbnb listing.
Airbnb was founded five years ago as a way of connecting people who had more space than they needed with people who either couldn’t afford regular hotel rooms or wanted a much more intimate travel experience. The basic premise is this: Guests, as they’re officially called, receive access to not only a place to stay but also, in some cases, a personal guide to the city’s neighborhoods, restaurants, and other hot hangouts. Hosts—as the company officially calls those who rent out rooms, apartments, and houses—receive access to (putting it bluntly) money. Airbnb currently has more than half a million individual listings on the site, is expected to generate close to one billion dollars in sales this year, takes between three and 12 percent of all transactions on both the guest and host side, and has recently been subpoenaed by the New York State Attorney General in an ongoing dispute over what the government is claiming are unpaid hotel taxes. More than connecting travelers to hosts, though, Airbnb is part of the new post-crash, post-recession, post-stability mini-economy, in which bartering has become standard practice and the share economy has replaced the former American dream of individualized ownership.
While the type of person who uses Airbnb varies, it quickly becomes clear that there’s both an ideal Airbnb host and an ideal guest. The listings the company chose to translate into work spaces—there’s an official listings librarian who keeps track of everything—are studies in effortless hipster cool. There’s a Danish Modern loft that, on a Wednesday in October, hosted a couple Airbnb employees intently looking at their MacBooks. There’s a Milan room (each room is named for the city that’s home to its inspirational listing)—temporary home to a three-person meeting in which the word “granular” is used to describe the level of analytical detail the team is going into in regards to either sales or listings numbers—and a San Francisco room, a replica of the original apartment in which the company was founded. There’s also an air mattress, deflated and crumpled up in the corner, that’s a direct nod to an air mattress that provided the first-ever Airbnb guest experience, right in Gebbia and Chesky’s apartment.
And that share economy? Totally in play here, where rather than a sense of individual ownership over corner offices or middle cubes, everyone’s physical location feels random, ad hoc, and completely improvisational. Coders are as likely to be found wearing enormous noise-canceling headphones in a dimly lit Haight-Ashbury–inspired room called the nerd cave; teams working on projects simply take over a plot of indoor real estate, throw up some walls, and call it a pop-up office; and the library has a No Talking sign, for when a designer really doesn’t want to be interrupted. It feels individualized and mutable—like a home.
For the interior designers, the goal wasn’t slavish replication, but a close approximation of the look and feel of the source.
Courtesy Leslie Williamson
Kassin Laverty of the San Francisco–based interior design firm Interior Design Fair worked on the rooms. She met the Airbnb team in 2011 and began emailing with the office manager, Jenna Cushner, who worked as the liaison between Airbnb and the design teams, and whose official title is Ground Control Lead. “I had no idea what she was talking about when she first contacted me,” Laverty says, but a series of emails slowly began to morph into a conversation about the more public spaces being inspired by the international scope of the company’s business.
Cushner knew that Airbnb wanted to do something creative with the offices, and everyone was thinking in a global direction—“making a room look Japan-themed or Iceland-themed,” Laverty recalls. Once they got momentum with that idea, they refined it even further, getting even more granular. Laverty met with Cushner at a local Whole Foods and they came up with a plan: replicating some of the site’s most aesthetically pleasing listings as conference rooms. The main design problem then was, as Laverty puts it, “How do you pull all that together and still keep it super authentic?”
Courtesy Carlos Chavarria
It’s one thing to say that you’re designing a conference room to look like a home (one that actually exists), but quite another to pull it off without falling into what could be called the Ikea Effect: where a room is so carefully designed, laid out, and executed that even as there are nods to the idea that it could be a home—there might be a cabinet, or a table, or a stack of books lovingly and disheveledly piled—it still looks like a design work, like a showroom. Instead, these conference rooms do look like the apartments that inspired them. Laverty cites the process as fundamental to the projects’ success: starting with the material palette and lighting, and then working down to the level of customized detail, like a cactus they got someone in the Midwest to make and send them. Sourcing elements from around the world was one way of avoiding a kitschy look. So was the idea of paying close homage to the listings without directly one-to-one copying them, by keeping what Laverty calls any “knee-jerk” high design ideas out of the mix.
The President’s Room is a restoration of the building’s original 1917 president’s office. Anyone can use the room (Airbnb doesn’t have any presidents). It’s the only traditional space in the building. Gensler engineered the new windows, in which the central panel slides open.
Courtesy Carlos Chavarria