The Long Approach

“It’s like a tattoo,” Amale Andraos says. “It stays, no matter how hard you scratch.” She’s talking about the aftereffects of working for one of the hothouses of contemporary architecture, Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). She can stop scratching: a recent project in New York, the jewelry company Lee Angel’s offices and showroom, blends the methods she and Work Architecture Company partner, Dan Wood, learned at OMA with a sense of humor all their own.

Andraos insists that the process-oriented sensibility they brought with them is rooted in pragmatics. “Every line you drew had to be real,” she says of her OMA experience. The architects—who work so closely that they often finish each other’s sentences when discussing a project—met at Harvard, while he was already working for OMA, and reconnected seven years into Wood’s nine-year stint at Koolhaas’s Rotterdam office. Wood was tapped to run OMA’s New York City outpost, where the pair spent two years before branching off on their own. Fortunately, their leaving coincided with Koolhaas’s shifting his architectural attentions toward the East, which made the break cleaner.

The 12-person firm’s offices on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a rapidly expanding architectural scene (the Essex Street studios a few short blocks down are becoming the hipster version of 180 Varick), overlooks a typical neighborhood streetscape: Moby’s Teany café sits across from a synagogue that cozies up to a Muslim deli. Wood and Andraos moved to the space a year ago after working out of a 13th Street loft until its crowdedness stopped being cute and started being awful. The architects’ OMA-taught habit of thinking and sketching largely in blue foam models made the cramped space smaller and smaller as the workload increased.

The Lee Angel showroom is a study in addressing multiple birds with one giant stone. “From the start we wanted to keep everything generic,” Andraos explains. Work favors one sweeping design that attacks both aesthetic and practical problems—the architects are constantly mindful of parameters and constraints. “We really work with the program and get involved, inscribing it in a larger context,” Andraos says of the initial design process. The architects disagree with the process of abstract form-sketching, and instead do as much research as possible. “The idea of the genius who sketches is mythical—completely wrong,” Andraos argues. “It’s all through collaborating and testing.” Lest the critic be wary in the face of the glut of “research-oriented” firms that often don’t seem to build anything, instead laying back in the pretty rendering and five-pound bookmaking cut, Andraos points out the grounding that Work’s process takes. “It’s not metaphysical research,” she explains, “It’s very basic—dissecting the program and identity of the client.”

A creative constraint in the Lee Angel project was both the firm’s helter-skelter identity and constantly shifting size. Over the course of the 11-month project the client’s staff grew dramatically, renting neighboring office space and holding onto it even during slow business cycles. Performing due research diligence, Wood and Andraos spoke to every member of the company about their work life, videotaped the interviews, and used what they had learned to inform their de-sign decisions. A significant problem Lee Angel’s employees talked about was the cramped, rigid nature of the space. Visitors entered from the hallway and were immediately shunted off to the showroom, with no sense of the complex processes behind what they were (hopefully) about to buy. This stuck in the architects’ minds, but it was what could have been a throwaway comment that ended up proving the crux of the design. “They kept saying, ‘We have eight thousand jars of beads,’” Wood says. The architects had found their gesture.

The centerpiece of the renovation is an L-shaped corridor, starting in the reception and moving past the design, marketing, and production departments, ending with the showroom and what Andraos calls the “Mini-Me” conference room (a reference to Dr. Evil’s dwarf spawn in the Austin Powers movies). The corridor is lined on one side with 8,000 jars of beads, set on recessed shelves, some hastily labeled or with the Post-It note remains of a meeting. The company already had the jars, but the architects had to go through a series of six trials to find appropriate lids, of which they ordered 30,000.

The jars are lit from both the back and the front, a decision that, according to lighting designer Suzan Tillotson, was necessitated by the different opacities of the beads. T8 lamps installed behind an acrylic diffuser and inexpensive par lamps in the front give the bead wall an ethereal glow. The colors were arranged according to the Swarovski crystal company’s color brochure, which the architects discovered the day they were to organize the materials. The arrangement works; even the least jewelry inclined visitor might well want to grab the jars and play designer.

The intervention—storage and display of the company’s livelihood—is simple, Wood agrees, but he argues that its small scale is deceptive. “The projects we worked on at OMA were really big,” he says. “I think that experience helps clarify things—coming up with one concept that everyone can agree on.” For Lee Angel, he points out, it’s the idea of the promenade that turns into the showroom that grabbed everyone, a decision that “comes from working on a big scale a lot of the time.” The promenade leads to an equally visually spare and conceptually rich showroom. Forty-two light points shine through dropped mesh brass panels two feet below a busy ceiling dotted with sprinkler lines onto a polished white resin floor. Depending on which visitor comes to the showroom, Lee Angel (which has a series of licensing agreements with several companies spanning a range of styles and demographics) might be offering a collection from the inimitable Kimora Lee Simmons’s Baby Phat line, model Daisy Fuentes’s collection, or the company’s own in-house designs.

The visitor might also encounter the showroom in its dormant state and find a simple square room lined in 30-inch-wide burlap rectangles that vary in height from 9 to 15 inches. Each piece of fabric slides over a thin strip of metal that bonds to the magnets implanted in the wall, holding the burlap in place but allowing for its periodic removal and cleaning. The fabric conceals a sliding tray behind it, which can be pulled out in multiple configurations to display the jewelry collection of the moment.

“The materials are quite simple, and sometimes rough,” Andraos says, but that’s precisely the point. “The burlap, as soon as the jewelry is in front of it, becomes very rich.” There is no need here for the clichéd vision of pearls on velvet—beads on burlap is more up Lee Angel’s alley. The transformation of cheap materials into sublime space is a relic of the architects’ OMA tattoo, but Work’s sense of humor, considered pragmatism, and material irreverence are drawing new lines.www.metropolismag.com

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