Executive Suite: A modern retreat creates a quiet place to escape the noise of a cardboard factory.
By Clifford A. Pearson
Photo © Amit Geron
Commissioned to design a small suite of offices in a noisy cardboard factory near Ben Gurion Airport, in Israel, architect Irit Axelrod decided to create an interior that asserts a sense of “quiet power.” So she used materials like concrete, glass, and stainless steel in ways that emphasize both their industrial roots and their sophisticated finishes.
Visitors enter the new offices of the Cargal Group from an indoor walkway above the factory floor, where enormous machines crank out cardboard packaging and forklifts scurry from one place to another. To separate the 2,000-square-foot office space from the racket of the manufacturing facility, Axelrod erected a concrete-block wall that provides acoustical privacy and a rugged sense of enclosure.
“When the project was completed, I realized I had created a serene bubble in the middle of a factory,” she explains. But she connected the loud and quiet parts of the building with a 30-foot-long band of glass cut into the thick concrete wall just 3 feet above the office floor. At first the height of the horizontal window seems a bit odd, as if a Japanese aesthetic had somehow infiltrated the design. Then you sit in one of the offices on the opposite side of the lobby/reception area and understand the height is just right, providing an important visual link between executives and factory workers.
Axelrod, who splits her time between Israel and San Francisco, says that growing up in Tel Aviv, with all of its early 20th-century, International Style architecture, influenced her approach to design. “Tel Aviv's origins are in the Bauhaus. As a child, these were the buildings I saw every day.” The rigor of the buildings finds expression in the Cargal project's floor plan, a straightforward set of squares and rectangles. Private offices line the building's perimeter to take advantage of the daylight, while the long lobby/reception area flows into a kitchenette equipped with a freestanding plywood counter and metal stools. Floor-to-ceiling glass separates the private offices from the public areas while maintaining visual continuity and sharing daylight with the rest of the interior. Sustainability was not a major driver of the design, says Axelrod, but maximizing the use of daylight creates a more pleasant work environment and reduces operating costs.
While the plan and hard-edged materials express a sense of discipline, the architect loosened things up on the lobby's angled ceiling, where long fluorescent tubes seem to be randomly placed. “I wanted the ceiling to be more playful to provide a contrast,” explains Axelrod. “That's where I decided to break all the rules.” She specified a fluorescent lighting system that offers custom lengths and can be used either horizontally (on the ceiling) or vertically (on the concrete-block wall and in the kitchenette).
To make the small project seem bigger, Axelrod carried views from one space to another. Although executives can pull down privacy shades in their offices, they rarely do, preferring instead to maximize their visual domain. The architect also designed particular elements to give them the illusion of floating. She set the wooden reception desk on a smaller base and placed lights on the underside to shine on the floor and make it levitate. In a conference room at one end of the suite, she inserted a thin vertical strip of glass between perpendicular walls so they don't quite touch. And she attached stainless steel handles and hardware directly onto glass doors so they seem suspended in space. Such instances of elements floating and sliding past one another provide a welcome contrast to the solidity of polished concrete floors and concrete-block walls. They work together to establish a balance between the muscular and the nimble.
For furnishings, Axelrod selected a simple mix of molded-plastic Eames chairs, adjustable Meda chairs for the executives, and Joyn tables. She used a restrained color palette of whites, off-whites, and grays with occasional accents of black and clear-stained wood. In the lobby, three Gehry cardboard stools add a playful touch and remind everyone of the packaging material being produced in the adjacent factory.
What gives this project much of its character is the intriguing dialogue between sophistication and bottom-line toughness. As soon as you walk in the office from the factory, you know you're in a different kind of place, one where aesthetics matter. But you never feel that anything is wasted or put here for show. You might admire the poured-concrete floors, which, like those in art galleries, have no expansion joints, so the material develops those lovely cracks. But you'll also notice the large ventilation duct running through the lobby/reception area, exposed in a no-nonsense manner. And the simple plywood cabinets built into the private offices. The people working here have good taste, but they aren't squandering money.
The subtle back-and-forth between the slick and the rugged speaks to the key challenge of this design: creating a white-collar place within a blue-collar world.