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Welcome to the Modern Speakeasy

07.12.2018

Like many progressive companies today, media agency UM, a division of IPG Mediabrands, wanted its office to provide more variety and choice in the types of workspaces it offered to employees within its new 95,000 square-foot office space in New York City's bustling midtown. The dynamic new office features an open floor plan with no private offices but with a secretive area perfect for focused work or socializing—if you can find it.

“The overall goal for this client was that they were already in this location and on that floor, and so through this renovation, they wanted to increase their density, they wanted to increase their productivity, and they wanted a refreshed space that was newly branded,” explained Jeff Knoll, director of design for TMA. “The space was also changing from an assigned seating environment to a more open workplace, which was free address and unassigned seating. There was also a tight budget that we had to meet as well.”

To support the client’s new approach to and consolidation of its workplace, TMA provided a wide array of space types to support both the quiet thinker as well as more interactive areas for meetings and collaboration. The new office consists of a café/town hall area, large ancillary gathering spaces, hoteling areas, and 65 meeting rooms of various sizes, furniture, and function.

Upon entry, UM's signature red color is visible in the lobby’s carpet and furniture. A screening room adjacent to the town hall can expand via a large, glass garage door. Existing walls and spaces in the workspaces, along with creative use of color, furniture, and texture create distinct, small neighborhoods that support the workplace’s needs. A Coca-Cola bar was created as a way to highlight one of the firm’s major clients and create a fun collaboration space in the process. Additionally, a tech bar with a barcode graphic and a large cafe space provide added function. 

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Perhaps one of the most intriguing areas is the hidden speakeasy, which was conceived as a nod to another one of the firm’s clients that deals in spirits. Separate from the workspaces, it provides a “secret” place for UM’s employees to either work collaboratively or socialize.  i+s recently spoke with Knoll about this unique space and the story behind its inspiration.

i+s: How did the concept for the speakeasy space come about and how does it tie into the overall narrative of the project?

Jeff Knoll: The Speakeasy came about for two reasons: The first reason is, when we started talking to them about their clients, some of them were alcohol companies, so we thought it would be fun to incorporate a little whiskey bar or some kind of a bar element into the space. Then, architecturally, when we were looking at the plans, the shape of the building’s core is very irregular, and there was a kind of odd space that was left over by the elevator lobby, and so we thought that it would be a great opportunity to create this speakeasy space because it had only the one access [point] from the elevator lobby so you could really play up the singular door required for entrance.

From a functional standpoint in line with the client’s new unassigned seating approach, it could be a place where staff could work, for somebody to bring their laptop or have a meeting, so it doubled as functional space. And then naturally it also just worked great as a social space or client space as well. It also offered an opportunity to deviate from the overall aesthetic of the rest of the space, which is more white, clean, and minimal. This was a space that could be a little moodier and darker, so that was kind of our starting point.

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i+s: Tell us more about the graphic-heavy door that leads into the workspaces. What was the inspiration for that? 

JK: We wanted to have fun with this once we were on-board with the speakeasy [idea], so we figured we’d go all-in on the concept with things like hidden door components. Within the speakeasy we created a conference room that was only accessible from within the space and that was hidden behind this door.

We developed this idea of a large painting that would function as the door, and we liked the concept of the graphic that reads, ‘A man walked into a bar,’ which is naturally the start of many jokes and had relevance with an immediate tie-in to a universal joke that everybody is aware of. It was lighthearted, and we also liked that we didn’t have to worry whether the image is appropriate. Then, from a cost standpoint, it was something that was easy to implement: it’s literally a graphic that’s applied on a paint-grade door, and then we built a simple millwork frame around it.

i+s: What is the significance behind the wording change from “man” to “woman” on the door graphic? Was it intended to be a political statement?

JK: As the project developed timing-wise, politically, we were getting into the time period of the women’s movement and post [President] Trump’s election. Obviously, the client is a little bit more on the liberal side than the conservative, so they wanted to gear this a little bit more towards that mindset. So, the thought was to cross off ‘man’ and change it to ‘woman’ that also added to the playfulness of it. In the same mindset, all of the pictures on the wall within the speakeasy […] were a little bit more women-centric. When you walk in, I don’t think you’re going to get the sense that this is really a statement about women, but if you look very closely and subtly, you find that.

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