London’s music scene has changed its tune in the past decade, with the action shifting east to King’s Cross. This left Sony Music UK in a tricky spot; while the company otherwise loved the Kensington office that MoreySmith had designed for it back in 2008 (and then later refreshed in 2018), it eventually realized that it needed to start planning for a relocation. “If they could have picked up their original office and moved it, that would have been their ideal solution,” says Linda Morey-Burrows, the principal director at MoreySmith. But as the pandemic ushered in new working models, her firm’s design for Sony Music UK’s new King’s Cross headquarters evolved into an even bigger rethink.
Like all the best sophomore albums, the end result (which opened this year in a new building at 2 Canal Reach) experiments with fresh ideas while building upon the core appeal of its predecessor. Anyone familiar with Sony Music UK’s old digs will no doubt recognize the new office’s cafeteria, which is a reimagining of a similar space that sat at the heart of the company’s former location. “When you move homes, you don’t want to totally start again,” says Morey-Burrows. “You need a few things that you loved in the old home to be in the new one. Otherwise it looks like you’ve lost your personality along the way.”
Bigger changes play out in the office’s workspace configuration, which was informed by staff interviews but also on-the-ground observations. “We hired a team to go to their existing office in Kensington and watch people for 10 days, just to get insights into what they were actually doing,” explains Shonagh Gardiner, a senior associate at MoreySmith. “Sometimes people say that they’re always at a desk, but then you see that’s not really the case — they’re working on creative things that happen more collaboratively. Having that data allowed us to back up some new proposals. And then COVID happened, and everyone lost their desks anyway.”
In the end, working arrangements were decided on a per-label basis, with some of Sony’s brands — which include RCA, Ministry of Sound and Columbia — maintaining a one-to-one ratio of employees to desks, and others eager to embrace more lounge-like environments with sofas and laptop tables.
This reflects MoreySmith’s overall approach to working with the many divisions and departments that fall under the Sony Music umbrella. “It was essentially one project with 25 clients,” says Gardiner. “And we really wanted to make sure that all of the teams felt represented in the new building.”
The design firm decided to divide and conquer, assigning different employees to different labels to ensure visual directions that reflected their distinct identities. As a result, Columbia’s zone is clad in grooved concrete, while RCA’s is defined by an orange corrugated metal. “It’s almost like a department store, where you’re instantly aware that you’re in a different brand’s area because of a different visual experience,” Gardiner says.
The challenge then became ensuring that these various zones still felt like part of a cohesive whole. Indeed, while the branding of each space is distinct, the overall design remains flexible enough to support future adjustments if labels end up expanding or contracting. “Architecturally, they’re all constructed pretty similarly. How they’re wrapped, dressed and lit, that’s where the differences are — in the cladding or graphics,” says Morey-Burrows.
MoreySmith invested similar energy in developing ways to bring employees together throughout the workday. Sony Music UK’s old headquarters (which, funnily enough, was located in a former department store building) was spread across only two floors, ensuring frequent chance encounters. This new location, spanning six floors, required a more intentional circulation strategy to promote interconnectivity.
As a result, two prominent staircases — one black, one red — were inserted into the building in bright, open spaces that create visual links to areas that employees might not otherwise pass through. A communal rooftop and live performance venue are other popular social hotspots, both for employees and for visitors.
Of course, Sony Music UK’s various labels also have another important element in common: incredible acoustics. “Obviously, music is key,” says Morey-Burrows. Yet achieving the desired sound quality required some savvy design interventions. “The way the building was constructed, there wasn’t any acoustic lining in the external wall. So we were worried that we were going to be spilling out loud music into King’s Cross, where all of the buildings are quite close together,” Morey-Burrows explains.
To really ensure that the spaces do Sony Music’s albums justice, MoreySmith partnered with acoustics consultant Sandy Brown and the A/V team at MiX. The team added a secondary glazing to create a comfortable sonic buffer between the building and its neighbours, and then wrapped many of the studios in their own dedicated acoustic enclosure. Soundproof pods introduce another destination for individual listening.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the final component of MoreySmith’s design is a quiet library area. “The café is a good space to work if you want to get away from your own department, but they love having music playing quite loud there,” Morey-Burrows explains. “And some people in our interviews said, while they love that space, they just can’t work in it. So we wanted to give them a calm spot that’s kind of a different vibe from the rest of the building.” Like a sensitive ballad in an album full of bangers, the library reiterates the art of a well-crafted mix.
MoreySmith designed the music company’s headquarters like a department store, giving each Sony label its own distinct visual identity.