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Spotlight: Workspaces
Inventive offices that take inspiration from Fordism, Shanghai’s alleyways and more.
The double-height atrium resolves a key design challenge: bringing light into the centre of the building’s deep square floor plate.
Newlab’s Fordism-Inspired Outpost Opens in Detroit
InMedia ad agency office in Shanghai
In Shanghai, a Modern Ad Agency Embraces its Historical Context
Innolabs by Perkins&Will
An Adaptive Re-use Project Brings the Science Scene to NYC
In the Zone with Bensen in Vancouver
Brian Wooden Brings His Spirited Cartoon Style to the Contract World
Colab by Senator
3 Collaboration Stations for Social — and Productive — Workspaces
Panorama system by Fantoni
Fantoni’s Adaptable Panorama System Responds to Workplace Trends
Spotlight: Workspaces
The double-height atrium resolves a key design challenge: bringing light into the centre of the building’s deep square floor plate.

“The building was going back to nature. There were trees growing inside of it, the basement was full of water and the concrete was damaged.” This is how architect Nicko Elliott of Civilian describes the undeserved fate of the Book Depository, one of many art deco landmarks that have shaped the city of Detroit. For 35 years, the Albert Kahn building — which first served as a post office branch and mail warehouse, then as a storage facility for the Detroit public school system — sat empty, slated for demolition after falling into disrepair following a devastating fire. That was until Ford Motor Company purchased it as part of a larger civic and urban redevelopment plan.

A prefab rosewood and pressed stainless-steel reception desk is installed around a martini glass–shaped column at the building’s entrance.
A prefab rosewood and pressed stainless-steel reception desk is installed around a martini glass–shaped column at the building’s entrance.

Completed in April, the ambitious adaptive re-use project is now home to Newlab, an innovation hub for entrepreneurs and inventors pioneering sustainable and equitable mobility solutions. Civilian is the Brooklyn design studio that was tapped to redesign the interiors of the derelict three-storey, 25,000-square-metre structure; Gensler’s Detroit office led the sensitive core-and-shell restoration that sought to enhance the original design while updating it for its new use.

Event space at Newlab Detroit

“They approached the building with a sort of reverence,” says Elliott. Civilian, too, conceived of Newlab’s interior fit-out in dialogue with Kahn’s design and his relationship with Fordism. “It was a beautiful thing to learn about the ethos with which he approached building spaces for factories, for people and for production,” he explains.

Workshop at Newlab Detroit

To that end, the studio leveraged unexpected programmatic adjacencies and visual connections to foster collaboration between production and social areas. Past the reception desk, a gate of stainless-steel and ribbed glass doors gives way to a gallery, and, at the building’s core, a 200-seat event space is wrapped by open studios and state-of-the-art robotics and prototyping facilities. Four massive lift doors roll up to transform the venue from closed-off to porous and open.

Seating area with red sofas and blue chairs

The building’s bones — namely, the brick facade, patinated concrete shell and grid of martini-cap columns — informed the key interior moves, but the architects also drew from an unexpected reference: the work of Charlotte Perriand. “Her interior approach was industrially influenced, super clean and unornamented. She was able to bring to bear an interesting mix of natural materials and highly finished materials in a way that is still resonant,” Elliott explains.

Civilian introduced warmth and colour into the lounge spaces with classic furnishings by MillerKnoll, refurbished vintage pieces, contemporary commissions and its own bespoke ash and laminate circular tables.

In keeping with this inspiration, Newlab’s varied work zones — including desking, lounge vignettes, meeting rooms and classrooms — are furnished with carefully curated American design classics from Michigan-based brand MillerKnoll alongside restored vintage furniture, as well as bespoke contemporary pieces designed by Civilian, including solid ash and laminate tables and storage cabinets. With its contextual approach, the firm has transformed the Book Depository from a symbol of the city’s decline into one of its revival.

InMedia ad agency office in Shanghai

For nearly two centuries, Shanghai’s residential alleyways — or lilongs — have been spirited hives of culture and community. Initially a haphazard response to an influx of rural migrants and foreign immigrants (from Europe, Japan and America) during the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, the narrow one- or multi-storey dwellings are an integral part of the urban fabric and an archetype that belongs solely to the city. Cloistered behind ornately carved wooden or stone doors, the homes — which often double as storefronts, grocers, tailors and other family-run businesses — feature small internal courtyards for social gatherings and combine traditional Chinese spatial arrangements and details with imported Western architectural elements.

Yatofu Creatives chose a high-gloss finish for the textured ceramic tiles to help reflect light; made at a local small-batch facility, they add a layer of authenticity and warmth to InMedia's new office space.

“Many of the artifacts and architectures from this part of history are still visible in the area but are slowly being demolished by the growing metropolis,” says designer Angela Lindahl, the Taiwanese Canadian cofounder of Helsinki firm Yatofu Creatives. Lindahl and co-founding partner Yihan Xiang were influenced by this unique typology when conceiving a modern office for the InMedia advertising agency in the city’s Hongkou district. “We wanted to honour the history without being too direct.” The duo also looked to “similar ways of living in southern Europe, such as the south of Italy, where a comparable way of life takes place on small winding streets lined with residences,” adds Yihan.

InMedia ad agency office in Shanghai

Working with an empty 300-square-metre shell, the designers divided the space into two distinct yet harmonious zones that are analogous to life in the lilongs — interior and exterior. The first is represented by a natural oak veneer–clad volume that contains a private office and two boardrooms positioned along one wall.

Large windows visually connect this insertion to the main section “outside,” where non-linear desking formations and differing floor levels introduce “opportunistic meeting points and seating that results from corners created through winding pathways,” says Lindahl.

Textured ceramic tiles in a glossy deep crimson, new concrete floor tiles and oak veneer surfaces complement the original exposed concrete walls and columns and directly nod to materials typically found on lilong exteriors. Custom table and floor lights echo pedestrian street lamps in form and are rendered in a brilliant blue to provide a counterpoint to the blood-red tiles and subtly conjure the dark blue of the night sky.

With this somewhat offbeat concept for an office design, Lindahl and Yihan have successfully translated Shanghai’s urban streetscape into a dynamic environment that aims to foster an organic sense of community similar to that of the neighbourhoods that inspired it.

Innolabs by Perkins&Will

You might not anticipate major scientific innovation in Long Island City, better known for its arts and culture scene. Just a couple blocks from MoMA PS1, however, a recently completed lab facility designed by Perkins&Will marks a notable development in the area’s burgeoning life sciences industry. Innolabs, a 25,000-square-metre adaptive re-use project, faces the street boldly and creates a striking counterpoint to the historic neighbourhood. A slender black steel and glass addition provides a muscular contrast to the white historic facade of the original structure, driving home the former office building’s unexpected second life.

Alongside a lobby café, the Innolabs science building designed by Perkins&Will includes bike storage, locker rooms and more.

“There are two compelling reasons why adaptive re-use of older buildings is viable for labs — one is that it’s generally less expensive than a new build, and the second is speed to market,” explains William Harris, regional managing director at Perkins&Will. “If tenants can get into their labs faster, they can ultimately get their products to trials and market faster.”

Innolabs is Boston-based King Street Properties’ first foray into New York City, but it’s not an outlier. Lab-based tenancies are increasingly seen as a stable post-pandemic real estate investment, and Long Island City is one of a few decentralized life science districts emerging throughout NYC; in neighbourhoods where access to transit and nearby medical institutions haven’t precluded affordable land costs, new developments seek to appeal to this kind of start-up.

Innolabs by Perkins&Will, as seen from the street

These tenants can grow quickly, requiring maximum rental pliancy. Astutely, Perkins&Will seized on a key strategy during preplanning: “We were able to move the bathrooms and elevators to the side of the building, inside the front extension,” Harris says, “opening the space and allowing us to more flexibly fit one, two or three tenants per floor.” Without a central core, the sprawling T-shaped building is replete with sunlit laboratory spaces ready for partitioning.

While the open labs are complemented by closed support rooms and serviced by ceiling-integrated utility systems, different tenants are able to reconfigure the set-up depending on their individual needs.

Centralized amenities help enable the unique social environment of life science facilities. Relocating the original lobby entrance to the side of the building freed up space for a stylish café kiosk with exposed brick and tiered wooden benches, as well as a shared and subdividable multi-purpose event space. “In an office building with multiple tenants, they don’t often talk to each other,” Harris explains. “With lab buildings, there’s a sense of community among the tenants. It’s very important to support that.”

Vancouver’s Bensen has been synonymous with the best of West Coast design for more than four decades and running. In recent years, Niels Bendtsen, the Danish Canadian designer who founded the furniture brand, decided to move production to Italy, but he wanted to continue to invest in the city he loves and the district — Railtown — where it all began. “It’s an amazing neighbourhood and a hidden gem,” Bendtsen says. “It has the best views of the city: overlooking the harbour and its containers and the North Shore.” Now, at 411 Railway Street, he has inaugurated a building that will house the company’s headquarters and energize its surroundings with a future commercial hub.

Street-level entrances to 411 Railway Street scale the building down to an intimate welcome. Photo by Ema Peter

In fact, the building exemplifies new city zoning that encourages “creative product manufacturing,” referring to the making of clothing, furniture and other types of light production. As dry as it sounds, “zoning was the key inspiration for the project,” says Steve McFarlane, whose firm, Office of McFarlane Biggar Architects + Designers (OMB), created the six-storey, 10,400-square-metre beacon. “It was designed to be as flexible as possible,” says OMB architect and associate Rory Fulber. “It is purpose-built for creative manufacturing, but it can also become any other kind of space.”

The new Bensen headquarters in the Railtown district, by Office of McFarlane Biggar Architects + Designers, makes a gleaming addition to the industrial streetscape. Photo by Andrew Latreille

Curving gently in tandem with the sidewalk, the architecture comprises two blocky halves that meet at a soaring central atrium, which is animated by its framed view of those vibrant shipping containers outside and the main circulation route it encases within. This, in essence, is the project’s masterstroke: a series of zigzagging mass timber bridges that slide through the twinned structures’ concrete walls.

An internal series of mass timber bridges animates the atrium. Photo by Ema Peter

The upper storeys of the building are wrapped in a glass and charcoal aluminum facade that peels back on the top two levels to provide tenants with three generous and lushly planted outdoor terraces. Its slender fins, which help mitigate solar gain, also subtly play with the light, allowing the building to morph from solid to transparent as you move past it. The dynamism embodied in the architecture is articulated in the program.

The glass and charcoal-aluminum fin facade morphs from appearing solid to seeming transparent. Photo by Andrew Latreille
The building’s energy systems enable it to allow for light manufacturing or be adapted to any future use. Photo by Graham Handford

On the ground floor, several small design and architectural showrooms, a restaurant and a Pilates studio have separate porch-like entrances, and all spaces are wheelchair-accessible through the main internal corridor. For its part, Bensen will occupy the top floor — on both the west and east halves. With 400 to 600 people expected to work in the building, 411 Railway will see lots of movement on those fantastic bridges. “I’m hoping it will be a game-changer,” says Bendtsen.

Drone image, top of page, by Graham Handford.

Brian Wooden could teach us all a lesson in knowing thyself: The Nashville-based street artist, who grew up skateboarding and immersed in graffiti culture, always wanted to work in animation and fine art. Later on, as a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, he found himself approaching realistic portraiture in what he calls a “soft, painterly way.” But, he says, he knew this path wasn’t true to his self.

“I wasn’t having much fun — it was just a little too serious for me,” he says. “So I made a hard transition one day and started going back into more illustrative work.” He returned to his passion for street art, composing massive outdoor wall murals with abstracted cartoon characters; his work is riotous, filled with movement and colour.

Portrait of Brian Wooden

Recently, he was invited to participate in Haworth’s DesignLab — a months-long collaboration between the contract furniture manufacturer and a handful of emerging artists and designers from across the U.S. and Mexico. Revealed during NeoCon in June, his interior installation entitled Inter-Dimension reaffirms his renewed commitment to his true aesthetic intentions.

The process of moving from street art to high design wasn’t easy — in fact, it was a bit intimidating. “At first, I was trying to scale it way back and kind of, like, hide myself a little and mute things a little,” he explains. “And then the pendulum started to swing back. And it was like, ‘No, I need to keep my personality.’ ” Instead of thinking about interiors, he thought about what he’d love to see: a giant cartoon character, something really bold.

Brian Wooden brings cartoon art style to corporate world with rug collaboration

Inter-Dimension consists of two pieces: a massive, colourful tapestry that cascades down from the wall and continues over the floor and, set atop that, a large, matching upholstered ottoman. The tapestry and circular ottoman pattern reflects Wooden’s loud cartoon aesthetic, fine-tuned for this project through a close collaboration with Gan Rugs and mentor Patricia Urquiola, who was brought on to work with Haworth’s DesignLab participants.

The tapestry features multi-piled tufts that create depth: Thick strokes of low-piled black outline vibrant blues, yellows and magentas in higher piles, rendering them brighter and more three-dimensional. Wooden decided the ottoman should blend in with the tapestry; while at first one might not notice the seat, the more a visitor explores the installation, the more they discover.

Colab by Senator
Manille by Extremis
Manille outdoor seating by Extremis

Named after the French card game, the Manille outdoor seating series by Extremis is more than a picnic bench for playing a few rounds. Its galvanized steel frame and European ash tabletop are covered by an awning with two options: an elegant soft fabric canopy or a fixed hard top. Multiple Manille pieces can be linked together for a sprawling table — but one alone makes for a simple, timeless gathering space. Backrests and bench seating accommodate diverse body types, and the table height and ends are wheelchair accessible, making it a more inclusive spot to come together.

Colab by Senator
Colab collaboration station by Senator

Through telltale shifts in pedagogy (namely, the ways in which Gen Z has been educated using technology, working more flexibly and gathering more informally), U.K. studio Pearson Lloyd saw coming changes to how we co-create that will require employers to ready themselves for an evolving workforce. The design firm’s multi-piece CoLab collection for Senator provides an interesting solution, with a kit-of-parts for seating, zone definition and collaboration. Setups include tables with variable-height tops for standing and sitting that can be reconfigured to support large or small groups. Most exciting is the “spine,” a functional object that provides not only power distribution but also a casual, supportive structure for leaning or perching during conversations or solo work.

Summit by +Halle
Summit collaboration station by +Halle/Hightower

Designed by Snøhetta for +Halle (through Hightower in North America), Summit is greater than the sum of its parts — five components, to be precise, which can be assembled to create a customizable collaboration station. Pieces include light- weight, gently sloping curvatures or rectilinear forms that users can stack and attach easily with integrated magnets. A lounge configuration can transform into a workstation using retractable power cords included in select pieces. The set-up becomes a clever, minimal installation for group work.

Panorama system by Fantoni

“The office landscape is no longer the classic, straightforward grid organization where everyone works, but rather a highly creative landscape,” says Ben van Berkel, co-founder of Dutch architectural practice UNStudio. In response to this shift — which has only been amplified with the rise of remote and hybrid scenarios — van Berkel and his team at UNSx, the experiential design arm of the firm, have developed Panorama for Italian manufacturer Fantoni.

Red sofa with matching planter behind it
Panorama system by Fantoni

Described by the designers as “human-centric micro-architecture,” the all-encompassing toolset is intended to carve out flexible, efficient and comfortable set-ups that are organized into three configurations: Collaboration, Social, and Learning & Focus. With silhouettes that were inspired by the mountain range that surrounds Fantoni’s factory, the 57 components of Panorama are offered in three bold colourways, as well as two wood finishes and one textile covering (plus a range of upholstery options). What’s more, the system is built using chipboard made from 100 per cent recycled wood, adding sustainability to its long list of positive attributes.

Learning & Focus
Blue desk vignette with planter

For individuals and small groups, this scheme can include mini phone booths for private calls, partially partitioned workstations (equipped with an out-of-the-way magnetic cable run) and divider screens with movable slats to control sightlines and privacy.

Panorama system by Fantoni

Encouraging teamwork and creative brainstorming sessions, the Panorama modules can be arranged for meetings of short duration using standing-height tables on castors, plush soft seating and other dynamic solutions.

Panorama system by Fantoni

Informal and impromptu meetings and social gatherings are an ever more familiar part of the workday. To this end, the third branch can feature freestanding single or double upholstered benches. Planters can be incorporated into any of the three scenarios to add the benefit of natural greenery.