Designer You Should Know Pamela Abalu
As the global head of design and construction for MetLife, Pamela Abalu is charged with orchestrating all of the interiors across the company’s 1,500 properties in nearly 50 countries for more than 57,000 employees. Based in New York, she oversaw the design team for the new MetLife global headquarters in Manhattan (See the MetLife feature here). The daughter of a United Nations diplomat, Abalu is a graduate of the College of Design at Iowa State University and a licensed architect. With previous experience at Perkins+Will and Vollmer Associates, Abalu joined MetLife in 2011 and was named to the Crain’s New York Business 40 Under 40 list in 2016.
What is your vision for how workplace design can help improve employee satisfaction as well as productivity?
Great workplace design tells a story. The MetLife story is of increased productivity, employee satisfaction, talent acquisition and retention, geographic footprint reduction, lower operating costs, increased efficiencies, green and sustainable technologies, and much more.
But, most importantly, it is a story of creating space for humanity: physical space for the human experience and energetic space for the human spirit. It’s design for the “soul place,” not solely workplace design. Through spatial delight, a spark is ignited and creativity is turbocharged. The interior is functional as well as experiential, collaborative, and inspirational. By creating a space around the thoughtful experience of the collective, with collaboration and togetherness, we harness a new energy of stimulated creativity that benefits the associate and the entire organization. This is great “soul place” design.
Abalu oversaw the design team for the new MetLife global headquarters in Manhattan. Photograph by Paul Warchol
MetLife’s New York headquarters design provides options for how employees work. Explain the importance of choice within an insurance company office.
The concept of the corporate office is at an inflection point. Designing space for humanity requires that choice is infused in our offerings, with activity-based environments that support a variety of work styles. This approach empowers employees with the freedom to choose which work style allows them to be most efficient, productive, and happy. Designing space for humanity offers the opportunity for a new metric: Beauty per square feet? Bliss per employee?
You are working on the design of multiple MetLife offices worldwide. Knowing that the projects are not alike, what lessons from the design process behind the New York headquarters can be applied to those projects in development?
It is always important to understand the cultural and work styles of any particular place, whether it is MetLife offices in New York, Tokyo, or Mexico City. We build this inquiry into our early design process so that we can align our workplace goals with the unique particulars of the human experience in that place. We have learned from our New York headquarters that the spaces that build and enrich our combined human experience—those that bring us together and allow us to connect—are critical components globally. Well-crafted, beautiful community spaces, like our amphitheater, food offerings, meeting spaces, as well as thoughtful individual areas for wellness and focus, are not superfluous. They are essential.
In the United States, the number of African- American women who are licensed architects remains very low. What is your hope for how your work can serve as an example and inspiration for young people aspiring to become professional architects and designers?
I would like all young women with aspirations of becoming an architect to never give up on their wildest dreams. My hope for the younger generation is freedom. That is, freedom of choice and freedom from the concepts of scarcity, lack, and limitation.