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Newell Rubbermaid Design Center
Designer: Perkins+Will
Client: Newell Rubbermaid
Location: Kalamazoo, Michigan

“This is restrained, low-key, and consistent as one strong statement. We love the layering of the private areas with functional areas naturally defining public spaces. It’s an elegant solution.”—Jury

Atlanta-based Newell Rubbermaid is an extensive conglomerate behind many household products, “from Paper Mate to baby carriages,” explains Eva Maddox, a Perkins+Will branded environments design principal based in Chicago.

The company charged Perkins+Will with the creation of a consolidated center for its designers at Western Michigan University’s Business Technology and Research (BTR) Park outside Kalamazoo, Michigan. More than 100 professionals—including industrial designers, graphic designers, usability professionals, and studio engineers—are employed at this facility, which is within a nondescript existing 40,000-square-foot steel-framed big-box structure in a suburban-style office park.

Southwestern Michigan has played a storied role in the industrial design world—home to giants Haworth and Herman Miller, who are both recent clients of Maddox. “There’s a trove of designers in that area,” she says. The design for Newell Rubbermaid attempts to connect to that long-established local design culture of making by expressing wood detailing and craft.

“Great design is a competitive advantage,” says Nate Young, Newell Rubbermaid’s vice president of global innovation. “It’s an exclusive tier of companies that recognize and endorse its impact.”

The center’s design is simple: An open-plan studio in the middle is bracketed by meeting and reception rooms along the west end and workshop spaces to the east. Bisecting the plan—and tying together these elements—is an open corridor defined by slats of locally sourced ash wood on the walls and ceiling.

More than seven miles of 2-inch-deep horizontal ash wood slats clad the main interior corridor walls. Along the south wall of the space, which also leads to the design studio, the pattern is only slightly irregular, with slats eliminated to reveal six nearly 10-foot-tall supergraphic numerals that signify each “immersion room.” These discrete workspaces can be dedicated to project teams for an extended period of time for intensive and private explorations.

Products conceived here can be readily prototyped on-site in the adjacent workshops, fully evaluated, rethought, and redesigned in a rapid feedback loop, which allows the designers to engage naturally in an iterative process to encourage innovation. South of the immersion rooms, a narrow zone of open space along the building’s perimeter provides informal collaboration areas with ample natural daylight, allowing a literal breather from the more intense interior spaces.

Grand Rapids, Michigan–based XIBITZ produced the wood installations. “[XIBITZ designers are] great collaborators and problem solvers,” recalls Maddox, who has worked with the company on previous projects. A dark blue wood wall behind the reception desk incorporates approximately 30,000 1-inch-by-2-inch wood blocks in a pattern intended to represent collaboration while providing a gateway to the rest of the interior. “Some blocks are acrylic that twinkle with light—the spark of creativity, spark of an idea—spilling out in all directions,” explains Eileen Jones, also a Perkins+Will branded environments design principal based in Chicago. Ash was used here for its durability and dimensional stability, which is especially important in such a large installation. It didn’t hurt that a current supply glut resulted in lower costs as well.

Beyond the wood feature installations, the interior palette is quite neutral, with the building’s exposed interior structure painted white. Matching white gypsum board walls define the spaces, and concrete floors are exposed. This neutral backdrop allows for work to dominate the space, enabling the tactically deployed features, such as the slatted wood wall, to provide design inspiration. Despite the design center’s relatively small size, Atlanta-based Perkins+Will Senior Interior Designer David Sheehan says, “We gave great clarity to the space by making a major impact with simple means.”

Most of the Newell Rubbermaid Design Center’s innovations lie ahead. The facility’s real potential is to foster broader engagement within the company and even with neighboring companies in the BTR Park and the region. “It’s a future trend,” Maddox says. “How can industry and education come together?”