Interiors Awards 2016: Office: Small

Photography by Michael Moran

More Photos

The Barbarian Group
Designer: Clive Wilkinson Architects
Client: The Barbarian Group
Location: New York

“As an exuberant statement on how offices can be inhabited, it’s very compelling. A strong identity and strong idea, this office reimagines the way a space and its employee interactions can work.”—Jury

At the top of the website of the brash New York Internet advertising firm The Barbarian Group, which boasts the catchphrase “It’s gonna be awesome,” is a video about its new workspace, designed by Los Angeles–based Clive Wilkinson Architects. “It’s not a half-pipe. It’s an awesome desk,” proclaims the headline.

Without a doubt, the dominant feature of the 20,000-squarefoot office is what’s been nicknamed “the Superdesk,” a continuous, plywood-framed, resin-topped surface that winds its way through, around, and above the office, providing a flexible work and collaboration space for 125 to 175 employees.

“They wanted to be one community all stitched together,” says Wilkinson, who sold the idea of all employees sharing the same worksurface to the client after just one sketch. “When we realized we could also create new spaces underneath, it was a real aha moment.”

Each of the desk’s six vertical undulations is designed to create cavelike interaction spaces underneath to accommodate meetings, provide focused or high-counter workspace, and house bookshelves and other storage. No wider than 11½ feet at any point, the desk has 4,400 square feet of table surface and 1,100 linear feet of perimeter edge surface. Initially about five linear feet were allotted for each employee, but since the firm has increased in size to nearly 175 people, that space is closer to four feet per worker, according to Wilkinson. If the company continues to grow, he and the firm have discussed merging the desk with the adjacent stairway and continuing it—this time with a black surface—on the floor above.

The desk’s gridded supporting structure is made up of about 870 unique plywood panels (each shape is based on structural stress), which were designed using Revit and Rhino modeling software and then laser cut by robots in sections by Los Angeles–based fabricators Machineous. Panels were assembled on-site and connected via steel plates. The resin table surface, which cantilevers over the structure to provide maximum legroom and collaboration space beneath, was poured continuously over a Masonite-and-MDF surface in 30 hours to achieve a seamless effect. “It was quite a labor of love,” Wilkinson says of the epic pour.

The desk dominates the central area of the workspace, and Barbarian has no private offices, which is indicative of a culture of sharing. The founder sits at the desk alongside everyone else. Perimeter rooms that were previously used as offices were converted into conference rooms and other communal areas, including a dine-in kitchen. The palette is minimal, with white walls and exposed mechanical systems featured throughout.

“We wanted a very iconic, interesting, open environment,” says Edu Pou, the chief operating officer of The Barbarian Group. “We wanted it to be a metaphor for everybody working together, and we believed the place we created would inform the way we worked. That’s why we wanted something that wasn’t the average cubicle setup.”

Furthermore, the desk structure does not hinder flexibility. “It doesn’t feel crowded or static; it feels quite flexible,” Pou says. “We can change things around quite a bit, shifting the arrangement by accounts or groups. We wanted to have places where we could be together as well as have privacy, and that’s what the Superdesk is providing us.”

Since the project was completed, it has not only become a pop culture sensation—featured in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town”— but has also proved a major selling point for Barbarian, which constantly brings in guests. “They have so many potential clients wanting to see the desk. It makes a statement about the firm’s creativity and making things in a digital way,” Wilkinson says.

“This is the first place we’ve designed in eight years, so we put some effort into it,” says Barbarian Chairman Benjamin Palmer in the firm’s web video. “It was meant to facilitate more casual interaction and less time cooped up in a meeting room.”