West Elm Headquarters

With views of the East River and Manhattan Bridge, the office of West Elm President Alex Bellos features a selection of the company’s workspace furniture and decorative pieces, including abstract felt wall art panels made by artisan partners in Nepal. Photograph by Garrett Rowland

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While the furniture retailer West Elm had established its headquarters years ago in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, it only recently moved into a new, dynamic location that fits its aesthetic within the same neighborhood: the Empire Stores.

A series of former industrial warehouses along the East River waterfront, the Empire Stores consists of seven structures from the 1870s and 1880s that sat largely abandoned for decades before a redevelopment by Midtown Equities that began in 2013. Listed by the National Park Service as a historic site, all facades and architectural treatments of the Empire Stores had to follow strict standards in the renovation completed by Studio V Architecture of New York. A glass-enclosed atrium space was inserted, and the structures were connected for a mix of uses.

An office with context and character
New York–based VM Architecture & Design (VMAD) collaborated with West Elm and its parent company Williams Sonoma to design the 137,500-square-foot interior for 300 employees on the second and third floors. To integrate West Elm’s spaces, bring in more natural light, and highlight the complex’s extraordinary historic fabric, VMAD kept the palette as simple and raw as possible, maintaining the rich knotty wood beams, joists, and columns; exposing the charred and weathered red bricks and arched windows; and installing rough troweled concrete floors that subtly join the grade divides. Cuts through interior schist walls and floors unite the office and permit even more illumination.

The interior renovation was, not surprisingly, anything but easy to pull off. Aside from the heavy lifting involved in the wall and floor removal, VMAD had all of the beams, columns, and remaining walls hand-brushed, after which several inches of dirt were removed. Electrical conduits and ducts were installed between uneven joists, necessitating a custom inventory of every square inch of the office. Layouts had to be constantly shifted to seamlessly fit into the changing dimensions, support structures, and window sizes of each of the different buildings. “It was a puzzle,” says Kay Vorderwuelbecke, principal at VMAD. “All of the buildings in the complex had different columns and spacing, meaning different spacing and arrangement for each area of the office.” “[The project] was like brain surgery. And we wanted to preserve the site line to every window,” says Mark Murashige, also a principal at VMAD. “We had to be flexible. West Elm was growing so fast, so the head count kept getting bigger.”

Workplace as showroom
Second-floor workspaces are entirely open, while the third floor is open primarily in the center and ringed by conference rooms, glass-walled offices, and design studios. Breakout zones for informal meetings are interspersed throughout. A large staircase leads from the entrance lobby to a mezzanine with casual booths, seating areas, and a nearby kitchen. The mezzanine is also large enough for staff to congregate during events and announcements. Lighting is straightforward, with both up and down LEDs and hanging LED pendants creating an even plane of light.

Exposing the existing interior structure achieved another important goal: showcasing the West Elm Workspace furnishings that have been introduced in recent years. The products, including open benching, feature warm woods and materials that eschew the austere white aesthetic seen in other office furniture. “As a residential brand, we wanted something warm and expressive of our aesthetics and values. We thought, ‘Well, we could just do this ourselves,’” Jeffrey Hannoosh, vice president of product design for West Elm Workspace, says in explaining the launch of the office design products.

This workplace also acts as a showroom, displaying all six Workspace lines and enabling the company to experiment with varying styles, materials, and configurations. Or as Hannoosh puts it, “layering our collections into different environments.”

Seeing the workplace furnishings in use
On the second floor, the merchandise department uses the Truss collection, with details such as cross-braced cables, exposed ply-edge laminate tabletops, and decorative screens. In marketing, the Industrial collection pairs timber pieces with metallic legs. Moving to the third floor, the tech design and workplace teams chose the Beam collection’s height-adjustable wood desks cooled by felt dividers. The store and product packaging groups opted for classic light-colored midcentury desks and chairs.

The diversity of furnishings, adds Hannoosh, breaks up the complex’s long, continuous spaces. “It’s good to not just have a single aesthetic. It makes it feel cozier, warmer,” he says.

Eye-popping artworks, collected as part of the company’s global art program, are seen throughout. The program encourages suppliers from around the world to create unusual pieces with fabric, beads, glass, wood, and papier-mâché. Near the entrance lobby, a large raffia yurt also serves as a huddle space.

who Architect: VM Architecture & Design (VMAD). Interior designers: VMAD with West Elm. Architecture project team: Mark Murashige; Kay Vorderwuelbecke; Michele Mandzy; Kimberly Gerber; Marissa Dwyer; Jason Kim; Kurt Rodrigo. Interior design project team: Kristin Norris; Sebastian Brauer. Contractor: McGowan Builders. Lighting: Tillett Lighting Design Associates. Engineering: ADS Engineers.
what Paint: Sherwin-Williams. Laminate: Formica. Drywall: USG. Carpet/carpet tile: Interface. Recessed lighting: USAI. Track lighting: Lighting Services. Task lighting: West Elm Workspace. Floor/table lamps: West Elm/West Elm Workspace. Pendants/ chandeliers: Lukas Lighting; West Elm; Birchwood Lighting; Cooper Lighting; Vode; RaceRail. Sconces: Rejuvenation. Surfacemounted fixtures: Legion; Edge Lighting; Lumenpulse; FLOS. Hardware: Corbin Russwin; McKinney; Rockwood. Doors: Inscape; Intex. Architectural glass/glazing: Inscape. Decorative glass panels/ partitions: Sajo. Window treatments: Phifer. Seating: West Elm/West Elm Workspace. Upholstery: Designtex. Conference tables: Provenance; West Elm Workspace. Cafeteria/ dining tables: West Elm. Training tables: Bernhardt Deisgn. Reception desk: custom. Side tables: West Elm/West Elm Workspace. Files: lnscape; West Elm Workspace. Shelving: lkea; Provenance. Lockers/ cubbies: DeBourgh Lockers. Architectural/custom woodworking: Dine Rite Seating; DSF; Provenance. Plumbing fixtures/fittings: Kohler; Watermark; Brizo.