Knoll’s new San Francisco location in the South of Market District serves at once as the design company’s workspace for administrative and sales activities and a showroom for displaying its collections of furnishings, textiles, and accessories for both residential and office environments. After designing the company’s AIA-award-winning Manhattan headquarters, New York–based firm Architecture Research Office (ARO) was tapped once again to conceive Knoll’s new space at 140 New Montgomery Street in the former PacBell building. The elegant, landmarked art deco office tower recently underwent a renovation that restored the exterior and lobby and completed a seismic upgrade.
The move marks a significant change for Knoll. The company’s previous office and showroom in the Bay Area were at the ground level and engaged the passerby. “The character of the space is radically different from the old one, which had a large presence on the street,” said ARO principal Kim Yao.
But while the street activity is gone, the showroom boasts sweeping views of the city from its perch on the 25th floor. ARO worked on the project with local practice Alexander Jermyn Architecture, a former member of the New York firm. The architects revamped the 8,000-square-foot space, revealing the industrial bones of the building while integrating texture and color, most of which was created with Knoll’s own collections.
“We wanted to take advantage of the shell of the existing building without overwhelming it. That is part of the reason we exposed the brick and exposed concrete walls and slabs,” explained Yao. “It was about creating a juxtaposition between the new and old finishes of the existing building.”
An important consideration in the conception of the space was the specific San Francisco clientele the company would be working with, such as the tech and start-up industry. Knoll and ARO decided they would integrate some of the same design elements featured in the New York showroom, but would create a setting that would “speak to the California market.” That meant opening up the floor plan and relying more on the raw materiality of the existing building.
The space’s U-shape configuration has few partitions, and encourages fluid movement from one end to the other. Upon arriving, visitors are confronted by the brand’s large white logo set against a bold orange-red felt wall in the vestibule. The entrance leads to the showroom, sitting at the center of the horizontal bar, which features Knoll furniture and textile displays. The exposed concrete walls are also used as display surfaces. Red perforated felt screens, custom-designed for this project by ARO, create subtle divisions within the space, while also serving as a prominent architectural feature. The black steel rail that frames the screen was inspired by Florence Knoll, one of the founders of the company who originally did the designs for all of its showrooms. ARO conducted some research prior to designing both offices and learned that Knoll used different devices to split up the spaces to “control view and circulation,” said Yao. “This screen allows for this idea of discovery.” With that very purpose in mind, the screen carves out little nooks within the showroom while adding a splash of color. It is also flexible and can be replaced with other textiles over time.
The showroom is then flanked by two wings, one which contains a partially glazed conference room, and the other which consists of open offices and enclosed collaborative rooms fronted with glass walls and featuring Knoll’s new line of Irma Boom wallpaper. A pantry in the center of the building near the core, with concrete shear walls and an existing concrete ceiling, also provides a break out space for meetings. Colorful accents from Knoll’s own furnishings and textiles infuse warmth into the raw loft-like space, such as Rem Koolhaas’ pivoting red counter from his “Tools for Life” collection and ARO’s bright pink felt bench resembling waves of unrolled fabric. This is an offshoot of ARO’s Architecture Research Office Collection for FilzFelt (a subsidiary of Knoll), a line they developed consisting of acoustic panels and partitions like the ones designed for San Francisco.
The showroom, which has earned LEED Gold certification, demonstrates how a retrofit with small, yet critical interventions can strike the perfect balance, and elevate it from just another sterile industrial office space.