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‘One big desk for everyone’: Clive Wilkinson Architects’ Superdesk

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 3

AR Work Awards 2016 Commended: in a wholesale elimination of the individual office, a single desk caters for up to 175 employees

In 2014, digital advertising agency The Barbarian Group moved into a new office in Manhattan designed by South African, but Los Angeles-based, architect Clive Wilkinson. 

On the seventh floor of a building on West 20th Street, Wilkinson created a 410m2 continuous desk that undulates and levels out, only to rear up again as it winds through the 1,860m2 office. The desk is made  of plywood pony walls with a fibreboard surface painted white and coated with a resin that was poured continuously over 24 hours to eliminate seams. The surface has a glittery shimmer. All 140 employees have a seat at the desk, which can accommodate up to 175. No one has a private office.

‘It calls to mind the half pipe of a skateboarder’s dreams. It also reminds me of a video of Bjarke Ingels cycling through the epoxied Denmark Pavilion he designed’

The structure calls to mind the half pipe of a skateboarder’s dreams. It also reminds me of a video Bjarke Ingels used to play during lectures in which he cycles through the spiralling, white, epoxied Denmark Pavilion he designed for Expo 2010 Shanghai.

That the Superdesk evokes activity and play is not a result of whimsy. Barbarian’s previous Manhattan premises was on two floors of a building in Tribeca.  It had been used by more than  one creative agency before The Barbarian Group, which was founded in 2001, and the company’s co-founder Benjamin Palmer describes it as teeming with bookshelves and flat files, drawers filled with correction fluid, and ‘a lot of offices’.

‘We had people who didn’t need an office hiding away somewhere. There wasn’t much communication or friction. You’d have to hunt people down,’ he says. ‘We decided to go in the other direction.’

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects Section02

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects Section02

Section - click to expand

The company’s lease was ending in Tribeca, which was the impetus for finding a new space that would create as many opportunities for serendipitous interaction as possible. Palmer wanted ‘one big desk for everyone’. He knew of the 76m-long concrete table that Wilkinson designed  in 2004 for British ad agency Mother, which sat 200. He  wanted something similar, but  on a budget. The Barbarian desk cost $300,000, which Wilkinson says is 50 per cent less than a typical office fit-out for a similar creative agency. 

It was tricky finding a space to accommodate the Superdesk. Most offices in New York have core systems in the centre of the building, and Barbarian needed a clear swath of space. Palmer found that on 20th Street. 

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 1

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 1

Source: Maria Spann

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 2

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 2

Source: Maria Spann

‘We could see very quickly that we could preserve rooms around the perimeter and bulldoze the centre,’ says Wilkinson. The architect repurposed those perimeter spaces into conference rooms, bathrooms, a studio and an open kitchen and bar. A couple of closet-sized ‘phone booths’ accommodate private calls. Wilkinson then determined where the six ‘grottos’ should be, based on predicted paths that people would take between the various amenities around the perimeter. ‘It appears arbitrary,’ he says of the soundproofed pavilions where the desk curves up, with built-in, cushioned seating, ‘but it’s underpinned by basic rationale.’ 

After creating several physical models, Wilkinson’s team sculpted the desk with 3D modelling software. Each of the 500 pieces of plywood was individually designed. The ribs  of the archways are made from plywood panels, measuring 1.2m wide and 2.4m long. The pieces  for the desk were cut with reconfigured automotive robots, by LA-based fabricator Machineous, and assembled on site with the help of 100mm steel plates (their visibility adds to the approachability of the structure). 

‘When I ask him what he would say to someone who just wants an office and a door they can shut, he retorts: “Welcome to the 19th century.”’

‘Where the plywood fins change depth, that’s not artistic. That’s where the stresses are greatest,’ says Wilkinson. ‘It’s quite nice that it is a representation of its structural forces.’

Founded in 1991, Wilkinson’s firm is known for upending the idea of workplace, from its ‘Advertising City’ for ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day in 1998, to its campus for Google in Silicon Valley in 2005, to LA’s National Public Radio affiliate KCRW’s forthcoming headquarters. Wilkinson is adamant that ‘cubicles are inhumane’, as he  said in an interview last December on Canadian national radio. He compared them to ‘battery farming with chickens’. People are social and should feel connected to a community at work. When I ask him what he would say to someone who just wants an office and a door they can shut, he retorts: ‘Welcome to the 19th century.’ (When Palmer wants alone time, he goes to a Chinese massage parlour downstairs and takes a 15-minute nap.)

The kinds of offices Wilkinson designs are the descendants of progressive ideas about office design that emerged in the mid-20th century – specifically, the work of Robert Propst, a professor of art who was hired  by the Herman Miller Company  in 1958 to run its research department. Propst was obsessed with advancing workplace design so it aligned with how people wanted to function – socially, physically, emotionally, intellectually. He also became a major proponent in the US of the German Bürolandschaft– or ‘office landscape’ – idea, which was emerging from brothers Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle; this liberated employees from cell-like offices into an open plan with flexible clusters of desks. 

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 4

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 4

Source: Maria Spann

‘Interaction and communication were conceived of as norms in the landscaped office; introspection and concentration were sidelined,’ writes Nikil Saval in Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. 

Based on Propst’s research and thinking, Herman Miller released, in 1964, Action Office, comprising tables, desks, chairs and display surfaces that encouraged constant movement and interaction. ( It didn’t sell. Action Office II, released in 1968, was a hit but looked and acted like standard cubicles – exactly what Propst had tried to blow apart.) 

Certainly the late 20th- and early 21st-century manifestations of Bürolandschaft have been called into question, or simply become clichés. The tech, media, design and other companies in a wide range of fields with beanbag chairs, pool tables, stadium steps – even slides – in their offices have been criticised for infantilising tactics as well as encouraging people to live more of their lives at work, thereby working more. 

It would be naïve to place Superdesk in this sphere, but it’s easy to understand why one can detect some eye rolling, even in the positive coverage the project has received in the press. Almost immediately after its completion, it had its own Twitter account (no longer active). Palmer and The Barbarian Group (now former)CEO Sophie Kelly filmed a two-minute walking tour of the Superdesk, which was parodied in a video made by a competing agency, Barton F Graf 9000, in which CEO Gerry Graf boasts about his office’s ‘continuous floor’. The New Yorker even dedicated one of its ‘Talk of the Town’ columns to a party in which the Superdesk was both the special guest and great convener. Palmer, who has a lean face, a bed head and seems to mostly wear T-shirts, was caricatured for the column. He has the piece framed and hanging in a Superdesk grotto – he taps it proudly as we pass by on an office tour in January. 

On the tour, there don’t seem to be any ‘dead zones’. A woman sits alone in one of the grottos on her laptop; in another, a few people talk quietly. Some sit at café tables in the kitchen on their laptops. And then, of course, most are focused on their computer monitors at the Superdesk. There is laughter. The room is buzzing with a hum of voices. 

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Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects Section01

Section - click to expand

There’s no question that the Superdesk was not simply a productivity tool, but also a brilliant marketing move. (The desk reminds me of hipster fashion: what looks casual and effortlessly makeshift is often a costume that takes hours to put on and charisma to pull off.) 

‘A big part of this was bringing clients in,’ says Palmer. Barbarian trademarked one of Palmer’s favourite phrases –‘It’s Gonna Be Awesome’ – and had it printed on employees’ bold black and yellow business cards. Clients include GE, Pepsi, Google, Clinique and Virgin. In 2004 it launched Burger King’s ‘Subservient Chicken’ commercials and website, which went viral. Barbarian’s website says, ‘We make stuff the internet loves’ – certainly images of the Superdesk were devoured by numerous blogs and news sites. 

The Superdesk also coincides with a shift in the way Barbarian does business. Palmer says when the agency began, it was much more project oriented. People communicated using instant messenger. ‘It was fine for people not to be around each other when you come up with an idea. Everyone goes off and works on their own.’ As well as offices in New York and Boston, it had one in San Francisco to gain access to cheap developers. There are no longer cheap developers in San Francisco so the office closed. Then the Boston office closed. 

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 6

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 6

Source: Maria Spann

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 5

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 5

Source: Maria Spann

About five years ago, says Palmer, Barbarian began to make a concerted effort to move to an ‘agency model’ to have fewer clients and long-term contracts – being an agency of record. ‘Once you’re working for someone all the time, you may have assignments but part of your job is to always come up with new bits,’ says Palmer. ‘Sometimes those are the most creative ideas, because they come in sideways.’ A traditional office just didn’t work any more. ‘I know we’ve had ideas we wouldn’t have had if people weren’t around each other in this way,’ he says. Still, at least one employee commented off the record that he would prefer an office with a door. ‘It’s a great metaphor for our collaborative approach, but it’s distracting  and bereft of privacy,’ he says. 

Around the Superdesk, employees are grouped by discipline – creatives, production, developers and so on – or project team. Everyone has already switched seats twice, with about  a six-month period in between, and another move is planned. ‘I proposed we do it Hunger Games style,’ jokes Palmer. The employee who longs for an office with a door also dislikes the fact that no one can rely on a permanent spot but a couple of others, as well as Palmer, say there’s no ‘bad’ location. ‘Despite the fact that it’s open, it still provides areas of intimacy,’ says Edu Pou, chief creative officer. He says the Superdesk aligns with the quality of work he’s expected to create. 

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 7

Superdesk Clive Wilkinson Architects 7

Source: Maria Spann

Colin Nagy, executive director of media and distribution, compares the new office to a newsroom. He says, combined with tools like Slack – a messaging and communication app – it has helped him and his co-workers keep conversations moving and ‘the nonsense out of your inbox’. If he needs to send  an email that’s more than three sentences he gets up and talks  to the person instead. 

That one department flows, literally, into another leads to more collaboration and better ideas, he says. Yes, there are distractions and what he calls ‘fly-bys’ but, if he needs silence, he’ll work from home for an hour. Emotional intelligence is key in an open-plan office he says; wearing headphones probably means you don’t want to be bothered. 

Nagy adds: ‘You have to hold the egalitarian line. There will always be one person who says, “Oh no, I want an office”.’ 

Superdesk

Project team:  Clive Wilkinson, Chester Nielsen, Thomas Terayama, Yuna Kubota, Caroline Morris 

Contractor: GC Contractors 

M&E engineer: JFK&M Consulting Group

Superdesk fabricator: Machineous 

Photographs:  Maria Spann

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