While the open-office concept of the Barbarian Group’s new headquarters in New York City is not unusual, the undulating “superdesk” that fills the space is unexpected. Designed by Los Angeles-based Clive Wilkinson Architects (CWA), which also designed the rest of the new office space, this wow-inducing piece serves as a shared worktop for the interactive marketing firm’s entire staff and a physical representation of the firm’s collaborative approach to its work.
The 4,400-square-foot desk weaves through the 20,000-square-foot office, and while the path seems whimsical, each curve and arch was deliberately designed. “These grottoes that are created when the table lifts up are a direct reaction to the lines of circulation that need to happen through the space,” says Chester Nielsen, associate at of CWA. CWA used the 3D-modeling software Rhinoceros and Revit to achieve the desk’s geometry.
The desk measures 1,100 feet long and 11-1/2 feet across at its widest point. An embedded utility tray makes power and data cables accessible along the length of the desk. Barbarian set the desk up with 125 workstations when it moved into the office in January 2014, but the desk can accommodate up to 170 people. “It’s very flexible,” Nielsen says. “You just add more task chairs.”
While the unobstructed nature of the desktop encourages discourse, built-in upholstered seating located within the grottoes beneath the arches is ideal for quieter contemplation and more private discussions. “The coffers of the arches themselves offer acoustic privacy, and then within them we put acoustic insulation,” Nielsen explains. “You’re very protected.”
The desk was constructed using simple materials to give it a raw look and keep the cost low. The desktop is made of a combination of medium- and high-density fiberboard and is supported by pony walls that are built using 2x4 framing and 4-foot-wide by 8-foot-long standard plywood panels. The arch ribs are made of plywood pieces cut from panels that also measured 4 feet wide by 8 feet long.
Custom fabricator Machineous manufactured all of the components for the desk in its Los Angeles studio. The firm used repurposed automotive industrial robots, which it obtained from robot resellers or directly from the manufacturers, to cut the plywood panels. It equipped the robots with high-speed, spiral-flute milling bits and then used the 3D models to program the robots to cut the pieces. “You just put the piece of plywood down [and] have the robot work on it,” CWA’s Nielsen explains. The robots cut 500 individual pieces to form the desk’s six arches.
All of the pieces were then shipped cross-country to the Barbarian Group’s office, where Machineous and the general contractor, New York City-based GC Contractors, assembled the desk. The pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, with 4-inch steel plates providing extra rigidity and Elmer’s wood glue and screws securing everything together. “It was essentially like a huge Ikea table because you have all the numbers, and you know where the numbers fit into each other,” Nielsen says.
The team sandwiched the fiberboard pieces together and sealed the seams with Bondo before covering the entire desktop with a water-based pearlescent white paint to create a seamless worktop. After that, Los Angeles-based artist Casper Brindle covered the desktop with a surfboard-inspired resin topcoat. The water-based, eco-friendly resin was poured continuously for 24 hours to maintain the desktop’s continuity. “If you stop and let a section dry, you’re going to see that seam ... so they started at one end, and they rotated teams throughout the 24 hours,” Nielsen says.
In addition to serving as a functional worktop for everyone on the Barbarian Group’s staff, from chief executive to interns, the superdesk has become a symbol of the company’s evolution from a small firm to a legitimate player in the interactive marketing industry. “They’ve gotten everything that they have needed out of this project,” Nielsen says. “I’m proud to say that ... part of their recent success [is a result of] the workplace.”
The American Institute of Architects recently recognized the Barbarian Group’s office and superdesk and seven other projects with 2015 Institute Honor Awards for Interior Architecture. In response, Nielsen says, “We are honored to receive such an award. The project is [as] strong as the client [and] construction and design team behind it, all of whom deserve the accolade.”