Reflex Arik Levy

Like a metaphor, the translucent membrane at the entrance to the building grants access to the very heart of Cartier.
Once inside, reality surpasses the boundaries of purely physical perception, and appeals to the imagination. Existing spatial boundaries are stretched by the constant transitions between transparency and opacity inherent in the entire project. These create illusory volumes which are capable of infinite transformations, this time through an internal, vertical membrane: the furniture. The resulting superposition of strata of images and luminosity can be used to regulate confidentiality and intimacy.
Colour enters this diaphanous environment thanks to the most important elements of the place – the human beings. Through their simple, everyday actions they generate values, nuances and dynamism. Daylight and rays of sunshine permeate the glass façades to reach the interior; the furniture then acts as dynamic filter and volume diffuser. To reap the benefits of an avant-garde workplace and improved efficiency, the whole furniture scheme must be constantly adaptable to the present and future needs of both the company and the individual. Through this techno-poetic lens, I call on visual, intuitive, intimate, spiritual and corporal ergonomics, as well as on mechanics and imagination. The result is a sound creative basis for today and for tomorrow: a setting for the spirit, a vision.

The setting: the Cité du Retiro

The Cité du Retiro, facing the Galerie de la Madeleine, connects the Rue Boissy d’Anglas to the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré. It was acquired by the commercial property investment firm Unibail, who launched an architectural competition (won by the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill in 1999), as a result of which the site was transformed into an office complex of 20,000 square metres. The few remaining constructions dating from the Haussmann era were rehabilitated, and transparent six-storey glass and metal buildings came to complete the picture. The approach to the main entrance is via a mineral walkway. This is flanked at the front by two contemporary Town houses, and traversed by a portico of four floors of offices; these ensure the continuity of the façade along the inner walkway, which resembles a main courtyard. On the right, the U-shape of the three façades of the headquarters forms a virtual Cube which is crowned by a crystalline canopy. On the other side, the façades display architectural elements that symbolise two different styles and periods: late nineteenth-century classicism to the west, with freestone pediments, cornices, consoles and railings; a contemporary steel Colonnade to the east, housing a large pyramidal glass arch. This haven of peace in the heart of Paris has been home to the new Cartier headquarters since March 2003. Its occupants have only to open their windows to enjoy the sound of birdsong!

The context

The three separate entities of the Cartier group were scattered geographically in disparate premises. The firm decided to group these various professions together on one site, and was therefore on the look-out for new headquarters that could symbolise this ambitious federative and identity-building strategy. Meanwhile Unibail, who had recently acquired the Cité du Retiro, launched an international architectural competition among three firms of architects with a view to renovating the site and transforming it into an up-scale rentable office complex. The site and the brief appealed to the French luxury group: consequently they signed a lease with Unibail, and together they chose the project proposed by Ricardo Bofill. According to Pierre Granger (1), the urban dimension of the site, the impact of its architecture (despite the profusion of glass) and the complexity of its subdivisions (the preservation of the Haussmann buildings, the partitioning of office floors, the proliferation of their depths and ceiling heights, etc) called for “interior architecture with a soothing, unifying influence and optimum open space. The urgent need to federate the company’s various activities and their multiple cultures through a new work process integrating both roving workers and variable-sized project teams was a strong argument in favour of open-space”, as were the objectives of transparency with regard to internal communication. As the edifice began to take shape, the risk that Cartier’s identity would be swallowed up by the strong personality of its structure became daily more threatening. “Commissioning customised furniture – a policy advocated by Yves Dessuant (2) and Pierre Granger – became the only real way for the company to make its mark on this new space that it needed to appropriate” remembers Pierre Rainero (3). The role of the furniture became a cohesive, identity-building one, while the workplace had to assert itself as a common resource, at the disposal of the company as a whole.

The competion

Yves Dessuant backed the idea of a consultation whose “particularity was that each of the five chosen manufacturers were invited to form a partnership with a clearly identified designer of their choice in order to create a customised system, which would be original but not exclusive, and from which Cartier would be the first to benefit.” The brief for this international competition simply specified the functional problems related to this new concept of furniture which would have, among other things, to integrate the concealed lighting of the work units. Génie des Lieux (4) made a synthetic analysis of the users, grouping them into six major families (management, project, customer/supplier relations, support, administration, sales and marketing) in order to define three main spatial typologies that would meet all their functional requirements: individual, shared and mixed spaces. Vitra had traditionally refused to comply with corporate requests for customised furniture, but decided to compete in this case. “Cartier’s reputation, the architectural context, the conceptual quality of the challenge, a number of workstations (650) that justified industrial development… these were all factors which helped persuade us to undertake such an investment in terms of finance, manpower and time”, explains Isabelle de Ponfilly (5).
“And once we had decided to compete, we had no choice but to win!”
As regards the partnership with Arik Levy, she admits that it was an inspired choice: “I’d been interested in his work since we’d collaborated on a project for a conference room for L’Oréal Prestige et Collections International; at that time I discovered a designer who does more than just draw – someone fresh and emotional, who’s interested in lighting and signage. Most of all he’s passionate about technology, but alleviates its presence with modesty and poetry. He’d worked on a revolutionary shelving system for Visona (formerly VitraShop) and on lighting with Ansorg-Belux – another of our companies – so he already seemed to be an excellent part of the scheme of things within our own group. He was also, undoubtedly, the only designer capable of working the magic that was essential if we were to win, so we promised to put all the necessary means at his disposal.” So began three summer months of intense collaboration that resulted in the final prototype. “Arik was carried along by his intuition; as he worked, he seemed obsessed with the space rather than with the furniture itself. Once we had all agreed that we would play the transparency card and had clarified the concept, his determination to broaden the scope of its functional potentialities – even beyond the Cartier commission – won us over for good, if that were still necessary.”

The technical commission was also won over, as were the fifteen members of the jury; the project proposed by Arik Levy and Vitra met with unanimous approval: “The concept championed by Arik Levy surprised all the jury members by its life-revealing translucence and the lucidity with which it rejects the notion of ennui within a company, and asserts the new modernity that Cartier is bound to reflect.” (Pierre Rainero)

“This project was a remarkable retranscription of the importance attached to lighting in this particular challenge; it also corroborated my enthusiasm for linking working areas in their globality, the only constant in terms of space being the central passageway.” (Pierre Granger)

“The solution proposed by Arik Levy and Vitra stood out because it was fresh, revolutionary, and constituted a motivating challenge to accepted office practices. It facilitated communication across the width of the building, while maintaining flexibility longitudinally (along the length of each floor).” (Gérard Pinot) (4)

“The winning project was judicious without being complacent. One had the impression that it was the fruit of a particularly close partnership between Arik Levy and Vitra; the subsequent development of the product went to confirm that first impression.” (Yves Dessuant)

As the building gradually emerged from the ground, the contractor, designer and manufacturer worked at top speed – helped by free and easy communication between them – to develop, manufacture and finally implement this innovative programme in situ. Assessment-time has come, so let’s reconsider, with Catherine Desplanches (6), “the fact that the budget was not communicated to the candidates, which was intended to broaden their creative outlook… and that’s exactly what happened! All things considered, the total cost of the furniture is still reasonable if you take into account the incidental savings made on all the other elements, starting with the partitions, false ceilings, lighting or air conditioning…” “For Vitra, this design scheme was the opportunity to create a specific environment including desks, technical walls, storage space, lighting and signage. It was a total work of creation, and was developed within a very short time limit. All the subsidiaries of our group took part in the venture”, declares Rolf Fehlbaum (7), who concludes “This project opened up a new path of development for us. We are very proud to have won Cartier’s confidence and to have seen this ambitious project through successfully”. Barely seventeen months after the competition was launched, the Cartier staff – united for the first time – entered the Cité du Retiro to explore their new working environment.

(1) Interior architect for Unibail and Cartier. (2) Assistant contractor and programmer for Cartier. (3) Present strategy director for Cartier, artistic director and president of the jury when the competition was held. (4) Workplace organisation consultant. (5) Manager of Vitra France. (6) Corporate Services Manager, Cartier. (7) Chairman of Vitra

In-depth view...

Beyond the genuine professional admiration aroused by the technical perfection and rapid development of such a system of individual workstations resulting from a private commission, the critic’s eye instinctively focuses on its inherent potentialities.
First of all, he glimpses the multitude of resources that have yet to be exploited – which surpass even Cartier’s expectations, although it is inevitable that the company will soon experiment with a certain number of them. The various kinds of problems that can arise within the working environment and its structural framework seem to have been anticipated, and the solutions already suggested. Above all, however, he perceives the charisma of this new furniture, the interiority it expresses… the soul within the design! Behind the practical, technological solution is the human being, with all his feelings and emotions.
Once again, Arik Levy has explored emotional and psychological ergonomics – a kind of alchemy that distinguishes mind, body, senses and spirit the better to blend them all together. Although he effectively complies with the statistical norms of morphology (broken down and quantified demographically, geographically, culturally and sociologically), he restores to each user a specific, personal dimension which remains unpredictable and rather mysterious: that of a human being. As the eye travels over the different office floors in the Cité du Retiro, it is initially drawn to the functional maze outlined by the elements of furniture in the juxtaposed work units, before being imperceptibly attracted by the strange, diffuse ballet of light and shade that haunts their surface. The storage units that designate passageways are traversed by transitory images which, like blurred snapshots of everyday life, capture (according to one’s position) the life going on inside or around the work unit. These interludes are a poetic interpretation of the non-being of translucence, which serves as fluctuating intermediary between transparency and opacity. The luminous combination of translucent components (storage units and glass partitions) and transparent elements (the glass returns perpendicular to the façades) limits the opacifying effect of the technical wall. The occupant’s field of vision is thereby widened to about ten metres, freeing him or her from the confinement normally engendered by a framework 2.70 metres wide. This spatial layout simultaneously modulates intimacy and light (both natural and artificial), operating as a kind of love potion to create interactive, random correlations between the various components of the place: furniture, walls, façades and passageways, interior and exterior, collective and individual, human and material, solids and voids… This molecular connection is like an ode to emptiness, which it exploits (but never abuses) the better to possess it, both at the individual and the collective level.

The work unit, which is so often reduced elsewhere to an almost prison-like minimum living space, is animated by perpetual movement in this instance thanks to Arik Levy’s magic. It has been transformed into a living molecule that springs to life as soon as our gaze falls upon it!

The technical wall system

Even when equipped with its optional back-lit glass facing, there is nothing evanescent about this 82 mm thick mono-wall, a vertical compression of functions and technology which occludes the space in order to serve rather than subjugate it. Apart from its role as acoustic partition, it is both the nerve fibre of the work unit and a “Swiss knife” which adapts to its ever-changing functionality. This freestanding system with its off-centre base can be installed either alone or in conjunction with another mono-wall, wall or cupboard (logically, these elements are at the same height of 188 cm). Electricity, IT and telephony networks access the unit from the raised floor; an integrated distribution unit (with flexible sliding cover) is discreetly installed under the computer console. The latter, like all the other accessories (shelves, articulated flat screen arm, CPU stand, paper-board, etc.) fits mechanically into the Invisible system designed by Arik Levy for Visplay. Originally intended for shop shelves, this streamlined machine-made piece (barely 37 mm thick) can withstand loads of up to 60 kilos, yet is imperceptible as it was also designed to hold the removable horizontal surfaces, which come with a choice of finishes: aluminium-plated high pressure laminate, magnetic white metal, textile or frosted glass, etc.

The storage unit

This is unquestionably the most substantial element in the partitioning scheme, but paradoxically it is also the most immaterial. The tall version of the storage unit does not “clutter” the view – indeed, it seems almost to apologise for its presence and immobility. Moreover, the pastelized auras that traverse the chinks between its contents give the impression of wanting to leave with their owners. Like a Japanese folding screen, neither completely opaque nor quite transparent, the unit separates but never cuts off. This multi-purpose monobloc storage element – which can be 2, 3 or 5 modules high and comes with or without double door and lock – can be used as a bookcase, a single-space or partitioned cupboard, a coat-locker, etc. Each module can accommodate removable shelves (positionable to allow room for hanging files), storage boxes, sliding drawer units, windows and electrical outlet boxes that can be connected to the rising main (located in a back angle iron) which supplies the lighting system at the top of the unit.
The ladder-structured metallic sides are coated with a special epoxy paint, resistant to greasy finger-marks. A silkscreen is applied to the ultra-white glass of the walls and various optional doors and panels, creating a blurred effect. The demountable back is in one piece with no rough patches that might catch on the clothes either of people passing on the corridor-side or the person working on the office-side. Should the storage unit need moving, an easy-to-manoeuvre pallet truck can be used for this purpose.

The worksurface

This is only the “unavoidable” (in every sense of the word) item of office furniture (apart from the chair), and is the central element of the work unit. Its average surface area is less than 1.5 square metres, yet it has to “support” almost all the activity that takes place within the workplace. As a result, functionality prevails over form: it can become a rather overgrown territory, burdened with an excess of objects. In this instance, the limited space cried out for ascetism – a strictly ergonomic approach, eliminating every superfluous, unaesthetic detail.The various worksurfaces, which were proposed for the competition in Diafos® (translucent laminate), are coated with a high pressure laminate. They are deliberately raised, seeming to float above their structure; the latter consists of two straight (but horizontally angled and vertically bent) supports in epoxy-coated steel square tube, linked by a cross strut. The lightness of the whole structure makes it easy to transport, so the legs have built-in jacks but do not require casters.

The trolley

Undoubtedly the smallest, but generally the most compact element, this opaque (therefore blind) and a priori nomadic storage cube (or parallelepiped) tends to be filled with everything and anything. Its usefulness sometimes appears questionable: only too often it merely confirms the saying “Out of sight, out of mind”. Solutions are at hand! This new-style personal assistant can also appropriate the fluorescent plastic containers and drawers from the cupboards; it can be closed with a lockable glass door that swivels 360° to lie flat against one of its sides. A vertical slot at the back runs though the unit, enabling the user to take advantage – at long last – of the space behind hanging files which has always been inaccessible and, consequently, overlooked. It can now be used to hold A3 documents or can stock tubes!

“Arik Levy wanted to to communicate visually – to create intimacy, a view filter and a light diffuser. We aimed for a surface structure which would have no graphic identity, but would be more than just sanded glass – a surface whose texture would be of great optical and tactile quality, and would express delicacy. When placed back to back, the mat of white enamel silkscreening and the translucence of frosting interact, and create a light-enriching tension. There is luxury too in the manufactured precision work; the mechanical components for our removable partitions are an illustration of this. The slender form pinned to the floor simply by Velcro is remarkably resistant – especially to pushing – yet corresponds exactly to the client’s concern for mobility. We refuted the idea of a frame, and designed a clip, discreetly placed as low down as possible in order to highlight the glass of each panel rather than the connection. The door has no handle but a magnetic, boltless lock which is solid and heavy, yet appears to be levitating within the structure. The most complex element is quite imperceptible, however, as it is concealed inside the Invisible railing: a screw system that fastens the panel to the cupboard or technical wall.”

Guillaume Saalburg Master Glassmaker, Techniques Transparentes

The glass partitions

The rhythm of voids and solids in the layout of the office floor creates random in-between spaces, which can be exploited as informal meeting areas. These spaces inside the building seem to reinterpret the Cube of the outer courtyard, whose crystal canopy sustains a silent but symbolic exchange with their vertical glass sufaces. The apparent lightness of the latter, both opalescent and evanescent, renders them strangely insubstantial and inconstant. Here one moment, there the next… then gone, vanished into thin air! The abstractly textured 10-mm glass sheets – silkscreen-printed on one side, frosted on the other – have no vertical uprights, horizontal struts, or wall, ceiling or floor attachments. They rest solely on the furniture (cupboards and technical wall), and are simply wedged into a slender lower frame secured with Velcro on the underside. They are entirely independent from the building mechanically, and scrupulously movable. The linear, right-angled or articulated connection of these panels is performed by beautifully streamlined, machine-made elements in stainless steel (the glass door has no handle but a boltless, magnetic lock). All this creative energy has resolved the problem of the partition wall between work units, perpendicular to the façade, allowing clearance for every opening: an L-shaped screen (900 x 450 x 1900 mm), like two panels assembled at an angle, can be freely positioned against a cupboard or technical wall. It looks rather like a cartilaginous wing, and is almost freestanding (with a single screw at floor level). Thanks to its stability and mobility, it has acquired another function: to temporarily shrink or block any gaps in the furniture layout. As Vitra’s professional domain does not include glassworking, these partitions and their accessories were developed together with Jean-Marie Prouvé and Guillaume Saalburg; the latter then manufactured and installed them.

The personalised lighting system

Subdued lighting has been systematically fitted into false ceilings for a long time now, despite ever-growing proof of its unsuitability to new-style, shared work spaces. Sometimes it is too distant (therefore inordinately strong); sometimes, because it is not sectorized, it continues to light a whole floor even when the latter is practically unoccupied; and often it is insufficiently differentiated to take individual requirements into account. The age of personalised lighting was long overdue! Arik Levy advocates a lighting concept “without” appliances; the solutions he proposes are efficient but invisible. With Ansorg (specialised firms which are part of the Vitra group) he developed three differing light sources that create complementary areas of luminosity. These make for an entirely modular, “light-hearted” environment. “Top” represents a new generation of near-invisible equipment for the indirect control of light in the workspace. It is ultra-simple to install, requires no drilling in the ceiling, and takes up a minimum of space. An enigmatic, subdued light emanates from a luminous box at the top of the cupboards, and guarantees a homogenous level of illumination (350 to 450 lux) to the worksurface (excluding the desk lamp). Thanks to asymmetric reflectors oriented towards the ceiling, the reflection of the light from the two fluorescent tubes is directed away from its source. The A.L. desk lamp looks as frail as a stick insect, with an articulated arm between its swivel head and base. Its warm glow softens the harsher nuances of the concealed fluorescent lighting. It has a 50 W halogen bulb, encased in a chrysalis of stainless steel cloth (whose highly tactile microplasma welding does not alter the material on a micro-cellular level). The Light Stone system consists of fragments of light that are free in space! These fun, light-diffusing polycarbonate boxes (incorporating a compact 14 W fluorescent light) can be used in many ingenious ways: stacked up like totem poles, slipped into cupboards, etc.

The signage system

All too often, signage systems are tacked onto a pre-existing furniture concept like a kind of afterthought; it is often difficult to integrate them into the multi-faceted world of the office. In this instance, signage is inherent in the very genes of the designer’s global scheme: the glass walls and openings of the storage units come silkscreened or in a range of colours, while the cupboard’s sections can be adorned with kakemonos or magnetic plaques to identify the various work units. By magnetizing Pippo Lionni’s signage system “Silenzio Uno” (into which texts can be inserted from a simple computer), Arik Levy has devised a means of positioning or moving the various “markers” according to the company’s changing requirements, and without the need for tools. The office occupants themselves are sure to develop a more intuitive pathfinding system, whose landmarks will be the very contents of the storage units, perceptible through the translucent façades. In the near future, if so required, flat screens, back-lit screens or windows can easily be inserted into the structure of these versatile elements, for the greater pleasure of the most communicative!

Summary of the brief

In the absence of partition walls, the floors will be divided up chiefly by the furniture. The latter will be situated on either side of a central (but not necessarily median) passageway 1.50 metres wide; every third tile in the metallic false ceiling over this passageway will concentrate the only concealed lighting on the floor. One of the elements of furniture must therefore integrate a lighting system capable of supplying sufficient light to each work unit. The work units, regulated according to the general framework of the building (1.35 m) and with an average width of 2.70 metres, will be contained within at least two high storage units, a technical wall, a demountable glass partition (at least 90 cm wide) at right angles to the façade, allowing clearance for every opening. Each unit will be equipped with a mobile pedestal, a computer desk, a work table, a chair and a desk lamp. The raised access floor will house the power and cable distribution system (with multinetwork feeder units installed every 7 square metres), which will supply each workstation then be rerouted via the elements of furniture. Informal meeting areas will be disposed within the shared and mixed spaces, and must be capable of almost instantaneous reconfiguration using a minimum of equipment.

The philosophy behind the solution

In order to mitigate the relative exiguity of the work unit and alleviate its spatial density, we aimed for maximum translucence within the system’s components, thereby creating an autonomous working environment that seems almost to float in space. This translucence acts as an intimist filter, revealing only the spectre of the life within or around the unit. With this same objective, as soon as the competition got under way Arik Levy advocated reducing the height of all the partitioning elements by 34 cm (to 188 cm) in order to maximise the volume of each unit and optimise its illumination from the lighting system integrated into the top of the cupboards.
We avoided overcrowding the work units by making each furniture component as versatile as possible and ensuring that it could incorporate multiple functions and cabling requirements. The computer desk was therefore integrated into the technical wall, whose revolutionary profile was adapted to the required load-bearing capacity.
All the back panels can be dismantled for practical and aesthetic purposes, and by positioning two cupboards back to back, sufficient depth is acquired to install shared printers. The furniture was indeed designed to be instantly movable, but thanks to its unicity – and to an ingenious collection of small containers in translucent turquoise plastic – it is actually only moved when internal restructuring takes place on one or other floor. In the event of an occupant taking up a new appointment, only the practical, colourful individual file cabinets – used to store and manage personal files and stationery on a day-to-day basis – need to be moved, rather than the furniture itself.

I love this way of always looking ahead, of perceiving existence at a distance. I see these non-partitioned spaces as living areas, surrounded by minimalist furniture which leaves room for the phantoms of intimacy – a uniform for the individual, which does not eliminate individuality. It lets the light through, filters the occupant’s perception, and discreetly reveals the life-blood (paper, files…) of the company that flows beneath its skin. Unlike many renowned architects and designers who tend to glorify technique, Arik Levy attains a technical perfection which he expresses with perfect simplicity. He restores form to its rightful role as an aid to perception and enjoyment. His creations are neither sculptures, nor self-important forms; they adapt to the organisation of a company, but allow life to make its presence felt, and respect the need for flights of fancy.

Florian Kleinfenn, photographer