Zen And The Art Of Working -- Designer's Office Reflects Interest In Asian Ambiance, Philosophy


The elevator doors open at the intriguing new offices of Tim Girvin Design. The passengers inside peer out.

``That must be what hell looks like . . . ,'' one fellow is overheard saying to another.

``Yeah, but it's cool . . . ,'' says his friend.

Different day. Same elevator. Same floor.

``It'll be great when the carpet comes,'' somebody remarks.

Or observes: `` . . . this place makes me feel like I oughta get off and order sushi . . . ''

Last month, the nationally known graphic designer - whose company created the cover art for John Lennon's book ``Imagine,'' the current packaging for Nintendo and the logotype for the movie ``Days of Thunder'' - moved his staff of 25 into new digs on the fifth floor of the Broadacres Building at Second Avenue and Pine Street.

The curious who've heard about this far-out new space often wander in for a look and a comment.

The typical carpeted corporate experience, it isn't.

No florescent lights. No look-alike upholstered furniture. No acoustical ceiling tiles.

``Obviously a lot more can be stated and expressed,'' says Girvin, a stylish man of alert look, bow tie and starched shirt, with ink stains on his fingers.

``Stainless steel Zen'' is what he said he wanted when the project began.

Girvin once intended to be a marine biologist, but couldn't stand the idea of killing beautiful sea creatures and so began to draw them. Then he discovered fine printing and book design, handmade papers and special typefaces. That fascination led to Japan, calligraphy and collecting Asian art.

Eventually, it came around to this office.

``I wanted the space to have symbolism to it. To have a little bit of meaning to it,'' Girvin explains.

He also could give out-of-town clients an experience they couldn't find anywhere else and show them ``what we can do.''

Says designer Larry Rouch who was hired to create the space: ``He wanted the kind of drama that retail stores present.''

Rouch prides himself on a talent to originate the unexpected. Prime examples of his retail work are Fini and Jordan, both fashion stores in Seattle and both featured in national architecture magazines.

What people see when the elevator doors open at Girvin's is surprising, dark and dramatic.

The theme is Asian. Provocative. A kind of yin and yang.

``Many of the spirits of Asian design influence what I do,'' says Girvin whose own design style is spare and energetic.

Rouch also has an affinity for Asian aesthetics, ``so what Tim was interested in, I understood very well.''

The floor plan consists of a dimly lit, large, almost bare foyer leading to a wide, equally dark hall set on a diagonal axis. The hall zigs and zags in and out, progressing to a wall of vermillion and finally to the light of Girvin's corner office and his staff located along the perimeter ``wings.''

Rouch envisioned the hall as a ``rural Japanese street at night,'' a space that was not perfectly regular, but looked like it had ``aggregated over time.''

Before construction began, Girvin called in a feng shui expert from Hong Kong who analyzed the ``street's'' placement. Feng shui (pronounced fung shway) is the centuries-old Chinese art of placement which strives to harmonize a space with its user. Using the principles of feng shui in office design was at its peak in New York about two years ago.

All was correct or propitious, the feng shui expert pronounced, though a water element ought to be incorporated. A special stone with a large natural hollow to hold water was placed at the start of the ``street.''

Along one side of the ``street'' are conference rooms that look like lanterns with their lights glowing behind paperlike shoji screens.

The other, darker side serves as a gallery for Girvin's art collection which includes Japanese street signs and tall Japanese scrolls.

Besides the art, in the corners along the hall are arrangements of big stones and individually chosen pieces of black bamboo rubbed with linseed oil. Later, Girvin may bring in a bamboo master from Japan to create a large sculpture.

Delicate paper Japanese lanterns in tetrahedron shapes hang from the ceiling instead of conventional fluorescent lights.

Due largely to a lean budget, designer Rouch took the surfaces already present and treated them in interesting ways.

The floor is specially formulated cement applied in layers and stained black. The walls are naturally colored cement, sanded, waxed and polished several times to achieve a patina.

Huge board-formed cement structural columns again are washed clean and stained to expose their texture.

That texture is direct and consistent with the Japanese sense of aesthetics, says Rouch.

There are no windows in this interior core, only small lights which cast dramatic, mysterious shadows. Bright lighting in the lobby would have been conventional, says Girvin and ``I've always been a nonconformist.''

Rouch's perspective on light has been heavily influenced by a classic Japanese book called ``In Praise of Shadows'' by Junichiro Tanizaki. The author talks about the importance of low lights to enhance the intrinsic qualities of objects and interiors, says Rouch.

Symbols appear throughout. Set in the front lobby floor are three brushed-bronze shapes: circle, square and triangle. A circular wooden wheel used in a Mexican mine hangs on the front lobby wall.

``I am personally fascinated by circles,'' Girvin explains. In Asian art the symbol implies power and balance.

At the center of the office is a good-luck stone, often seen in Japanese gardens. Girvin's stone is hand-cut with ``the circle of Heaven and square of Earth.''

To him it represents ``a magical balance between the two elements in the cosmos.''

On specially constructed shelves along the exterior office wall where the real work gets done, Girvin displays his astounding Asian ikebana-basket collection against bare white walls. The baskets are made of dark bamboo and wisteria roots for displaying flowers and range from 75 to 200 years old.

Paintings of crows, another Girvin passion, are also displayed, along with antique Japanese tools.

The effect throughout the office is always of dark silhoutte against light background, of texture juxtaposed against texture. Picture a handpainted Japanese screen displayed against concrete.

On a practical level, Rouch's design functions well. For example, every office has natural light and is separated from the others by movable shoji screens. This makes for easy interaction and idea flow between people.

For Girvin the office is not only comfortable to work in, but represents many of his ideas about beauty. Other companies might want to consider using architecture and interior design to express their philosophy, he says - especially when it favorably impresses clients.

``When I first saw the office, initially I was very surprised,'' says Andrew Hertz, a client and senior art director with Chesebrough-Ponds in Greenwich, Conn.

The longer Hertz spent in the place, the more he felt it reflected the essence of Girvin, his company and the kind of work he does. Calligraphic. Economical in terms of brush strokes. Minimalist.

``I've seen a lot of offices both for designers and other people,'' says Hertz. ``I would say it is absolutely unique.