Inside the L.A. Offices of Creative Studio Brand New School

Bringing old vintage glass shop back to life

Photography by Nikolas Koenig

We've designed a lot of office spaces for Brand New School—five to be exact. With each design we're able to address what didn't work previously, or how our business has changed, and implement those in the next version. Workspace design has proven to be just as iterative as the design we do for our clients. You can always make it better. 

Our most recent office in Los Angeles is the first L.A. studio that we actually own. Previously we were renting, so naturally we had limitations to our improvement budgets, and certainly no assurances that the landlords would extend an affordable future lease. Having owned our space in New York for the past decade, and with the level of design we were able to do there, we knew this was our way forward. 

The first two studios we opened, in Venice and Santa Monica, were places where we did a small configuration that forced us to work a certain way. Our third space we opened in L.A. was a large warehouse that we designed from the ground up. Well, from the interior up. Then we had our fourth space, which was in Santa Monica again, another warehouse that we designed from the interior up. Both of our warehouse offices had lots of square footage, and it always felt like we were filling them rather than being efficient and actually designing them. There weren't enough constraints, and (by New York standards) the buildings lacked character—it all felt the same. 

When the building on La Brea popped up, it was very much a familiar design problem of working with constraints. Ironically, it was also the first space that we've occupied to be an office and house people, not a mechanic's garage or factory. It's a building at people's scale, with proportions that make people feel comfortable. This was interesting, coming from the Santa Monica train yard and manufacturing areas where, even with a tall ladder, you couldn't touch the ceiling. 

Previously the building was an old vintage glass shop run by a pretty eclectic, really knowledgeable mid-century enthusiast. He was forced into a situation where he had to sell it, and tons of offers were pouring in. Compared to the others who presumably wanted to knock it down and maximize the square footage of a double lot, I gave him my word that I would preserve it. I told him about BNS and that our intention was to return it to a studio again, to its original purpose, and give it new life. He said he always wanted to be able to restore it to what it once was, and we connected over our love for architecture and design. I also gave his niece an internship to sweeten the deal. 

The building was built in 1952. There is some confusion on the architect of record. At one point it was William Pereira, the futurist best known for his work on colleges all over and the city planning of Irvine, California. Next it was Max Starkman, the Neutra architect known for his classic mid-century modern for Hollywood elite in Beverly Hills. The original intent of the building was for the ground floor to be the construction offices and the top floor to be the drafting studio, which is why the windows are positioned for northern light. 

Reimagining this building was a true project. I enlisted the help of Juergen Riehm of 1100, whom I've worked with for the past decade, to help make sense of it all. As we peeled back 70 years of layers, we discovered the building wasn't entirely the architectural gem we thought it was. Years of neglect combined with poor building methods didn't allow for a straightforward renovation. Despite this, it had the right intentions, and we were excited to make it right. 

The building features a Miesian glass pavilion downstairs with a cantilevered building above. The two are connected through an outdoor staircase. We decided to make the downstairs the open studio and the upstairs client and meeting areas. This separation allowed for two types of conditions—messy and collaborative, composed and presentable. 

The natural light of downstairs is diffused by curtains that span the entire length of the structure. We encased the open area under the building with frameless glass—preserving the look of the original structure, bringing the desert landscaping indoors. This is the reception area and makes for a dramatic first impression. It's also a truly inspired and tasteful way of reimagining the space through a contemporary lens—an architectural stroke of genius that only Juergen is capable of. 

I worked with a landscape architect to bring life to the interior gardens that flow to common areas, the roof deck, and even the surrounding sidewalks. These areas provide places for people to take a stroll, have a meeting, grab lunch, sketch, have moment to themselves or take a phone call. We complemented the age-old Eucalyptus with desert plantings and mid-century Gainey pottery. I've been collecting mid-century furniture ever since taking design history courses at CalArts, and our offices have become homes to these finds. 

The space is actually considerably smaller than our previous, but we're busier than we've ever been. Accordingly, we have less empty space between people. Those spaces proved to be dead zones for communication and collaboration. People communicate more in this space, and feel more comfortable. It has the proportions of a home, and most homes don't have 15-foot ceilings for a reason.

If you come to the studio, the tone is set—you see and feel it. I like to think artists and clients feel confident knowing that we are considering everything when they work with us. Maybe this makes me feel more comfortable with who I am (slightly obsessive), but to paraphrase Charles Eames, the details aren't just details—they make up the whole. We want the experience of BNS to be an expression of our design principles. 

Jonathan Notaro
Jonathan Notaro is executive creative director and director at Brand New School.