Architecture: A magazine empire looks to the future

Jonathan Newhouse hired Britain's hottest partnership for the London makeover of Conde Nast International.
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The Independent Culture
WHEN I was Vogue's design and architecture editor, Peter Marino, architect to the rich and famous, once arrived unannounced at Vogue House to talk about his new DKNY on Bond Street. I let him think that the cubbyhole I worked in was about to have a makeover. "When will it be finished?" he asked. How could I explain its shabbiness to New York's coolest architect when he knew that the Madison Avenue offices of Conde Nast had their canteen designed by Frank Gehry? How to wish away the broken Mies "Barcelona" chair rescued from a skip at House & Garden; the left-over Arne Jacobsen "Ant" chair from the days when Christine Keeler posed on it; or the rows of orange hanging files and piles of merchandise stacked on black desks bought in a job-lot sale?

Makeovers occurred only in showcases for the suits, such as the boardroom, which had been done up by Anthony Collett in black and white with high- backed upholstered chairs, the walls hung with priceless photographs by Horst, Helmut Newton, Snowdon, Bailey, Parkinson and Testino to signal that Conde Nast still publishes the best magazines on the market.

Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman of Conde Nast International says that he thinks that Vogue House's boardroom is "attractive, very tasteful and reflects the feeling of the company. I don't expect everything to be a reflection of my personal taste." There's a message there: Newhouse is a minimalist at heart, but, I dare say as publisher of Architectural Digest in three different languages, he can't admit it.

The nearest to coming out of the decorator closet is his commission of a pounds 400,000 makeover at Conde Nast International's new offices in Old Burlington Street by Future Systems. What he loves about them, is that "their work is so structural, so integral to the space which is Sixties London, and they liked it as much as I did, so they didn't camouflage it". Their brief was to keep the space functional, clean, pared down, and minimalist. And he was surprised to find that they gave him "more clarity and energy".

Only 10 people work in this powerhouse of production, budget and world- wide strategy, so the office is small, but beautiful. Like all of Future Systems' work, it is organic with aerodynamic lift-off. It owes something to Nasa, although Amanda Levete, one half of the duo with her husband Jan Kaplicky, calls their work "organic modernist". I challenge this because their work is more revolutionary than evolutionary, and anyone expecting boring old cloud shapes or petals or any of those wavy bits that "organic" often implies will be disappointed. It is curvaceous, but more like aeroplane wings or ships' hulls. Their work is always attenuated, stretched to the limits, yet generously fulsome.

Everything is in white, which emphasises its Seventies elegance. The office is clinical, but without being cold, largely because of the lighting. Daylight comes via floor-to-ceiling window walls on the street front, though mesh window blinds soften the effect.

The only colour apart from white comes from the aubergine wall-to-wall carpet and hundreds of magazine covers displayed upright in rows, a piece of decoration which is also functional.

On the advice of Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of British Conde Nast - and maybe because of Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese editions of Vogue - Newhouse called in a feng shui consultant. Coleridge expensively moved the downstairs lavatory in his London house after the same expert pointed out that money flew down the drain where it was placed. Newhouse was sceptical about the benefits of feng shui, so he did what all astute businessmen do - accepted what suited him and dumped the rest. "No desks placed so that somebody's eyes bored into your back made good sense," he says. When he was advised that a corner office to the left of the entrance was a bad corner, and that neither of his two other heads of department wanted it, he rather selflessly took it himself.

The offices are not very hierarchical. There is uniformity in design and furniture, although his office is bigger than those of the other two senior executives. But in other respects the offices are identical, with transparent glass floor-to-ceiling walls distancing them from the open-plan middle section.

"Transparency was important to Newhouse," Future Systems reveal, "and he wasn't very fussed about the audience." Not showing off is important to the chairman, even to the extent of commissioning a desk in anodised aluminium that isn't "flash or showy or too big". The office has not been designed to impress, but to foster creativity. "And to encourage everyone to work in a more organised and logical way. It discourages entropy," says Newhouse.

Future Systems is Britain's brightest and best kept architectural secret. Its NatWest media centre, high above Lords cricket ground, is like a compressed oval on a stalk, and has earned the partnership lots of publicity worldwide. Yet in Britain they haven't had a single lottery funded project, except for the beautiful glass butterfly they designed for the Earth Centre in Doncaster, which was then put on hold. But they have been invited to join 15 other international architects to design one of Jacques Chirac's Grands Projets for a Museum of Oceangraphic and African Art in Paris. Up against Jean Nouvel and Tadao Ando, they are the only British architects apart from Norman Foster invited to compete for this prestigious commission. Newhouse's bold commission for a ready-to-wear office may have given him classic couture, after all.