ICON — Summer 2015
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Power Offices
Ambrose Clancy

What does 7 million square feet of real estate look like? Some would say like a slim, middle-aged man in a perfectly tailored black suit, no tie, and a light purple shirt.

MEET MITCHELL RECHLER, managing partner along with his cousin, Gregg Rechler, of Rechler Equity Partners, which controls all that square footage throughout the New York metropolitan area as well as $1 billion in development and redevelopment projects.

Rechler is certainly a powerful player in his field, but the image he projects through his company’s offices on Long Island — and especially his own office — reflects a changing course in design that is following the cultural compass on what power should look like and it how it should work.

“As an executive, you can’t afford — literally and figuratively — to be on an ego trip anymore if you want to be successful,” says Andre Staffelbach, ASID, founder and creative principal of Dallas’ Staffelbach. “High profile today means something totally different than it did 15 or 20 years ago.”

Rechler Equity’s building on Long Island, which opened for business about three years ago, states its intention immediately from a glassed atrium reception area flowing without doors into a wide hallway leading to the interior.

Rechler noted that the only restrooms on the floor are just off the reception area, so all employees must use the hall. “It’s the idea that you’ll run into people during the day and remember you have to speak to that person, or remind them of something,” he says, walking to his own office.

Encouraging collaboration — one of the foundations of the new way of approaching design for personal office space for business leaders — is also essential, Rechler says, regarding the setup of his individual office.

That office is located off a main, open plan area, but with enough wall space for bright, dazzling art by, just for starters, Andy Warhol, Al Held, and Keith Haring. There’s no gatekeeper in evidence; Rechler’s assistant’s space is near, but not too near. Rechler’s office has a combined square footage of about 500 feet. On entering you can go one of two ways to separate rooms.

Turn right and you’re in Rechler’s personal workspace. First impression: An inviting place of high ceilings, outside light gleaming through curtains, etched glass walls, and custom-made tubing. Wood, milled from an old upstate New York barn, completes a quiet tone. It has New York sports memorabilia — baseballs in a glass box, a football, and a golf bag standing like sculpture — but no cornball “wall of fame” photos showing the executive schmoozing with jocks.

His desk is simple, black glass holding his laptop and wooden drawers painted black, a far cry from a power exec’s desk from not so long ago when the defining feature was tonnage. Behind the desk are family photographs and across the way is a flat screen, where Rechler sometimes views video art.

If you turn left on entering, you’ll be in a room with a small conference table and a beautiful lampstand rising from the floor, curving in a gentle line over the table into a circular pod. Against the far wall, a sofa and easy chairs near a coffee table fill out the room.

Rechler’s suite realizes three ideas the modern executive’s office should achieve, according to several designers with whom ICON talked:

1. A sense that the leader is part of the company’s day-to-day life and not walled off.

2. The idea that collaboration is sought and made easy for colleagues, employees, and visitors.

3. The notion that elegance can be achieved without costing the earth or being ostentatious.

These three ideas also demonstrate the power of design to positively change people’s lives in work spaces and to help define relationships with one another.

“Egalitarian” is a word Staffelbach keeps in mind when designing an executive’s office today, and it is echoed by the other designers ICON spoke with about the new power office.

All three of the ideas, if planned and successfully put together, will work for the individual, colleagues, employees, visitors, and when recruiting young talent to the firm. Youth — read millennial culture — must be served. The old style CEO office “won’t be accepted by young people anymore,” Staffelbach says, “and they certainly won’t want to come to work for you.”


GARY WHEELER, FASID, flew to Paris a number of years ago to discuss a new design plan with the chief executive of a multinational hospitality firm. A founding partner at WheelerKänik with headquarters in London, Wheeler recalled being kept waiting for close to two hours until he was escorted upstairs to meet the man in charge.

“In those days, chief executives were literally in the tower,” Wheeler says, kept distant from other employees on a separate floor until the unwashed were ushered up to meet with the royal one, listen to the riot act, or be dispatched into the outer darkness of unemployment.

On this Paris trip, once in the CEO’s lair, Wheeler could have been in the manager’s quarters of an 18th century chateau: Everything was heavy, dark, and dominated by a battleship of a desk. The designer saw the executive sitting behind what seemed like acres of oak “in his great, big chair, and I was perched on a little stool. That’s the way things used to be, only 15 years ago.”

Wheeler’s anecdote brings to mind the design of former Rep. Aaron Schock’s (R-Ill.) Capitol Hill office, done by Annie Brahler of Euro Trash, which is headquartered in Jacksonville, Ill. Brahler went into overdrive with blood red walls and carpet, pheasant feathers, glassed library cabinets, and molding that would put any self-respecting wedding cake to shame.

Through some unhappy (for Schock) occurrences, the faux Victorian drawing room office got publicity, and Schock became a national laughingstock. Soon after, the congressman resigned amid allegations of fuzzy money maneuvering. Game to the last, he kept his connection to the ridiculous intact, comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln in his farewell address on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The congressman and any other leader could benefit from what Wheeler described as promoting a sense of “engagement.” He gave an example of a design plan he recently completed for an American bank executive’s office in London. As with Rechler’s office on Long Island, the personal workspace “is about him,” Wheeler says, with a table desk and storage behind it, a place for family pictures and memorabilia.

“This space is his cocoon,” Wheeler says, but another part of the office has “soft seating, a conference table for him and others where 90 percent of the work gets done.”

Today, he added, the modern executive doesn’t want to be seen as stationary, behind a desk in an aloof and commanding role, but as a leader who will get up and move, inviting you in for a discussion on an equal basis.

The desk as barrier and behemoth is dead, according to Bernard Tuohy, vice president of Marketing and Design for Tuohy Furniture Corporation, located in Chatfield, Minn. Desks now can be multifunctional, opening out to small conference tables, lightly scaled, but with refinement in the materials. They also can be adjustable for height, so an executive can work standing.

“There’s less cabinetry because there’s less paper these days,” Tuohy added. “And that frees us up for design requirements and also frees up budget considerations.”


Rita Carson Guest, FASID, president and director of Design at Atlanta’s Carson Guest, recently redesigned an office for a partner in charge of a major law firm. “Before, he had crown molding, a traditional Oriental rug and antique-style furniture, which we changed entirely,” Guest says. “We got rid of the rug and put down light carpet and added some striking contemporary furniture.”

A desk that a Supreme Court Judge could pose behind was scrapped for something lighter and less intimidating, and lighting was rethought, not just for comfort, but also for cash.

“Lighting and energy costs in general have become so severe that we can’t light the way we used to,” Guest says. “We’ve transitioned to a lot of LED lighting, which uses very low energy and little heat instead of the old fluorescent and incandescent lighting.”

The idea of keeping budget forefront in a designer’s thinking is part of a trifecta, she says — saving money, keeping the egalitarian idea alive, and not terrifying potential clients.

“These days you walk a tightrope,” Guest says. “You want to look substantial and successful, but you don’t want to offend clients or make them worried that you’re going to charge them too much.”

Rethinking the workspace for executives and how they function within it is what Stephanie Douglass, director of Workplace Strategy for Teknion in Hartford, Conn., does for a living. Part of that work is “decreasing the overall real estate footprint. It’s a real driver these days,” Douglass says.

Douglass found that “people who have the corner office are the ones who are in the space the least amount of time,” either traveling or in meetings in other parts of the building. Designing executive offices with glass walls “gives the sense of organizational transparency but also lets colleagues and employees know when the office is empty, so it could be used for meetings.”

Wheeler recently designed the office of an executive of a public relations firm in London — “Space is so expensive here” — working on the same principle of marrying collegiality with counting pennies. “When [the CEO] isn’t in the office, it’s for everyone to use,” Wheeler says, adding that there’s even a color code outside the office, letting people know when the office is in use and when it can be commandeered for meetings.


Andre Staffelbach, who has seen his share of trends come and go during his design career, believes the new type of power office is here to stay. Following the cultural lead of an open, democratic, and equal office, executive space will “establish and define the expectations” of anyone who comes in contact with a leader.

Baron Acton, the 19th century British writer and politician, famously says: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Many people holding power now understand Acton’s perception. “They’re sensitive,” Staffelbach says, “and they’re more realistic when it comes to decisions about their behaviors.”

Cynicism about the power of leaders can be countered by the look of where they work. “Your office,” Staffelbach adds, “is a clear notion of who you are.”

Ambrose Clancy has spent much of his career interviewing high-profile individuals in business and the arts. He is a journalist (with work appearing in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and GQ), a novelist (Blind Pilot), and a nonfiction book author (The Night Line). He is editor of the Shelter Island Reporter, an award-winning newspaper that won five first-place awards this year from the New York Press Association.