Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Need space at work? Just say 'Open Sesame'

Secret office rooms help a company generate "buzz" about their workplaces, which helps with staff recruitment and retention, and might also be part of the pushback against open plans

By Jane Margolies
Published: Aug 14, 2019

Need space at work? Just say 'Open Sesame'Inside a secret library room, with bookshelves modeled on those found in libraries in the 1940s, at Shutterstock in New York, Aug. 9, 2019. Secret rooms are popping up in workplaces
Image: Jeenah Moon/The New York Times

Transparency is one of the biggest trends in modern office design: open floor plans, fewer offices, glass walls and doors. And at a time when #MeToo has called attention to the sordid things that can happen behind closed doors, there may be some comfort in having everything, and everyone, within view.

But a taste for hidden places still runs deep.

They have appeared throughout history, from secret passageways in medieval castles to Prohibition-era speak-easies. Secret rooms are now popping up in workplaces and other commercial settings, providing the thrill of seeing a room materialize unexpectedly, not to mention the appeal of hanging out in a space reserved for VIPs.

“They add a moment of discovery in a workplace — a surprise for employees and visitors,” said Samantha McCormack, a creative director at TPG Architecture, which has tucked secret rooms into clients’ offices. “There’s a coolness and playfulness factor.”

Bookcases can swing wide in an open-sesame trick. At the Los Angeles office of marketing company Weber Shandwick, TPG designed a wall-to-wall bookcase with a section that can be pushed in, providing access to a steampunk-style room devoted to quiet work. At Maison de la Luz, a boutique hotel in New Orleans, guests enter a private salon through a bookcase. Google has a private reading area hidden behind a bookcase at its East Coast headquarters in New York.

Secret rooms help a company generate “buzz” about their workplaces, which helps with staff recruitment and retention, said David Ballard, director of the American Psychological Association’s office of applied psychology

They might also be part of the pushback against open plans. “Some of it is a legitimate need in a workplace for particular types of environments that allow people to get away, out of the fray,” Ballard said.

Macmillan Publishers: A Green Room for Guest Speakers

When Macmillan Publishers was working with TPG Architecture to lay out its new offices in the Equitable Building in lower Manhattan, the publisher envisioned inviting visiting authors to give talks in its spacious 25th-floor cafe. So a 240-square-foot room next to the cafe, initially intended for storage, was designated instead as a green room, where speakers can “hang out” before an appearance, said Andrew Weber, the company’s chief operating officer for global trade publishing.

It was TPG’s idea to add a little mystery by disguising the entry with a bookcase that resembles the shelving that lines the office’s hallways. “It’s an ‘aha’ moment,” Weber said.

The room is furnished with comfortable upholstered seating. Editors often use the space for meetings or for congratulatory receptions for authors on the publication of their book.

Shutterstock: A Quiet Library for Alone Time

Shutterstock’s headquarters, in the Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan, were designed by Studios Architecture. As in the open-plan offices of many companies, there are specialized rooms for a wide range of activities, like table tennis, yoga and lactation.

So it’s not surprising that the company would also have a secret library, which is reached through an inconspicuous door on a wall covered with custom-printed vinyl depicting book-filled shelves.

The space inside, lined with real bookshelves modeled on those found in libraries in the 1940s, “was purposefully created to be a secret place that people could go to for alone time but also to relax,” said Lisa Nadler, Shutterstock’s chief human resources officer. “You almost feel like you’re back in time to what the Empire State Building was like in the old times.”

Although everyone on staff knows about the room, it’s not as heavily used as one might think, Nadler said. Still, the company has no plans to tinker with the room.

“It may not be the most efficient use of space,” she said, “but it makes this place unique.”

Kang Modern: The Marbled Office of F.W. Woolworth

The office that once belonged to F.W. Woolworth, founder of the five-and-dime empire, was certainly lavish. The 1,600-square-foot space on the 24th floor of the Woolworth Building, built in lower Manhattan in 1913, had an elaborate coffered ceiling and marble walls; its occupant, who is said to have worshipped Napoleon, had gilded chairs modeled on the French emperor’s throne and even hung a large portrait of his hero.

But over the years, its grandeur faded, and the room became subsumed into a 4,600-square-foot office. By the time architect Kang Chang, principal of Kang Modern, checked out the space for an office for his firm, the room’s coffered ceiling was gone, the plaster was crumbling, and doorknobs were missing.

But Chang relished the opportunity to have “something no one else has.” Working with a contractor hired by Witkoff, the building’s owner, he and his colleagues had the room restored. Carpet that had been glued onto the original marble floor was scraped off, and long-shuttered doors were unsealed, revealing Woolworth’s old safe, plus the missing doorknobs with their W motif.

To make the oversize room functional, Chang designed a free-standing partition that divides the space into two without infringing on the historic envelope. One side has a large conference table and chairs for meetings; the other, featuring Woolworth’s marble fireplace, is a waiting area for visiting clients.

Deutsch: A Place to Celebrate the Big Win

The large, light-filled conference room in the Los Angeles production facility of advertising agency Deutsch, across the street from its offices, has a back wall covered with gray felt. On it, team members can pin up creative work during presentations for clients.

If the team gets the go-ahead for an ad campaign, the agency has a special way to celebrate. A member of the team that clinched the deal inserts a key into a lock in a section of the felt-covered wall, and a hidden door opens to a dimly lit room with a low ceiling. Designed by HLW International, which equipped the entire production facility, the speak-easy-style room has a stocked bar and a vintage neon sign salvaged from a local bar that went out of business.

“We use it for big wins, big moments with our clients,” said Kim Getty, president of the Los Angeles office, adding that in some cases the team that landed the deal gets to play bartender. “It’s fun to invite them in and raise a toast.”

©2019 New York Times News Service