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2015 Designer of the Year: Martin Lesjak

Contract Design Magazine Ι Jan. 28, 2015

How does one define the work of INNOCAD, the Austrian firm led by Martin Lesjak? The firm’s portfolio—architecture and interiors for offices, exhibitions, hospitality, retail, and residences—affirms a designer’s ability to pull power, grace, and emotion from otherworldly spaces. A standout firm that is expanding the breadth of its work, INNOCAD designs engaging and sensuous environments that connect minds to bodies and intellect to creativity.

The Contract 2015 Designer of the Year is more than an architect of buildings and interiors, though. Lesjak is a designer of jewelry, clothes, eyewear, furniture, and lighting with the product design company called 13&9 Design that he launched with Anastasia Su—a fashion and product designer who is both Lesjak’s partner in life and in the 13&9 Design business. And because Lesjak is also an electronic music DJ, one could say he is a designer of nights out. His approach  is multifaceted, and his default position is to shrug off barriers between design disciplines: “For me, creativity has no borders,” Lesjak says.

His Graz, Austria–based design firm INNOCAD breaks down borders as well: between public and private spaces, between solitary and communal work areas, and between classic Modernist design and wild swaths of avant-garde expression. In its 15 years, INNOCAD has completed a number of workplaces, including many for the technology sector for clients like Microsoft and Samsung, that are feasts for the senses—intricate stage sets for collaboration that are full of high-contrast tactile experiences. Besides offices, INNOCAD has completed building projects across Austria—and several now in development in the Middle East—in a variety of program types. These architectural interiors express a wide range of moods, from graphic murals celebrating the stunning landscapes of Austria to dark and brooding exhibition pavilions. Lesjak wants everyone to be surprised by his work: the occupant, the client, and himself.

“When people hire us, it’s not because they know what they are going to get,” Lesjak says. “People hire us because they expect something they don’t know [about] yet. Architecture and design should be astonishing.”

Lesjak founded INNOCAD in 1999, when he was 27, with architect Peter Schwaiger, a friend since childhood and classmate at Graz Technical University.

One of their first projects was the Steinberger residence in Murau, Austria. The two-and-a-half story, gable-roofed house combines richly textured wood and large expanses of glass. The owners, Lesjak says, have not modified the house and still ask him for approval when they install new sunshades.

INNOCAD continued with a mix of small projects in the early 2000s, until the one that put it on the radar of fellow architects across Europe and globally—the Golden Nugget. Completed in 2005, Golden Nugget is an office and apartment building in Graz that was nominated for the Mies van der Rohe Prize. Lesjak was the developer of the project, which includes INNOCAD’s office on the ground floor and residential units above. The building inserts a gleaming, angular golden-skinned volume in the midst of a 19th century housing block, and this intense opposition made the project an instant local civic icon. “[Golden Nugget] was the next step in going from young, wild shooting stars to becoming more established architects,” Lesjak says.

The contrast of Golden Nugget’s shimmering gold contemporary form in a historic neighborhood of predominantly ornate Beaux Arts masonry drew considerable attention. Thousands of tourists interested in modern architecture have at least seen Golden Nugget from outside. Martin’s staff had given interior tours to more than 2,000 visitors in the first four years after the building opened but, ultimately, Lesjak had to discontinue them for his firm to be productive.

Over the years, Lesjak and Schwaiger grew into separate but deeply intertwined roles leading INNOCAD, with Schwaiger as the firm’s chief financial officer and business manager, and Lesjak the primary designer. Schwaiger describes their relationship as that of an old married couple. “When we’re having a conversation, we know what the other is thinking,” he says.

Lesjak adds: “I’m a lucky person because [Peter] keeps everything away from me so I can really concentrate on the creative potential [of a project].” Today, INNOCAD has 15 employees, and the product design firm 13&9 Design employs two.

It was Lesjak’s interests outside of architecture that led him to his most fruitful client relationship with the Austrian lighting company XAL. He was hired to DJ an event for the company, but Lesjak and XAL Managing Director Michael Engel quickly found that they had more in common than music. “We had the same views on things—architecture, design, beauty, aesthetics,” says Engel. And because they met as acquaintances first before a formal architect-client relationship, Engel says they were able to develop a mutual trust that gave Lesjak space to experiment and surprise.

INNOCAD’s first trade show pavilion for XAL was completed in 2008 and nine more have followed for locations across Europe, as well as in New York and Las Vegas. XAL’s corporate headquarters and lab in Graz, designed by INNOCAD in 2012, won an Interiors Award from Contract in the small office category in 2013.

XAL pavilions by INNOCAD emphasize shadow as much as light. Like much of INNOCAD’s work, these exhibit spaces combine a sly midcentury modern vibe with canted angles and atmospheric juxtapositions from the contemporary avant-garde. The D. Shadow pavilion for XAL in 2008, which Lesjak describes as “kind of gloomy and wicked,” is covered in chaotic black paneling on the outside and glows a sinister purple and pink from the inside. And XAL’s 2012 See the Light pavilion tucks lighting products into a series of rectangular display frames that are white in the inside, black on the outside, and collectively define a large event space in the center of the pavilion. Walking the perimeter of the pavilion, visitors catch glimpses of the white interior between the display frames—a kaleidoscope of light and shadow.

The See the Light pavilion validated Engel’s trust in Lesjak and blew away his expectations for what a simple trade show booth exhibit could be. “We were standing there with open mouths in front of the ideas [Martin] presented,” Engel says. “This trust, on both sides, is something that is very special.”

If the XAL installations resemble nightclubs, that is understandable because Engel often flies Lesjak in to DJ a set at the pavilions during trade shows. This kind of immersive, sensual environment is one in which XAL can sell not only lighting products, but also its entire brand identity. “[It’s a] big, big, party,” Engel says. “It’s where we can transfer all the emotion that we want our customers to feel that is not in any way connected to the product.”

Lesjak consistently makes a habit of turning architecture projects into test labs for new products. For one XAL pavilion, Lesjak created the HEX-O light—a hexagonal light with integrated fabric acoustic paneling that dampens sound.

“It’s another expression of [Martin’s] creativity,” Engel says. “[Martin and his colleagues] can’t help it. They can’t sit still and only use products that already exist. They create new ones.”

Lesjak’s New Work approach to communal space 
While all of INNOCAD’s workplace interiors include areas for open and informal communication and socialization, Lesjak designs them to be highly choreographed and intricate spaces that run counter to today’s trend toward raw, loft-like workplaces. The incorporation of socialization areas was especially important in INNOCAD’s design of the Microsoft Austria headquarters in Vienna because many of its employees work remotely and see colleagues only on rare occasions. “Communication areas are not value-added; they are integral for new working spaces,” says Paul Zawilensky, Microsoft Vienna’s real estate and facilities manager. “That’s what INNOCAD always insisted.”

The Vienna headquarters, which won an Interiors Award from Contract in the large office category in 2013, is a multi-story office with spaces for collaboration throughout the core surrounded by an open plan of workstations. With about half of the offices’ employees working remotely, Microsoft required spaces for them to gather and maximize the transmission of information. For example, lounge areas are located along corridors midway between conference rooms. Cube-shaped furnishings in white, gray, and bright lime green invite people to gather. Throughout, rich textures, like shag carpet and lush green living walls, contrast clean and modern materials. Unexpected experiences, such as the rustic smell of a larchwood meeting room table, help remind workers to draw on their senses for creativity.

Lesjak defines his approach as ‘New Work,’ and it is focused on office environments that prize social and communal spaces. “‘New Work’ is all about people, place, and technology,” Lesjak says. “New technology is changing our private lives and our professional lives, and you have to find a balance. Our goal is to bring harmony in social, visual, and physical working environments. And this balance is [what determines] success or failure.”

This broad emphasis on social spaces didn’t come naturally to Microsoft, Zawilensky says. At the outset of the project, Lesjak discarded the programmatic template Microsoft asked him to use, and substituted his own plan. Lesjak told Zawilensky that the Microsoft plan, which was more hierarchical and tightly programmed, would not work within the space in which the office was to be built, and would be rejected by current Austrian workplace culture. The technology behemoth got a taste of Lesjak’s uncompromising commitment to his vision and design approach. “There was a lot of fighting, but in a fruitful way,” Zawilensky says. “That’s what made Martin so different from a lot of other [architects]. Everyone [else] wanted to be nice. But those that are braver usually [win] the race, and that counts for Martin.”

Workplaces designed by INNOCAD are varied, customizable, and appealing to the senses. For the corporate headquarters of the Austrian rail company ÖBB (an acronym for “Austrian Federal Railway” in German) that opened in late 2014, INNOCAD designed a fabric installation that has images of the Austrian countryside printed on it. Abstract mountain vistas dissolve into layers of blue, green, and red. A view across a corridor might show a blue mountainscape on the fabric screen that parts at a leafy green living wall next to a neon yellow meeting room. In total, the fabric screen stretches approximately three miles across 23 floors, and is looped in a double figure eight. Like the trains the company manages, the fabric runs on tracks, and can be adjusted to enclose spaces or open up new ones. “It’s a tool to empower people to create their own space and environment,” Lesjak says. The ÖBB office is INNOCAD’s largest completed project to date, at nearly 325,000 square feet, for the prestigious public client’s more than 1,800 employees.

INNOCAD has turned its attention to key clients in the Middle East. When it opens this year, the 375,000-square-foot renovation of the Radisson Blu Resort in the United Arab Emirates city of Fujairah will trump ÖBB as the firm’s largest project. The client, the Kuwaiti construction and real estate company ACICO Group, first hired INNOCAD to design its 16,000-square-foot corporate office in Kuwait City, Kuwait, which opens this February. The ACICO projects both came to Lesjak out of the blue—ACICO leadership cold called him when learning about the Microsoft Vienna office winning the Interiors Award. Lesjak currently has another project in Saudi Arabia, as well as one in Italy—the four-story bank headquarters for Volksbank Südtirol in Bolzano, Italy—that is scheduled to be complete in February.

“What [makes us] curious about working internationally is that we have to deal with different cultures, different people, and different mentalities,” Lesjak says. “It makes [us] learn a lot and think in different ways, which influences our work in general. It’s fun to deal with influences from foreign cultures that make [us] grow. Our next target is the U.S. market.”

INNOCAD has already completed one luxury condominium interior in New York, and its residential portfolio includes many multifamily residential buildings in Austria. One recently completed project, called C34, places 102 apartments within and adjacent to a 1907 Art Nouveau Graz building. Also in Graz, the FLUR 20 building—an affordable multifamily complex of 26 units in an intricate composition of balconies and exterior staircases—illustrates that INNOCAD can design for a modest budget. The firm has also completed a handful of healthcare projects, including the LKH Feldbach neurological outpatient clinic, which is a commission it won in a 2009 competition.

A big shift for INNOCAD came in 2012 when the firm won an invited competition to design a welcome and retail center for the Landeszeughaus, or Armory Museum, in Graz. Built in 1642, the armory is the most well-preserved building of its type in the world. Lesjak assembled an interdisciplinary team—one that could address lighting, sound, and product design. He brought Anastasia Su onto the project as a collaborating designer, and that was the start of their personal and business partnership. Lesjak and Su designed four ovular volumes for the Cannon Hall interior of the armory that reference the Murnockel, a round stone used in construction in medieval Graz. Sections of vertical and horizontal black-painted plywood slot together in a series of cubes that define spheres, containing the museum shop, office space, and tourist welcome counters. The design is an elegant synthesis of architecture and product design, and offers a recognizable modularity seen in the rest of INNOCAD’s work. Dubbed “Rolling Stones,” Cannon Hall won the retail category of the Interiors Awards in 2014.

Cannon Hall opened in early 2013, just as Lesjak and Su launched 13&9 Design—13 refers to her birth date, and 9 was his jersey number when he played soccer—to design products. The entire 13&9 Design line of clothing, jewelry, furniture, and lighting is united by two themes: geometric modularity and materiality that defies expectations. Many of their clothing, jewelry, and accessory items are based on the hexagon, which is also a common modular element in INNOCAD’s architecture.

The 13&9 Design Rock Collection of lamps and furniture implements paper-thin layers of shale as veneers. As lampshades, the unique textures and imperfections of the rock offer a molten glow. Made by trained Austrian craftspeople, the Rock Collection includes floor and pendant lamps while the furniture includes tables in many sizes. The LOW COLLECTION, designed for VITEO OUTDOORS, is an outdoor furniture line of low seating made from Corian with multiple seat heights and reclining options. The Diamond Shades—sunglasses manufactured with cellulose acetate—were the result of a collaboration with eyewear designer Martin Lasnik. A part of the Geometric Collection, which includes jewelry made of Corian, the Diamond Shades are highly geometric sunglass styles for men and women designed using CAD programs. The duo is currently working with Mohawk Group on a modular, tiled carpet system that will debut at NeoCon in June.

By confounding material expectations and utilizing modular forms, Lesjak and Su are building attraction and intrigue between users and products. This intrigue can be the basis for a relationship with the user that infuses the object with meaning beyond that of an inanimate tool.

“People want to categorize you as much as they can,” Lesjak says. “But for us, freedom is one of our greatest values: the freedom to be creative, to cross borders, to do what we like with passion.”

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