Airbnb’s lead interior designer Rebecca Ruggles transformed an old office space for a new community of Airbnb staff and clients.
American company Airbnb host’s an online marketplace and hospitality service for travellers looking to rent short term accommodation. Having successfully expanded its operation to China, the company was looking to expand again, this time into a larger office.
Rebecca Ruggles, lead interior designer at Airbnb was tasked with transforming the new space for a global audience. “We secured the lease in January and moved in at the end of July,” Ruggles tells darc. “It was a very fast process. The initial brief was to create a larger office, the existing team had been divided between two separate buildings, some employees were transferring from other Airbnb offices and a great deal of new employees were being hired.”
The brief was clear in that the new design needed to bring people together, connect them to the company mission as well as building culture and a sense of community in an authentic way. The office also needed to serve as a space to host guests and explain to them who Airbnb is and what their goals are, to achieve this the office merges key elements of Chinese culture with modern architectural practices.
The office is divided into four ‘neighbourhoods,’ each with adjustable desks, a communal table, a project room, phone rooms, and a lounge area, the multi-layered office has a variety of workspaces and configurations, giving the employees a choice of places to work.
Taking inspiration from traditional Chinese philosophy, the Beijing office plan represents the five elements of wood, earth, water, fire and metal. Certain functions were specifically located in parts of the building according to the ideal element for that cardinal direction, for example, the tea station, ‘Chaguan’ is located in the North where water is the corresponding element. Additionally, each part of the office uses materials and colours that best represent that specific element. For the pendants above the island at the Chaguan tea station, the designers opted for Niche Modern’s Stamen Collection. “The traditional Chinese element for this area is water, which is one of the reasons we chose to locate our tea station here. The blue coloured glass pendants help emphasise that theme,” says Ruggles.
The reception area and café forms the primary gathering point of the office. Coined ‘The Greenhouse’, it uses elements of wood, combined with its corresponding primary colour, green. Wood represents family, creating a genuine sense of unity and home as a communal space that helps employees stay connected. “The pendants above the reception desk from More or Less are a more modern take on traditional Chinese lanterns,” Ruggles explains. “They set the tone for the space and draw your eye as you walk in the front door. They bring a sense of warmth, and also utilise wood as the primary material which is the traditional element that we wanted to highlight in this area according to the cardinal school of Feng Shui.”
The pendants above the cafe counter from Bentu TU are made from recycled concrete terrazzo that complements the outdoor/ garden vibe of the café and adds great texture and interest to the space.
Working with local employees, the team wanted to incorporate several Chinese traditions within the office culture – one being the ritual of taking a nap after lunchtime, and the other being the idea of removing ones’ shoes and wearing slippers instead. In response to this, the Environments Team created a dark, quiet, contemplative space for employees to relax in, as well as providing storage for footwear as part of the personal storage solution in the open office – these features are part of the custom office design. The office also houses alternate workspaces, such as a wellness area for yoga and other such classes, in order to harness a flexible and creative work environment. Light cage pendants from Zaozuo are located in the alternative work area which features designed inspired by the rice terraces in Yunnan province. Fishing is a big focus in the area and the mesh material around the pendant reminded the designers of the fishing nets you see being cast in the rivers in Yunnan.
Airbnb’s ethos supports local firms and businesses to ensure the concept and components of the space were as authentic as possible. The furniture within the office was sourced from Chinese practices like Fnji, More or Less, and Zaozuo that produce high quality traditional pieces and designs with a more modern look. Sourcing inspiration for the design concept by local brands helped to achieve the mix of ‘old meets new’.
The office is located in a corporate office tower with low ceilings and a typical dropped acoustic ceiling, the space didn’t fit with the homey aesthetic of Airbnb offices, so Ruggles had to strategise creative ways to use decorative lighting to mitigate that corporate feel. Ceilings were removed in certain areas and cove lights were added to wash the walls. “We added decorative drop pendants above the desks for more focused task lighting and each meeting room has their own unique decorative pendants that reflect the style of the Airbnb listing they were inspired by. They really help transform the space,” says Ruggles.
The designer’s biggest challenge was delivering a unique, high quality space on such a tight deadline. To do so required hands on approach, as she explained: “We took many trips to the project site in China as well as keeping constant communication through apps like WeChat. We have a unique situation since we work as in-house designers, working internally allows us to have an intimate familiarity with the company’s goal and operations, we can also work in the spaces we design and gather direct feedback for how to make future projects even better.”
Any major changes to the brief would have jeopardised the schedule, so the team had to settle quickly on a brief and stick to it. There were however, design details that continued to develop up until the last minute – in particular the screens that separate the open office and the meeting rooms had many different forms before the team decided on using real bamboo as planters. According to Ruggles it was critical that the open office authentically represent the local Beijing culture, which can be a real challenge for a remote design team, she says: “We leaned heavily on our local Airbnb team to share important aspects of Beijing culture that we should include. We also reached out to our larger network of designers and vendors to help get connections in Beijing and find new and exciting materials and furniture to use on the project.”
Sourcing a wide variety of furniture and material styles for the meeting rooms was a challenge for the team. Each room had to represent the breadth of design visible in Airbnb’s around the world.
“Each room is like a separate design project. We sourced as much as possible from Beijing and supplemented that with items purchased in Hong Kong where there’s a larger diversity of global style options.”
Furthering Airbnb’s global narrative the Environments Team engaged with local employees in an Employee Design Experience (EDX) programme to help add the finishing touches to each meeting room, features of the programme includes a wall decorated with artwork painted by the employees that replicates a listing in Provincia di Limon, Costa Rica and sketches from guest around the world to mirror the listing in Burlingame, USA.
“Beijing has many layers. You have to dig a little deeper, you have to ask people, you have explore and quickly discover its rich culture, incredible people and drive to change the world. Hutong’s in particular are synonymous with Beijing and they have that same-layered effect. The word literally translates to the path between and they have become a symbol of community and new discoveries hidden around every corner into our office. The Hutong inspired spaces become a gathering point within the neighbourhoods of the office, China has a rich past that dates back thousands of years and it is now entering a new, modern era. We wanted to pay homage to that incredible history, while still celebrating the ground-breaking ideas of a new generation.”