Working in parallel worlds
The Maliehuis is the brand new home of the creative agency Born05, which is specialized in multimedia client communication. Maurice Mentjens designed an office interior in which old and new worlds run parallel to each other. Abstract references to the skills of the agency are combined in a subtle way with the genius loci, the spirit of the place. The past, the present, and the future flow together in an eclectic voyage of discovery.
After a long search, Born05 found its ideal location on Maliebaan, a street in Utrecht filled with characteristic historic homes. Born05’s CEO Rogier IJzermans says, ‘We are incredibly happy with our move to the Maliehuis, a building rich in history. It is a fantastically inspiring location for our creative employees as well as our clients. The fact that Maurice Mentjens developed the interior entirely in line with our wishes and way of working makes the whole location perfect.’
Over the years, Mentjens has updated any number of historic buildings. He finds them intriguing; their rich history creates a link to an equally rich future. ‘For me, the genius loci, the spirit of the place, is often the starting point for a new interior concept. In this case, the Maliehuis building, together with the rest of the stately buildings on Maliebaan, creates one of Utrecht’s most beautiful locations. The historic construction elements, the famous history of this location, and even the lush landscaping of the street shape the quality and atmosphere of this building.’
Through the centuries, the Maliehuis has served different functions. And each time, the mood of the building has been different. As Mentjens puts it, it has had ‘changing décors for the theatre of life’. The name ‘Maliehuis’ dates from 1637, when a simple inn became a clubhouse for the game of pall-mall (called malie in Dutch), a lawn game similar to golf which is played on a long alley. From the 18th century, the building served as a gentlemen’s club, a residence, an office building, a school, a showroom, a bank, and a museum. The building was gradually extended, ultimately reaching twice its original size, and the external façades were thoroughly remodelled a number of times. In the 1960s and 1970s the interior was drastically modernized, while the façade was renovated in a historic style. All these changes left their mark on the construction. Even though the building is nationally listed, the only original elements are some portions of façades, a few walls in the entrance hall, and two cellars.
Maurice Mentjens likes to use symbolism in his designs, and with this concept he is creating a natural progression from the transformations the building has undergone in the past. ‘What is old and what is new? What is real and what is an architectural illusion?’ The Maliehuis is a monument in motion that has always accepted the momentum of the changes it has undergone. And that fits surprisingly well with the motto of the client Born05, ‘We design journeys’. This award-winning communication agency, which specializes in storytelling, content marketing, and new media, carries out assignments for strong brands like KLM, Philips, KPN, and bol.com, in which it takes these brands’ clients on virtual journeys.
The idea of a voyage of discovery, characteristic for both the Maliehuis and Born05, is continued in the interior design in the form of parallel worlds. ‘In each room, we have created a different reality or illusion through or next to each other.
It’s reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland or the hallucinatory impressions in Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Visitors travel on a journey along the timeline of the Maliehuis and at the same time they travel through the different disciplines of Born05.’
Surreal entrance hall
The journey begins in the entrance hall, which reflects the character of Born05 itself: polished, yet creative. The orange-glassed porch immediately submerges visitors into a warm, visionary world. Beyond this, the reception desk rises like a mysterious, mirrored monolith. It seems like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The mirror effect makes it appear as though the floor’s 3D chequered pattern (the company’s house style) continues through the desk, with only a wafer-thin white plate floating in between. The finish of the entrance hall is also an illusion. Plaster ornamentation and trim give the impression of being original, but nothing could be further from the truth. This decoration is brand new and is only figuratively connected to the past. The genuine history has been made visible in the neighbouring rooms, where the stripped floors are more reminiscent of a building in need of renovation than an elegant national historic building.
Each storey has a different interior and a different atmosphere. The internal organization has a tree-like structure. The cellar contains the roots: storage, server, cabling, and photo studio. The trunk of the tree, the ground floor, reflects the company’s core values. The staircase with its vertical exposition wall – ‘windows onto another world’ – takes you to the lower branches: the strategic departments’ lookout post. Its form is that of a piano nobile: chic, classic with a twist, but not snobbish. Old wooden beams and a few original details alternate with modern interior elements such as glass dividing walls. The knotty beam design of the carpeting gives a feeling of the old decor of the building. This carpeting was custom designed to specifications from Mentjens, who drew a design based on wood grain. In the middle of the room, one wall ends in a giant book, reflecting the company’s content marketing activities.
The second and third storeys have been recently renovated and largely left intact. These storeys are the nesting places of the creative employees: the designers and programmers. This is made visible in subtle details like the branching structure of light fixtures which are somewhat reminiscent of printed circuit boards. All the way up under the roof is the ‘tree house,’ Born05’s relaxation area. Here, too, the finish focuses on the genius loci, in this case the lush crowns of the trees along Maliebaan. Wooden furniture, plenty of use of shades of green, plants, and skylights help create the illusion of being outdoors.
Psychology of colour
Colour has been used to full and deliberate effect as a support for the various work activities and experiences. Immediately after the wash of colour in the orange porch, the entrance hall displays a range of greys. This gradation in tones reflects the entrance hall’s function as a transitional zone: from clear openness through self-confidence to the mysterious waiting room at the back of the hall. This ‘colour journey’ continues in the connecting reception, presentation, and brainstorming rooms. Mentjens based his colour choices on the psychology of colour. ‘The fact that each room has a different colour scheme gives each room its own atmosphere as well, suited to the various functions.’ For instance, the ‘stand-up’ Agile room is painted in energetic orange, and the Creative Brainstorming room is painted in turquoise, a colour which promotes communication and creative thinking. Concentration areas are decorated in yellow, while the blue of the meeting rooms supports clear and productive thinking. For the large meeting room, Mentjens chose a black and white decor, neutral and professional.
The meeting table, which juts into the black room like a curled-up tongue, blends into a ‘text bubble’ with a screen. The surface of the screen has a special coating which also makes it suitable to use as a whiteboard. The coloured walls in the neighbouring room have been given the same treatment, so ‘please DO write on the walls’.
Materialization: blending the genuine with imitation
In order to be sure that the users of the building do not become disoriented by the new, sometimes virtual worlds, Mentjens also re-exposed the old character of the historic building. Everything that was added since the 1970s has been removed, including all the ceiling tiles and non-historic walls and floors. This exposed all the old beams, pipes, and wiring. The solution was simply to put a new layer of light fittings and cable channels under this.
A critical look at the relatively rapidly changing ideas about heritage buildings and their value is an important aspect of this concept. Maurice Mentjens says, ‘Everything that we have added flirts with the contrasts which are embedded in the construction history of the Maliehuis. At first glance it is a respectable historic building, but when you look more closely it becomes clear that it is a jumbled compilation of old and new, of the genuine article and imitations.’ That insight formed the starting point for the materialization: emphasizing the contrast between genuine, hand-crafted materials and their modern, mass-produced lookalikes, by always combining them with one another. Antique floors and polyamide floor coverings in wood prints, rich wood varnish plus high pressure laminate, refined lacquerwork next to melamine. The goal is not to shock, but to hold a mirror up to the observer.
‘Every value judgement is culturally determined, and every interpretation is a mix of truth and imagination,’ says Maurice Mentjens. ‘Virtual reality has been around for ages.’Location: Utrecht, The Netherlands
Interior design: Maurice Mentjens