Within the landmark Capitol Records Building in Hollywood, the designer and architects collaborate to create two executive floors.

Los Angeles, say its detractors, is a city without culture and without history. But in the annals of architecture, the City of Angels can certainly lay claim to distinction. There are the dwellings by Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, Irving Gill, Richard Neutra, John Lautner and the Case Study houses. There is the Art Deco paradigm, the Bullocks Wilshire department store with architecture by John and Donald Parkinson and interiors by Eleanor LeMaire. Of more recent note are Arata Isozaki’s MoCA plus Frank Gehry’s provocative creations for Chiat/Day, Loyola Law School, the California Museum of Science and Industry and his own seminal house in Santa Monica. And, of course, there is that famed icon at Hollywood and Vine—the Capitol Records Building. Commissioned by Johnny Mercer, a founder of Capitol, and designed by Welton Beckett and Associates in 1954 to recall a stack of records topped by a stylized playing needle, the structure lays claim to being America’s first circular office building.Today Capitol and its parent company EMI still occupy the entire building, save one floor. When Gary Gersh took over as Capitol’s president and CEO, he wanted not only to breathe new life into the label, but also to revitalize corporate quarters once it was ascertained that Capitol would indeed remain in Hollywood and not move to the West Side. To effect the initial phase, which entailed a complete overhaul of the ninth–floor executive domain, he commissioned Michael Smith for decor and the firm of Tichenor & Thorp to take charge of the architecture.The choice ensured a congenial team as Smith, Brian Tichenor and Raun Thorp had worked together on renovation and design of the client’s house designed by California architect Paul Williams in Brentwood Park. And, while each team member had a delineated sphere of expertise, the reality, all concur, was a truly collaborative venture with decision–making a shared process. Simultaneously, EMI decided to rehabilitate its penthouse level focusing on the reception area, the suite for Terri M. Santisi, executive vice president and general manager of EMI Records Group North America, plus conference room, guest office and bathrooms. All told, the project scope, for essentially two separate clients with individual budgets, entailed some 12,000 sq. ft.

The ninth floor was totally demolished, and reconfigured to accommodate seven private offices including Gersh’s suite plus reception, assistants’ stations, the redo of the existing conference room and a new adjacent kitchen. “It was clear that the building needed help,” says Thorp, who then articulates the two tenets governing the architecture parti. “We wanted to bring the building back to its original aesthetic—the International Style—and we wanted to get light inside [to the core].” To these ends, the team addressed the structure’s geometry, creating a terrazzo circulation swath to follow the building curve. (Incredibly, the space as found completely ignored the structure’s unique form; in fact, floor plates throughout were a maze of cut–up offices.) Now, private quarters are arrayed along the perimeter in parallel placement to the building wall and have partitions at the circulation spine capped by a clear glass transom. “We used glass wherever possible,” says Thorp, with the material extending to aluminum–framed doors and to the enclosing partitions for Gersh’s assistant’s office.

In matters of decor, Smith—who is one of Los Angeles’s premier residential designers—rattles off a list of influences grounded both in the history of Capitol as a recording studio and the era in which its headquarters were created. “Capitol,” he says, “was a talent–driven entity” whose artists included the major names of each era. Think Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, and later John Lennon, Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt, Duran Duran, Beastie Boys and Blind Melon. “I had this vision,” says Smith “of what [Beatles’ manager] Brian Epstein’s office might have looked like—hip, savvy and a fusion between traditional English stuff and a ‘60s sensibility.” Continuing, almost in a free association mode, Smith addresses the ‘50s. “It was a time of newness, of design for the masses, and there was grass roots music for the popular culture.” But Capitol, as we see it now, has none of the kitsch or questionable taste that, from the vantage of hindsight, we often associate with the decade. “No,” says Smith, “I focused on French ‘50s design,” and cites Charlotte Perriand as the influence for the millwork, work stations and desks that constitute a major unifying element for the floor. All are of mahogany and adhere to an organic sensibility; all exhibit top–quality construction.

The Capitol president/CEO’s suite comprises a private reception space and assistant’s office in addition to his own work space with area totaling 1,280 sq. ft. The suite marries traditional English style with ‘50s icons such as a Boomerang sofa (reproduced from a Vladimir Kagan original), a Fornasetti table top hung as a painting, a Paul McCobb coffee table and vintage glass works. Its overwhelming imprint is that of a residential nature. Smith assembled a personal mixture of elements, antiques included, that hold no allegiance to a particular source or provenance. His concern was for visual imagery and for function, both of which he got right. “I had this preconceived vision,” he says “of Capitol being an icon of creative glamour. I loved being able to turn that perception into reality.”

The EMI commission was a bit more limited in scope and came primarily under Smith’s aegis. From inception, it was decided that EMI would be the blond counterpoint to Capitol’s brunette. English sycamore woodwork and pale terrazzo tiles compose the envelope for the public area, while the sycamore continues as paneling throughout the conference room and in Santisi’s suite. Despite the obvious differences between the two floors, there are subtle similarities in background detailing—the flush wood baseboard treatments with aluminum reveals and the ways in which terrazzo and cabinetry divisions are related to the radius established by window mullions.

For Santisi’s office, Smith made no attempt at historical allusions. His sole objective was to create a salon–like setting, flattering to its occupant, with furnishings of classic and lasting appeal. Selected pieces reflect the designer’s unerring eye for scale and for combining elements of vastly different origins–a Louis XVI bureau plat desk paired with an Eames executive chair; Gio Ponti’s parchment side table as part of a group comprising Italian antique chairs and mirror, a custom sofa and an Austrian pedestal table. A study in rich neutrals, the office belies the adage that beige is boring. “This is clearly a woman’s office,” says Smith, “but it’s not sweet feminine.”

To date, the Capitol/EMI connection continues for both architects and designer. Tichenor and Thorp are preparing a feasibility study for additional building amenities; Smith is completing offices for Capitol in New York.

The project was completed in a year. Credits from Tichenor & Thorp extend to Susan Henderson, William Murray and Chava Danielson.