A cool reception

The most important function of a reception area is to create an appropriate impression. José Manser makes an entrance in three different building types

First impressions count. That’s why even those unfortunates whose office environment consists of a few grotty square feet full of second-hand furniture will often try to beef up the reception area. Two chairs and a desk, plus a pretty receptionist? Yes, that’s a start, but there are other ways and other considerations. An encouraging aspect is that designers employed to redesign offices are often given a little more cash and a little more leeway when it comes to fitting out the entrance.

Some clients go for the wacky and original approach which will, they hope, inform visitors that they are entering the domain of creative and clever people. Advertising agencies are out front in this group, closely followed by any company linked with the media. Though not among the most extravagantly way out, the examples shown here have a nice element of hyperbole and give out some very specific vibes. That was the intention.


At the London headquarters of EMI Records (UK), design group Sedley Place had to promote a high-profile company, but also to acknowledge the individual artists which are its strength: the Beatles, Queen, Pink Floyd, classical and many more. This individuality is expressed in the waiting hall where the seating comprises a disparate collection of chairs – classic designs ranging from Frank Gehry’s cardboard Wiggle Side Chair to Shiro Kuramata’s mesh armchair How High the Moon. Different floor coverings and a custom-designed graphic display system promoting current releases continue the theme of diversity.

In the main entrance the designers have gone for some eye-grabbing pzazz. The entrance canopy is a giant compact disc protruding over the pavement supported by a structural column clad in old 78s (or at least, that’s the effect). An ordinary reception desk would have been rather a let-down in this milieu; instead, there is a classy number made of reeded black resin with a granite surface and a stylus-like stainless steel leg which hits a brass groove in the stone floor.

A more colourful solution was employed by architect Harper Mackay for Central Television in Birmingham. The bold use of colour is to inform visitors that Central Television is a bright, buzzing company. There is modern furniture too. Not the exotic, curvaceous type chosen by some purveyors of a creative image, but the space-agey Area range designed by Antonio Citterio for Vitra.

Harper Mackay helped to reorganise Central in its new building, bringing telephonists out of the back room and putting them behind a high anodised aluminium desk, its blue glass front discretely lit from behind, along with their switchboards and PCs. There are plugs for television cameras so that interviews can take place in the hall. For waiting visitors, there are windows into television studios nearby and TVs housed in a blue-lacquered medium-density fibreboard cabinet. The whole arrangement is appropriately slick and well-ordered.


For some companies the impression required is one of gravitas rather than originality. Elegance is an essential element. Away with sagging armchairs and out-of-date magazines.

The reception area at the Wellcome Trust new Genome Campus occupies a relatively small part of that handsome, well-endowed group of buildings near Cambridge. The strong architectural style which infuses the whole project brings dignity and calm to this double-height space. But the architect responsible for both buildings and interior, Sheppard Robson, employed a sensibly light touch in fitting it out for comfort. A specially designed white elm reception desk has closed circuit TVs (enabling receptionists to monitor the whole campus) concealed behind a Kirkstone slate screen and further security technology is housed in a small room to the rear. All the concomitant cabling is concealed within the frame of the reception desk, rather than sagging across the floor as it is prone to do in less ordered places.

Numbers of people may be waiting at any time, so Terence Woodgate’s public seating system for SCP has been chosen to repose on the thick rugs which carry a motif based on the architect’s understanding of DNA. The effect is simple, soothing and aesthetically pleasing.

In a way, Sheppard Robson had it easy. It made its own setting. It is more difficult in an existing building, especially one of architectural significance which must be treated with respect. Such was the case at the Cockerell Building in Cambridge; a grand, early Victorian building which Donald Insall Associates has just restored to house the Gonville and Caius College library, reviving the historical detailing, but subtly imposing a patina which belongs irrefutably to the late 20th century.

Donald Insall associate Mark Wilkinson describes how the company considered making some modern insertions – perhaps a no-hands, glass screen approach in the double-height, first-floor library, particularly where a bay-fronted office had already been made near the entrance in the Thirties. Eventually, it decided to keep this existing bay with its Art Deco rail above, replacing its incongruous flush doors by a partially glazed screen which revealed the office beyond.

Materials and colour tones were important, and a quietly modern, oak reception desk was specially designed. Extra light for the computers which are fitted into the desk, comes from two powder-coated aluminium hanging lamps of indeterminate period. Students register rather than having to wait for long, so there is no seating, just an agreeable and functional place to be received.


There’s a measure of irritation in such handsome settings when, for most of us, a reception area means queuing to see a doctor or dentist in surroundings of such squalor we sink into demoralised apathy.

There are exceptions though, such as the privately-endowed Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. Here, Richard Murphy Architects was encouraged to turn stables in the hospital grounds into a relaxing, domestic-style interior which would give cancer patients a break after stressful hospital visits.

Patients ring a bell and a member of staff comes down from a small mezzanine office to let them into a homely kitchen. They might have coffee and talk to others at the kitchen table, sit on cushioned benches built into the short stairway, or retreat to the mezzanine level with a book or informative brochure from the shelves. The colour scheme, much debated by the designers to ensure a soothing combination, is yellow, orange and the softest of greens.

This is a reception with a heart. It also provides lots of information. As I said, there’s more to a reception than two chairs and a desk.

Start the discussionStart the discussion
  • Post a comment

Latest articles