May 3, 2021

Mazda’s former HQ became a blank slate for MerchSource’s dream office, where lighting blurs the lines between work and play

By Samantha Schwirck

When Mazda established roots in Irvine, CA, 30 years ago, its five-story headquarters was the up-and-coming city’s very first high-rise development. As Irvine grew, so too did Mazda, and in 2017 the company hired local firm LPA Inc. to design its new, larger HQ—replete with lighting worthy of a feature article in the May 2019 issue of LD+A. What that article didn’t cover was how LPA also went on to transform Mazda’s humble beginnings into another company’s fresh start.

“Mazda sold the building to MerchSource when they moved their headquarters in 2017,” says LPA’s Rebecca Ceballos, who was part of the lighting design team for both projects. MerchSource—a marketing and retail distribution company—arrived at their new home with a vision for its transformation, which guided LPA’s subsequent two-year renovation project. “The goal was to create a space where retail and corporate design concepts could melt together, and to create a cohesive design that continues to flow throughout the building,” Ceballos says.

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The 87,000-sq ft office incorporates three distinct retail showrooms that immerse clients in the firm’s products; a picturesque library and wine bar; a full-service café, stylized work spaces; and areas for corporate meetings and creative collaboration. To establish cohesion across the various space types, LPA used lighting as an “aesthetic bridge” that eases visual transitions between common areas and brand-related spaces.

Incorporating artwork into the design was another important component of the client’s vision, so pieces by street artists such as El Mac, Hueman, RETNA and Vizie are displayed across the two-level space. “The lighting highlights the various art installations and murals while creating a design language throughout the space that celebrates the retail aspects, from the exterior festoon lighting to the stylized illuminated floor numbers in the elevator lobbies,” Ceballos adds.

The retail “celebrations”—three branded showrooms for Sharper Image, FAO Schwarz and a generic store—are located on the first floor. While each showroom is visually distinct, all three faced a similar challenge during the specification process. “Given the project’s goals of LEED Silver and providing a retail style, we had energy concerns,” Ceballos explains. “We achieved them by using the accent and decorative lighting as general illumination, as we did not have the energy allowance to provide many layers of light, which is indicative of retail design.”

Sharper Image’s showroom, for example, is defined by an illuminated ceiling plane (Cooledge) surrounded by adjustable spots (ALW) highlighting merchandise. “The traditional way of providing illuminated ceilings is creating a light box that is 18- to 36-ft deep and LED tape with the same spacing,” Ceballos says. “Not only is this heavy in appearance but it’s also wattage heavy, so we needed a new way to provide this ceiling. Luckily, Cooledge just surfaced on the market and was able to provide the solution.”

The FAO Schwarz showroom offers another stand-out retail moment, culminating in a colorful conference room with upside-down floor lamps (Lukas Lighting). “The interior designer [Rick D’Amato] wanted to showcase the whimsy of previous FAO Schwarz stores,” Ceballos says. “The lighting team, interior team and Lukas worked very closely to find off-the-shelf floor lamps and shades that could be modified to meet the difficult task of inverting a floor lamp to be mounted to a ceiling structurally.”

Common areas surrounding the showrooms flow into the main lobby, which offers the first example of “transition” lighting—not quite retail, not quite corporate in style. Behind reception, concealed linear tapelights with grazing optics highlight a bent wood structure that repeats in the stair leading up to the second-floor work spaces. “We had to find the smallest linear grazer out in the industry, and we pushed manufacturers to provide the best optics,” Ceballos says. “In the end, Pure Edge’s Cirrus Channel with new grazing optics, all in a tiny linear extrusion, gave us the ability to mount in a small cavity and in various orientations to graze the wood without diode striations.”

En route from reception to the stair, simple decorative pendants clustered above eclectic furniture and artwork are supplemented by discreet cylinders that balance light levels. “There was a balancing act to provide decorative light fixtures for the lounge furniture that were not too distinctive to take attention away from the mural artwork, which we highlighted with wall washers that also provided general illumination,” Ceballos says.

Dramatic elevator lobbies with illuminated numbers (Artemide) indicating the floor number, as well as linear wall washers (Bold Lighting) accenting feature walls, establish the next transition zone. “We needed something that was not a line of light to eliminate glare since you would see the fixture reflected in the window, but still provide grazing without diode striations,” Ceballos says. Even the elevator itself is a canvas for art and light. Inside the elevator cabs, a wall grazing effect highlights custom artwork. Selux M36 fixtures provide the necessary optics in a small extrusion, making them lightweight and small enough to be located inside the cabs.

“This project is all about the artwork, so no matter where it resided, we highlighted it with lighting,” Ceballos adds. Art displays throughout the office also benefit from a networked control system that enables individual control of each layer of light, and provides adjusted light levels that give hierarchy to the fixtures highlighting the pieces.

The elevator experience sets the stage for the second level, where corporate and executive suites are located. “The overall concept was to depress the light levels in the elevator lobbies so that when you enter the work environment the light levels rise, mimicking high-end retail design techniques,” Ceballos says.

In work areas, recessed linear fixtures installed in acoustical clouds illuminate surfaces from above. The fixtures are surrounded by black and gold low-bay pendants (Delray Lighting) that ease the transition. “This is where you truly see retail meeting corporate design,” Ceballos says. “The recessed linears provide general illumination while the low bays bring the unexpected.”

Bonus spaces like the employee gym feature color-changing uplights and user-friendly DMX controls. “Who doesn’t want dynamic lighting when working out?” Ceballos asks. “Even though the ceiling is dark gray we wanted to provide a moody atmosphere and night club-like environment through color changing lights. The controls are located in an easily accessible area for anyone to set their own colored workout lighting.”

A “secret” library with a wine room provides another outlet for employees. “The library is meant to be an escape from the rest of the project—like a speakeasy for the employees,” Ceballos says. Concealed tapelights illuminate shelves and countertop fronts made by custom millwork company Taber, while pendants and cylinders provide general illumination.

A final respite is located just outside, where lantern-style pedestrian poles line the entry pathway. Along the way, courtyards feature festoon lighting and custom pendants (Tokistar) mounted to a wood canopy and steel structure. “I love this design and how they work together,” Ceballos says. “The pendants use Tokistar’s exhibitor festoon lighting system in a custom pendant configuration—it’s a new way to think of festoon lighting. The village pedestrian poles really set the mood for the entire lighting design, while complying with the CALGreen zero uplight requirement.”

By eliminating some design features in the showrooms and adjusting a few fixture manufacturer choices, the project was able to stay within budget, meet California’s Title 24 requirements (2006), achieve LEED Silver certification and—above all—successfully transform the client’s vision into a reality.

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Samantha Schwirck

Samantha Schwirck is Managing Editor for... More info »