An executive retreat center near Dayton, Ohio, nods to the region’s aviation heritage and uses architecture, graphics, and interpretive design to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit.
Iam’s pet food billionaire Clay Mathile had a vision: share his own success in the business world by creating a retreat where leaders of small businesses could escape the day-to-day pressures of running their companies to focus on strategic planning and blue-sky thinking.
When it came to naming the venture, Mathile found flight metaphors an obvious choice. Iams was headquartered in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio—the cradle of aviation—and when Mathile decided to build a campus for his center for entrepreneurial education, he chose a farmland setting outside the small city. He named the center Aileron—fittingly, the part of the airplane wing that helps lift and guide it during flight.
When Lee Skolnick, Lee Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership (New York) was selected to work with Mathile and Aileron’s stakeholders from the early planning stages, he recognized a rare opportunity to infuse the center’s architecture, graphic identity, and interpretive components with the essence of the Aileron mission.
“It was the chance to integrate all the design mediums in one project and test the ability of design to tell a story in a very implicit and organic way,” says Skolnick. “We wanted to build a narrative, a choreographic structure that would allow users to see Aileron’s meaning and purpose in everything around them.”
Known to Mathile for his work in museum exhibition design, Skolnick was initially asked to present a proposal for an exhibit chronicling Mathile’s life achievements and his mantra of “Learning, Doing, Giving (Back).” Instead, Skolnick helped him envision a complete experience for Aileron users—one that would use the site, landscape, building, interiors, and graphics—to tell Aileron’s story.
“We knew our mission and values, but what Lee and his team brought to the table was a rigorous process of thinking through the user experience and how the physical setting could enhance that,” says Aileron President Joni Fedders.
Skolnick was hired for the complete design of the $30 million campus, from logo and stationery to the building’s architecture, interiors, and environmental graphics. Skolnick and his team spent several months immersed in the Aileron mission, talking to the founder, his faculty, and potential users about entrepreneurship and what it means. A business owner himself and the son of a Russian immigrant who started his own business in the U.S. and made it successful, Skolnick says the project resonated deeply with him.
“We knew the Aileron experience had to celebrate the basic qualities of entrepreneurs: their ability to dream big, to see the big picture, to persevere, to meet philanthropic obligations, to think outside the box, to take risks, to make decisions, to focus, and to nurture the dreams of others.”
Through their research and extensive interviews, the Skolnick team generated a list of 13 words and phrases that embody the spirit of entrepreneurship. These words became the visual and metaphorical underpinning of the space, from the entry drive to the meeting spaces and everywhere in between.
Making the journey
Skolnick sited the campus on the 114-acre property to leverage the bucolic setting and to create a measured entry sequence that heightens visitors’ sense of getting away from it all. The choreographed “decompression zone” also mirrors the twists and turns that an entrepreneur’s journey can sometimes take.
Beginning with a bridge and the sight of an old hackberry tree in the distance, the driveway winds through a meadow and a stand of old trees, over a wetland revitalized as part of the project, and past the Aileron identity marquee, a set of 11-in.-deep stainless steel letters embedded into a grassy knoll. It’s a while before visitors even catch a glimpse of the signature zinc-clad aerodynamic roof forms hovering like wings over the low-slung, 70,000-sq.-ft. Aileron building.
Skolnick’s architecture is of the earth, using limestone quarried near the site and organic volumes that hug the farmland. Warm, locally sourced materials and an intentionally meandering floorplan help imbue the LEED Gold-certified building with the sense that it is revealing its secrets to visitors as they pass through. For example, visitors don’t notice the dramatic infinity pond behind the building until they are well inside. Even then, it takes a second-floor vantage point to notice the large-scale letters shimmering from the bottom of the pond: FOCUS.
In and outside the box
Aileron’s “narrative journey” continues inside the building, where natural materials reinforce the connection between outdoors and in, and environmental graphics reflect the entrepreneurial qualities the center is founded on.
The bronze reception desk incorporates resin panels embedded with grain, harkening to the site’s former purpose. A few steps away, the center’s 300-seat auditorium is themed around the concept of the Big Picture. The Skolnick team commissioned high-resolution aerial photos of the surrounding countryside, then reproduced them on acoustical fabric encasing the room. This gesture was a literal translation of one of Mathile’s core philosophies: that the only way for an entrepreneur to succeed is to view his business from 30,000 feet up.
Entrepreneurs also need to think outside the box, so Skolnick designed breakout spaces as literal glass boxes that blur the lines between indoors and out. The trunk of an old locust tree excavated from the site stretches across much of one breakout room, the rough-hewn end inside the room and the honed end continuing through a glass wall to an outdoor courtyard. “This was also designed to get entrepreneurs thinking about transitioning their businesses from a rough state to a more formalized vision,” notes JoAnn Secor, Skolnick’s director of museum services.
And since dreaming big is another important quality for an entrepreneur, the team created the Dream Room to actively encourage it. Cantilevered over the infinity pond, the room features a wall-to-ceiling digital canvas of blue skies, clouds, and one of Mathile’s favorite quotes: “Dream no little dreams for they have no magic to move men’s souls.”
Two Journey Corridors add to the entrepreneurial narrative. The Risk Corridor is wrapped in teak from wall to ceiling, except for a 4- by 5-ft. video screen embedded in the floor. To reach the Aileron boardroom (where mock board meetings are staged as part of the training), attendees must walk through fire, negotiate treacherous ice floes, or cross deep ravines.
The familiar Aileron shape and references to entrepreneurial qualities are touchstones throughout the space, says Christina Lyons, Skolnick’s director of graphic design. “Every move we made, from the architecture to the graphic elements, came back to the Aileron and how it is a metaphor for the entrepreneur. That was the foundation for our design language.”
Layered storytelling: exhibits and signage
Exhibit elements and signage provided more opportunities for telling the Aileron story. The exhibition element that started Skolnick’s project is manifested in a semicircular space that follows Mathile’s life and accomplishments. The space features a curved metal timeline, dimensional stainless steel letters, and display cases with backlit transparencies behind graphics inkjet printed on acrylic.
Elsewhere, exhibit-like elements punctuate the space, blurring the lines between architecture, graphics, and signage. The Leadership Hall of Fame is a curved, 50-ft.-long wall covered in a canvas digitally printed with birds taking flight. Layered over it are stainless steel letters and glass plaques that will be etched with honorees’ names.
“The majority of the space is like a museum, with multiple layers of information and themed elements,” says Marvin Mescher, project manager for Exhibit Concepts (Vandalia, Ohio). An abundance of curves and materials such as bronze and acid-etched glass meant the team had to pay close attention to tolerances and coordinate extensively with subcontractors.
Exterior signage guides visitors through the grounds and around a network of walking trails designed to provide entrepreneurs with the space to think and be inspired by nature.
Understated and in keeping with the materials palette and sensibility of the overall campus, the sculptural, painted-aluminum sign forms incorporate dimensional letters and screenprinted and acid-etched graphics. A series of interpretive signs explain the sustainable features of the campus, earning Aileron points toward LEED Gold certification. Others provide the inspirational quotes that founder Mathile loves.
In spite of their simple elegance, the signs were complex to fabricate, says Gary Stemler, vice president of Nordquist. The sculptural identity signs were designed to allude to the Aileron shape. To achieve the look, Nordquist knew roll-forming would be necessary. So the team sourced softer 6061 alloy aluminum plate, then had it annealed to make it more malleable. The signs were formed from two ¾-in.-thick plates whose seams were then ground to a V shape, filled, and ground again to appear seamless.
“It looks deceptively simple, but it takes a high level of craft to make something that appears so light still be structurally sound and hold up to the elements,” Stemler notes.
Aileron president Fedders says business at the center has increased 30 percent in the past two years, and while the growth of education in general is part of the equation, she also credits the physical environment Skolnick designed.
Aileron users agree. Dawn Dutcher Schwartzman, president of Enriching Spaces (Cincinnati), a commercial interiors company, has attended courses at the campus. “Driving in for the first time, I was gearing myself up for two days of being sequestered in a typical bland training room,” she remembers. “But as soon as you start up the driveway, you understand you’re in for an unexpected experience. Everything about the environment—from the incredible landscape to the beautiful materials and furnishings, inspirational quotes, and branding graphics—supports Aileron’s mission and reminds you why you’re there.“
--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 30, 2010
Location: Dayton, Ohio
Design and Architecture: Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership
Design Team: Lee H. Skolnick (principal in charge); Paul S. Alter, Jo Ann Secor (principals); Joern Truemper (project architect); Alethea Cheng (project manager); Miguel Cardenas, Peter Hyde (designers); Maja Gilberg (interpretive specialist); Christina Lyons (graphic designer); Dorothy Williams Neagle (interior designer); Shawn Walsh (architectural designer); Doug Hassebroek, Huerta Neals (architects)
Consultants: John Poe Architects (associate architects), Brackett Builders (general contractor), Buro Happold (engineers), Vivian Llambi & Associates (landscape architect), Renfro Design Group (lighting), Jaffe Holden Acoustics (acoustical), Cortina Productions (media and interactive), Otte Enterprises (natural resource consultant), Clarient Group (A/V), Harriet Spear (signage)
Fabrication: Nordquist (exterior and regulatory signs), Exhibit Concepts (exhibits and interior graphics), Matthews Bronze (bronze elements), Photo Lab Inc. (digital graphics)
Photos: Alan Karchmer, Ryan Kurtz (as noted)