The space that became Etsy Global Headquarters in Brooklyn, New York was the former location of the Jehovah’s Witness Bible and “Watchtower” magazine printing facility, which has the largest printing circulation in the world. The Jehovah’s Witnesses sold the buildings in late 2015 to a private developer.
Etsy, a company born and raised in Brooklyn, decided to lease an entire building on the former Watchtower campus totaling over 200,000 square feet. The renovation of the building was led by Gensler. All associated trades and consultants were required to meet the International Living Future Institute’s “Living Building Challenge” standard, a strict green-building certification program more rigorous than the industry standard, LEED. Etsy Global Headquarters is also the largest Materials Petal Living Building Challenge project to date, worldwide. The building is even furnished with handmade and micro-manufactured pieces made by local Etsy sellers and artisans.
There were several design challenges presented by the environmental graphics and architectural graphics project, but the one that carried through all aspects of was an institutional culture challenge. Since the company’s inception, Etsy has been built on a foundation of dreamers, artists, makers and DIYers.
However, with it’s rapid growth and move into a larger space and satellite offices, Etsy was forced to address the need for an environmental graphic system that actually met the needs of a large global institution, but was still sensitive to a sense of authorship and “making” the way their original graphic program was—establishing the maker as heroic. The afreeman, LLC team joined with founding Etsy members as well as new recruits to better understand which elements were critical to retain from the original Etsy visual culture in the new structure.
For the placemaking design, the team wanted to make the entry experience monumental: a temple to “the maker.” They worked with Etsy illustrator Jing Wei, to design and develop hieroglyphs illustrating “the maker” and “the made,” seemingly pressed into the surface of the entry columns. The team also worked with Jing to develop a “dreamers” mural for the entry ceiling that bleeds into the second floor lobby.
It was agreed that the systems developed for room identification and wayfinding had to be clear and effective. In terms of wayfinding the afreeman team developed a simple system of frames for floor directionals that Etsy could swap out or add content to over time. This allowed them to maintain authorship, while keeping it within a literal framework. For room identification, Etsy had an existing naming culture for shared spaces that involved combining a popular band name with a type of food. This system was beloved by the institution, but didn't serve to actually identify space or address relative location for a large and complex space. This left staff feeling lost in their own space. The design team maintained the existing idea of food/band name mash-ups and art like “Jay Ziti," “Bone Thugs & Hominy” and “Pjork" throughout the new building, combining this program with a numbering system for the rooms—collectively sized and formatted with integrate to the Crestron room booking devices and mountings.
The team encountered several design and fabrication challenges as they related to the Living Building Challenge—something outside of the initial scope of work. It was such a new process for the client, architect, project manager and all trades that it could be difficult to grasp and ultimately required exploration of non-traditional materials and means of production. They ended up working with DCL and an exclusive team set up by the architect to clarify the requirements, provide alternative means and methods and complete necessary documentation within established budget allowances.
In the end, Etsy achieved the largest Materials Petal Living Building Challenge project certification ever and staff can easily understand where they are in the space relative to where they need to be, thanks to the wayfinding and placemaking systems. The Etsy entryway has even been hailed as a new, iconic landmark for what is now referred to as the Dumbo Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn.
"I love when branding gets literally baked into a structure—and that’s what the Etsy Global HQ feels like. A delicious blend of hieroglyphic illustrations, fresco-like ceiling work and that metal branded gateway… it’s just lovely. I’m smitten."
"This project is charming writ large. The designers managed to bring the small-scale craft of Etsy to life on an architectural scale. The illustration is gorgeous and shows up in unexpected moments: on a security gate, across a vast soffit, and as modern hieroglyphs on the exterior columns. This is an altogether delightful solution."
"From the engraved pictographs on the exterior columns of the building to the Illustrated metal gate inside, this is a beautifully resolved project that is executed with style. I particularly appreciated the subtle treatment of the floor directional frame assemblage that integrates well with the interiors."
Andrew Freeman (principal, creative director and designer), Hiann Lee (designer), Alison Bloom (designer)
Gensler (architect), RGR Landscape (landscape architect) Etsy team: Jing Wei, (illustrator), Julia Hoffmann (global creative director), Jenny Kutnow (design director), Eva Green (senior project manager)
DCL (Design Communications Ltd.)