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IBM’s leadership in corporate architecture and art reflects a company-wide belief that good design is good business
Parallax view from the ground of IBM's central headquarters in Armonk, New York

In a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1973, former CEO Thomas J. Watson Jr. articulated one of the principles that guided his stewardship of IBM: “Good design is good business.” It was a maxim that had been decades in the making. Beginning in 1952, when he became company president, Watson made it his mission to update IBM with design choices that reflected the company’s role as a leader in cutting-edge technology. 

He hired the architect and former Museum of Modern Art curator Eliot Noyes as IBM’s first design consultant, in 1956. Noyes set out to create a unified aesthetic for the whole company — not just product design but also logos, packaging and the buildings that housed IBM’s offices and employees. He believed that “a corporation should be like a good painting; everything visible should contribute to the correct total statement; nothing visible should detract.”

Under Watson’s and Noyes’s shared vision, IBM became a pioneer in the field of public art and ambitious corporate architecture.

Good design is good business Thomas J. Watson Jr. Former IBM CEO
A new architectural paradigm in Yorktown Heights

In 1961, the architect Eero Saarinen unveiled one of the final projects of his storied career: the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. Saarinen had initially planned a conventional design that situated labs and offices on the perimeter of the building, but as the project developed, he came to reject this long-standing principle of European modernism. Instead, he positioned the workspaces at IBM Yorktown Heights in the structure’s interior. This approach made the building’s climate control systems more efficient, and it opened the perimeter for new uses.

Saarinen ran hallways and public areas around the perimeter, treating workers and guests to sweeping views of the surrounding landscape and torrents of natural light through panoramic windows. He also designed massive walls made of natural stone collected from the surrounding field, which he situated around the main building.

Certain key stones were marked with coordinates indicating the positions where they were originally found. The solidity of these walls contrasted with the light and expansive exterior facade — a groundbreaking composition that would influence corporate architecture for the rest of the century. “It was revolutionary then,” retired IBM senior architect May Kirk said in 2022, “and in my mind, it still is.”

A garden of the past, a garden of the future

A few years later, in October 1964, IBM dedicated a new corporate headquarters in North Castle, New York. Designed by the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the 417,000-square-foot building was perched on a hillside overlooking Route 22, about 35 miles north of New York City. The largest building IBM had commissioned up to that point, it replaced the old corporate headquarters and was designed to accommodate almost 1,200 employees.

The jewel in this crown of corporate architecture was its central courtyard, divided into two sections by a three-story glass and steel bridge that connected the long sides of the rectangular building. The designer — sculptor and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi — initially was not interested in working on the courtyard project, because he considered the USD 100,000 budget stiflingly small. The masterpiece he envisioned would cost USD 245,000, the equivalent of USD 2.3 million in 2022.

Ultimately, Watson Jr. and IBM approved Noguchi’s design, and the architect produced two gardens “depicting mankind’s past and future.” The garden of the past was constructed using boulders and other natural materials, chosen to evoke the features of the local landscape. The garden of the future was organized around more abstract sculptural elements, such as mounds and a fountain. Together, these gardens expressed IBM’s storied past and its focus on shaping the future — a goal it would fulfill over the coming decades as a leader in the field of site-specific art.

Good design, worldwide

During the 1970s and 1980s, IBM made a practice of including site-specific art at its corporate offices around the world. These projects enhanced the architecture of new and existing company offices, adorning them with the talent of some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century.

One of these artists was the Spanish painter, sculptor and ceramicist Joan Miró, whom IBM commissioned to design and execute a piece of public art for its Barcelona offices in 1976. Miró produced a tile mural whose abstract shapes — which evoked human- and bird-like forms using fields of rich color separated by curving black lines — reflected the visual style that made him famous. At the same time, it emphasized IBM’s commitment to elevating design, not just as a business strategy but also for its own sake.

In the years that followed, IBM used its financial and cultural resources to commission more works of public art. It unveiled two major pieces in 1982: Max Bill’s Unity of Sphere and Endless Spiral at IBM Zurich and Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass at 590 Madison Avenue in New York City. Heizer’s sculpture, a massive chunk of granite suspended within a larger courtyard, also included a fountain and public seating, turning IBM’s city offices into a gathering place for employees and non-employees alike.

IBM’s office at 51 Astor Place, completed in 2013, features a 14-foot-tall, 3-ton sculpture of a balloon rabbit by the conceptual artist Jeff Koons. The building at 51 Astor is itself a work of art in architecture, with a black glass facade that reflects some of the 20th century buildings across the square.

These iconic structures are just some of the many innovations in architecture and design that IBM has produced since Watson Jr. made design a company-wide priority in the 1950s. From Barcelona to downtown Chicago, IBM has commissioned a series of architecturally diverse offices and works of public art that capture the company’s approach to design as both a form of expression and a growth strategy. By making architecture and site-specific art a major focus of its physical expansion, IBM established a pattern that other companies followed. The idea that an office building could also be a work of art epitomized IBM’s belief that good design is good business.

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