February 1, 2021

Adjaye Associates Designs the HQ of the Largest U.S. Healthcare-Workers Union

a 1930s recreated mosaic by Anton Refregier featuring Black hands holding wheat
In the public spaces of the new Manhattan headquarters of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East by Adjaye Associates, a 1930s mosaic by Anton Refregier at the union’s old headquarters was recreated by artist Stephen Miotto, after moving it proved impossible. Photography by Dror Baldinger.

The 400,000 members of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the country’s largest healthcare-workers union, founded in 1932, have not had an easy year. But the completion of the public spaces in its new Manhattan headquarters was a high point. Sir David Adjaye, the Ghanaian-British architect, designed the project’s 16,500 square feet of lounges, galleries, meeting rooms, circulation routes, and library as a permanent celebration of the union’s 90-year fight for social justice and quality healthcare for all. The Adjaye Associates founder, renowned for his Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, recently moved to Accra, Ghana, in part to be near several important projects, including a vast national cathedral there as well as a museum in Benin City, Nigeria. But the union headquarters was hardly an afterthought. A trip to Mexico reminded him of the power of public murals and introduced him to a technique of transferring images onto tile by Cerámica Suro so exacting that even the amount of grout used is considered. “This is the first time I’ve used murals like this,” Adjaye says. But it won’t be the last; he says he’s working such “supergraphics” into other projects. One of several such murals at the 1199 facility is a soaring portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., who called SEIU the “authentic conscience of the labor movement.” Another is a likeness of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, bearing his timely quote: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

Stephen Alcorn’s 1990s image of abolitionist Frederick Douglass printed on tile and fronted with bronzed-aluminum letters. 
Under a barrel-vaulted GFRG ceiling, Stephen Alcorn’s 1990s image of abolitionist Frederick Douglass printed on tile and fronted with bronzed-aluminum letters. Photography by Dror Baldinger.
The Martin Luther King Jr. mural adorns the wall
The Martin Luther King Jr. mural, created by transferring a photograph from the union’s archive onto tile. Photography by Dror Baldinger.

In honor of Black History Month, the Interior Design team is spotlighting the narratives, works, and craft traditions of Black architects, designers, and creatives. See our full coverage here.

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