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Lewis and Clark Library

Helena, MT

Creating Helena's "Community Living Room"

The Lewis & Clark Library is more than a quiet place to peruse books. It is a community hub where people from all walks of life and generations can go to learn, work and spend time together.

The library recently embarked on its first major overhaul in two decades. According to the library’s Public Services Manager Lisa Skelton, the goal was to embrace the idea of being “a community living room–a comfortable place for everyone.”  

The library made design changes to boost community access, improve traffic flow, welcome visitors of all ages and integrate technology into the space. 

“Before the remodel, we were constantly sending people back and forth between the circulation desk and the reference desk,” Skelton said. “For a long time, I had this dream that we could have a single desk as a one-stop shop. That became a reality.” 

It’s just a warm, pleasant place to be.

Lisa Skelton, Public Services Manager

The library has transformed into a modern-day community space that includes expanded and flexible spaces designated for kids and teens, a dedicated marketplace and café area, meeting rooms and even two small recording studios. Stepping into the lobby provides a respite for people experiencing homelessness and encourages families to stop by for lunch or a break before returning to their daily lives.

Warm Aesthetics Honor the Original Space

Staff sought to enhance the library’s communal features while preserving the integrity of the original building. 

“Finding furniture that met the new, contemporary ethos of the library while respecting its history was a delicate balancing act,” said Kalina Vander Poel, Associate AIA, ASHRAE at Helena-based Mosaic Architecture, the firm that designed the library.  

The design team, led by Vander Poel, wanted to incorporate the library’s warm aesthetic drawn from the building’s oak-colored support beams to the timber railing and planking on the staircase leading to the second floor. 

“We wanted to introduce white, gray and wood tones throughout the library that complemented the building, including the old oak tables, which the library wanted to keep,” Vander Poel said.

The design team fulfilled that goal in part by specifying furniture with wood accents. Doni guest chairs and Sela lounge chairs both feature wood legs, while Athens tables have a white laminate surface with wood edge band.

Doni guest chairs paired seamlessly with Athens tables for a striking vignette next to the building’s main staircase in front of the children’s reading area.

“We wanted furniture designs that you could see putting in your house or living room,” Vander Poel said. “The Doni chairs with upholstered seats and wood legs are a really good example.”

Juxtaposed against the library’s wooden architectural features and furnishings is a vibrant color scheme of blue, orange and green. The colors identify destinations within the library.

A foundation of navy and gray tones inspired by the library logo are predominant in the lobby and are used consistently throughout the whole space, grounding the bright palette. The middle school/young adult reading areas are characterized by vibrant orange accents to promote a youthful, energetic environment for spontaneous learning. Sway lounge seating with orange upholstery punctuates a recreational teen space equipped with a television and Xbox. 

The punchy oranges transition to a more subdued hue to help delineate the teen area. A sky-blue wall and carpet accents denote the children’s space, which is brought to life with royal blue, orange and lime green reading cubbies with Doni and Ruckus seating.

Common spaces and adult areas are anchored in muted neutrals and dotted with pops of color. The Nomad pattern from Pallas Textiles, which is found in a soothing array of gray and white tones on Sela lounge chairs, is repeated on the backrest of Hub modular seating in a rich medley of blues against the warmth of wood bookcases on the main floor.

“The Sela chairs are so comfortable and welcoming,” added Skelton. “Our director loved them so much that he snagged one of them and moved it into his office.” 

In another area, the subtle crosshatch pattern of Dot Dot Dot, also by Pallas Textiles, is specified in a soft navy to complement the carpet, harmonizing the overall design.

“The design team made the space brighter and better but kept that integrity of the original library,” Skelton said. “I look out and see all of that melding together–the bright colors with the warm wood tone–and I know the history of the building is still there. Our new furniture is a huge part of that.”

A Moving, Multipurpose Environment

The Lewis & Clark team wanted the library to be versatile yet cohesive. To accomplish this goal, the design team used furniture that could be specified in different ways throughout the library, supporting various activities and the design vision. 

“A crucial component of our design was having highly adaptable furniture lines,” Vander Poel said. “The Doni chairs in the kids’ area look very different than the Doni chairs in another area of the library. They can all be repurposed if the library needs more seats for a bigger event, but they each still create their own vibe in their particular space.”

The focus on versatile and mobile furniture has already proven useful in several spaces.

For a long time, I had this dream that we could have a single desk as a one-stop shop. That became a reality.

Lisa Skelton, Public Services Manager

In the Discovery program room, kids can engage in hands-on arts and crafts at Pirouette tables in the morning. Afterward, staff members can easily flip the tops, nest the tables and roll them out of the way for a storytelling event that afternoon.

The library team initially put most of the Ruckus activity tables and chairs in the teen area, then decided to move some of them to the kids’ corner to open up the space. Since the tables and chairs have height-adjustable legs, the library can employ them at different heights to accommodate toddlers, kids of all ages and even parents. The diamond shape of the tables allows staff to rearrange into collaborative, group spaces as needed.

“Everything needs to be flexible,” Skelton said of the overall approach. “We need to be able to configure the rooms easily and move tables out. If we need more tables or chairs in one of the spaces, we can interchange them.”

By focusing on flexibility as a guiding principle, the Lewis & Clark team also seamlessly migrated a space under a staircase from one purpose to another. It was originally envisioned as a reading nook for children and teens and outfitted with Sway lounge seating. Surprisingly, adults gravitated toward the space to work on their laptops, bypassing the Sway chairs to perch on Doni stools along a counter-height Ruckus activity table at the back of the nook.

“You can have all the ideas you want, but people are going to use the spaces as they see fit,” Skelton said. “We’ve since moved the Sway chairs to the other side of the staircase, where kids and teens use them all the time.”

In fact, Sway is a particular favorite because of its appealing egg-like shape and intuitive, orbital motion that allows users to swivel 360 degrees or rock gently back and forth.   

“Everyone who uses Sway falls in love with it,” Skelton emphasized. “When we put the first one in the library as a sample, I watched the same little girl come in and sit there every single day.”

Considering the Needs of a Public Space

Another priority for the Lewis & Clark team was ensuring that furniture was durable and cleanable.

“Ease of cleaning, especially with fabric on seats, is very important,” Skelton said. “If you’ve ever worked in a public library, it’s something you think about a lot.” 

The library features high-performance upholstery from Pallas Textiles for a beautiful yet durable aesthetic. Choosing textiles with a variation of colors and patterns helped ensure that surfaces remained visually enticing and clean.

Vander Poel noted that the KI website was tremendously helpful in identifying and visualizing textiles on KI furniture with the colors and durability specifications she needed.

“The ‘See It Spec It’ feature on the KI website helped the library team envision what the space would look like in the early stages of our design process,” she said. 

Beyond fabrics, Vander Poel highlighted the cleanability of Doni chair shells as well as the durability of C-Table personal worksurfaces, which are paired with Hub lounge seating on the main floor.

“The C-Tables were a personal favorite,” she added. “A lot of tables out there are too top-heavy. Not these. They’re graspable and easy-to-move, but they’re not going to tip over if you lean on them.”

A Place Like Home

From the beginning, the driving force behind the Lewis & Clark library redesign was to foster a space that served as a reflection of the community and felt like an extension of home. 

Skelton and the rest of the library staff have been thrilled with the renovation, which created a modern public space while staying true to the history and traditions of the Helena community.

“It’s just a warm, pleasant place to be,” Skelton said, noting that the public agrees. “Overwhelmingly, people love it. I just gave two new library cards to people who said it was beautiful.”

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