Work aesthetics

Miriam Cadji tracks down the latest office environments motivating employees

With economic doom and gloom forecast, belt tightening has been the order of day for most workplaces. As such, plans to spruce up the office interior have been largely put on hold.

However, keeping up appearances remains an important concern for most businesses, and investing in design can help to attract new clients and keep employees happy. Providing an exciting work environment for your staff is not the touchy-feely exercise it appears – cool office design is a shrewd investment that will help to motivate and retain staff, foster creativity and increase productivity.

Image-conscious sectors, such as media and ad agencies, are prepared to be particularly experimental. Although often dismissed as gimmick-hungry, these clients are more open to new ways in which their organisation can be structured – ideas which then filter through to traditional organisations.

Open plan design has now become commonplace in most interiors, but despite the advent of improved technology, hot desking (where workers do not have a designated workspace, but instead are able to ‘plug-in’ to any workstation that is free) has not caught on as predicted. If anything, offices have become more personalised, borrowing heavily from domestic and retail interiors to create an informal atmosphere that acknowledges the importance of play and provides social ‘breakout’ areas with cafés and relaxed seating.

But superficial nods towards ‘grooviness’ no longer impress – a more heartfelt response is required to make a real difference to how an organisation functions. The rapid rise – and recent fall – of the dotcom offices, which were typically designed on a shoestring, but had to attract workers to leave (often much more stable) workplaces, relied so heavily on trendy gimmickry that much of it is now regarded as cliché.

‘It’s very common to find a pool table or a mauve painted curved wall and a fishtank in the reception – all pretty pathetic,’ winces architect Sam Jacob. One quarter of architecture and art collective Fat, Jacob believes the ambition of having a groovy office in the first place is suspect. ‘If the attitude is to make a place more exciting, more fulfilling and kinder to those that work there, that’s different,’ he says. ‘It’s the “just enough” approach that is so depressing.’

10, Antwerp

Walk into the offices of ad agency 10 and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled backstage at a madcap theatre company.

This former art gallery has been transformed by an eclectic collection of installations designed by Fat, which cut its teeth designing nightclubs, but insists the same principles apply to office design.

Faced with a cavernous space, its approach was typically audacious: to treat the interior as a piece of mini urban design. As such, there is a town square, with mock tudor fa̤ades and plastic hedges, bounded by two pavilions Рin homage to PoMo classicism these are based on work by Bernini and Palladio Рwhich house meeting areas and a projection room.

Workstations are arranged on and beneath a large bridge that spans the interior. A ‘garden’ area – featuring another bridge, some wooden trees, picket fences and pastel coloured murals of woodland and alpine scenes – has been created to one side as a concession to the relative seclusion required by the accounts team. ‘It is quiet acoustically, but not necessarily visually,’ says project architect Sean Griffiths. The project’s final phase – yet to go on site – includes a grass-covered amphitheatre, library and chill out space.

Beyond raising a smile from clients and raising staff morale in the ad agency, Griffiths explains the cheeky design has a serious purpose. ‘In terms of architectural rhetoric, we wanted to create a family atmosphere with different levels where people can see each other,’ he says. The bridge is a clever device, helping to break up the volume and offer layered views, rather than the usual monotony of endless open plan space stretching horizontally ahead. As well as animating the interior, it also encourages contact between employees, who can see through into meeting rooms or stand on the bridge and shout downstairs to those underneath. The resulting buzz is entirely appropriate to the ethos of the company.

In fact, the client was so excited that they have added exuberant flourishes of their own: a running track and basketball court have been marked out on the floor – ideas borrowed from Fat’s own portfolio from projects past. ‘The client went a bit crazy,’ sighs Griffiths. ‘We think it’s overdone it – there are a few too many things going on’.

Commonwealth Office/Design: HMKM
Commonwealth Office/Design: HMKM

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London

The entrance and reception area of any office are the public face of the organisation they represent. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is no exception and, despite the modest scale of its appointment, design group HMKM believes the results – like any good face-lift – have helped take years off the patient.

‘We wanted to show the more modern face of the FCO. It’s a forward-thinking organisation, and part of our brief was to reflect this,’ explains HMKM managing director Alison Cardy.

The group used a light touch and sensitive approach to meet the challenges of working with a conservative client in a Grade I-listed environment. Its first task was to strip back the vaulted arches that had been blocked up, and insert a new steel frame into the existing brickwork. Throughout this delicate structural work, the rare marble columns of the offices above had to be constantly monitored for the slightest movement.

The undercroft space that was revealed required artificial lighting to counteract any gloominess and make the interior feel inviting. The area around the reception desk is brightly lit by light boxes from above to give it a clean, efficient, modern feel. The desk itself (in gleaming white Corian) is a lit glass tank that glows like a beacon, featuring an etched map showing FCO stations around the world. Elsewhere, warmer uplighters are used to emphasise the vaulted structure and fluorescent strips are concealed behind the banquette seating, creating a wash of light.

‘We wanted the reception to feel welcoming for one person seeking a private interview with the officers, but also to cater for a coach-load of 30 schoolchildren,’ says Cardy.

Materials are kept traditional and restrained, but the feel is contemporary. English oak has been used for the flooring, and oak veneer wraps along the back wall to evoke the warm, clubbish feel of panelling without the usual stuffiness. Similarly clean lines have been used for the leather seating – a mix of chairs and custom-made banquettes that wouldn’t look out of place in a contemporary art gallery.

Corinthian Television, Chiswick

Design: Gensler

Although large office fit-outs are generally thin on the ground, Gensler was appointed by Corinthian Television to create a new four-storey broadcast facility on the Richard Rogers-designed Chiswick Park development.

Corinthian, a digital broadcast service provider working predominantly for children’s television makers, gave the design team a clear brief. ‘It wanted something inspiring and creative, but nothing too wacky or kiddie that would detract from the serious work it does,’ explains project design director Ed Caddy. ‘We wanted employees to feel alive and to encourage them to work collaboratively.’

Rather than simply blowing the budget on front-of-house spaces, the client expressed a real commitment to improving conditions for its workforce. The resulting interior with its open plan configurations, minimal partitions and modular design is flexible enough to allow any area to be converted into an impromptu filming backdrop. Slick, contemporary materials and furniture add to the sense of fun and vibrancy. ‘It doesn’t shout out “we’re propeller heads working on nerdy digital stuff”,’ says Caddy.

Numerous informal ‘breakout spaces’ have been added, including a café, bar and restaurant, to provide visitors and staff with all-important places to hang around in between long studio sessions.

Formal meeting rooms appear as giant ellipses, a recurring form throughout the interior. ‘If they had been boxes, they would have just disappeared,’ believes Caddy.

The biggest challenge lay in the design of the editing and transmission suites – spaces that are often forgotten. Editing is a lonely, technically demanding job that generally takes place in cramped black box rooms crammed with technical equipment. Here, each suite – expressed as elliptical booths – has individual controls for natural and artificial light levels.

Similar careful consideration has been awarded to the transmission suites, which are grouped around one another as ‘orange wedges’. Specialised glass has been used to partition the suites, so that while they are acoustically separate, they remain visually connected, allowing different teams to interact with minimal disruption.

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