Inner workings

David Littlefield visits three London studio interiors, designed to inspire their creative workers and reflect the individual companies’ work

A tour of recent London creative industry studios could take the following route: begin at ‘creative communications’ consultancy Exposure’s latest extension on Little Portland Street, head for Soho to TV company Talkback Productions and veer north to the Camden Island development in Kentish Town.

Completion of this brief triangular journey will be sufficient to disabuse anyone of the myth that one office space is like another. Likewise the tour would reveal three very different approaches to accommodating the capital’s many creative types.

Offices in this sector don’t have to be overtly creative. Like any other workspace, they must be functional, well lit and well serviced. But, due to the nature of the work produced within their walls, they are often characterised by an informality and wit that would look out of place at, say, an accountant.

As well as using their premises as a showcase for their work, creative businesses, such as ad agencies, PR companies and post-production houses, will often use their offices as a metaphor for their work ethic and approach to business.

Two years ago, Exposure moved to its current home, an undistinguished, mid-century, four-storey building. Although the move was necessary to accommodate the company’s expansion (staff numbered around a third of what they do today) joint managing directors Tim Bourne and Raoul Shah were anxious not to become ‘some petrified corporate entity with no team spirit’.

Designer Paul Daly has just completed a £10 000 refit for the finance and events departments on the third floor, adding a set of Andy Warhol-inspired spaces in black, gold and red. Sprayed images of 20th century icons including Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Stalin and Kate Moss stare down from the walls.

The place has a dodgy, knocked about feel that might be more appropriate in a Soho den just up the road, an observation Daly is happy to entertain.

‘Basically, [Exposure is] a very sexy consultancy, so sexual connotations are about right: fashion is about sex, hospitality is about sex,’ Daly says. His brief was open: he could have created a conventional office in an instant, he says, but with a limited budget, he had to be highly creative.

For the remaining floors, Exposure approached several interior consultancies and promised them a free hand. But its open-mindedness turned to disappointment when the designers came back with different versions of sleek, corporate modernity, Bourne says. Acres of glass and stainless steel was precisely what he and Shah did not want.

‘It’s frustrating that, although we gave people total freedom in creativity, they still came back with something formulaic,’ he says. ‘We work in a highly pressured environment and recognise we have a responsibility to give more in terms of space value to our employees.’

Bourne eventually found Belgium-based Creneau, which delivered a highly eclectic blend of decor and second-hand furniture that locates the interiors somewhere between a nightclub and a junk shop.

Inspirations include oddly-themed spaces such as Indian Hip Hop and Danish Punk, inhabited by the PR, sponsorship and publicity departments; upstairs in marketing and sales promotion, staff occupy a room defined as Moroccan techno and Japanese Vespa. These areas are comfortable, informal and fun – like a teenager’s bedroom. Staff are even encouraged to modify them as they see fit.

Importantly, these interiors send out powerful messages about the nature of the place and the people who work there: young, lateral thinkers and ‘slightly mad’. This approach does not apply to the group’s graphic designers, however, who prefer to work in an uncluttered space with little to distract them. The idea is that their creative output is reflected in the screens of their Macs rather than the decor.

More than one prospective client has done a rapid about turn when confronted by 1970s wallpaper and Droog-designed furniture. But others, including Levi’s, Virgin and Converse footwear, have become enchanted with the place and opened lucrative accounts. But so would Steptoe and Son.

Talkback Productions, which is based in Soho’s Newman Street, set £2.4m aside for the design and build of its offices, created by Buschow Henley at the end of last year, with graphics by O’Leary Prescott.

The winner of an RIBA Award earlier this month, Talkback’s headquarters are an exercise in elegance and restraint, and provide staff with collegiate, monastic spaces. There’s even a central lawn and herb garden.

Architect and designer Simon Henley is just as tired of formulaic offices as Daly, but his response could not be further from Exposure’s offices. For Talkback, Henley used a limited palette of materials to create what he calls a ‘humanising’, unfunky environment of offices, balconies and bridges.

While Exposure can be compared with a nightclub, Talkback is more domestic. Henley says he sought inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement of a century ago, and indeed, Talkback’s interiors include rough-sawn hardwood, heavy doors and brick, with steelwork only where structurally necessary.

In spite of the big budget, the offices are still overwhelmingly informal. The domestic e e materials and the easy manner in which a wide range of spaces interlock encourage staff to make themselves at home. Visitors to the reception can even spy on employees helping themselves to Cornflakes. While no great event in itself, this is highly symbolic of the easy-going, non-hierarchical nature of the place.

Henley doesn’t draw a distinction between offices for the creative industries and those for any other sector: ‘I am completely frustrated by the lack of quality in offices,’ he says. Office buildings are a lot like hospitals: hygienic, ergonomic environments that are totally abnormal. Talkback is a kind of manifesto of what an office should be.’

Essentially, this means offices with outside access, natural ventilation, lots of daylight and the chance for a brief encounter somewhere interesting, Henley says, such as on one of the bridges that link the two halves of the complex.

‘There is something magical about bumping into someone in a nice place. If you meet someone in a corridor, it’s almost embarrassing,’ he maintains.

The original complex of four distinct, century-old buildings has been reconfigured to work as a single unit. But unlike many redevelopments, which attempt to celebrate the contrast between new and old, Henley has got to grips with these buildings and intervened to such an extent that it is often hard to see where the original stops and the contemporary begins.

This ‘new-on-old’ approach lends the spaces a certain robustness; for example, the ground floor, clad in concrete paving slabs, is ideal for staff who trundle in and out wheeling metal equipment cases behind them.

The Camden Island project in Kentish Town, on the other hand, has none of the insouciance of Exposure or Talkback. This is due partly to the fact that the development isn’t yet occupied.

With interiors, signage and a brand identity by SHH, working with principal architect DWA, the space is created by two former warehouses and aimed at occupants from the creative industries. Discussions are now underway with one ‘media-based company’, which is interested in taking all 6000m2 on offer.

Designing speculative offices is relatively straightforward because you have an average, hypothetical client in mind, which generally leads to neutral, practical spaces, says SHH managing director Graham Harris.

The trouble is, no one is average so in an effort to appeal to the creative sector, the group has designed a timber pathway sandwiched between glass panels that leads directly from the street to a double-height reception area. ‘It’s a bit sci-fi; a bit Barbarella,’ says Harris.

The reception area was once a courtyard between the two original buildings. Bridges run in all directions to offices on the ground floor, pivoting around a cone-shaped reception desk that would not look out of place in 1960s cartoon series The Jetsons.

The office spaces are generous, neat and practical. They are also, unfortunately, ripe for being sub-divided by a maze of partitioning.

Harris believes one of the biggest advantages of Camden Island is its Kentish Town location, which is close enough to the action of Islington and the West End without the exorbitant property prices.

Certainly with land, particularly in London, at a premium, interiors will have to work even harder in the future than they do now.

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