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Office Space

By Kristopher Krajewski
April 1, 2002
Office Space

Discovery Channel is known for putting life under a microscope and examining human and animal behaviors through real-life documentaries, but the lens was turned on them by one of Washington's premier design firms who studied their organizational behavior in a search for a new office space. The designers at Gensler needed to transform a washed-out department store in Silver Spring into the heart of a major global entertainment center. They felt dwarfed in the open spaces larger than football fields and 20-foot high ceilings, so they decided to bring the city indoors. This city they created converted business units into neighborhoods, ‘bored’ meeting spaces into town-hall style gatherings, and executive offices into open, accessible points of contact. Nothing is square in here (not even the people), the work stations are oval, rhombus-shaped, trapezoidal but definitely not square. The organically-shaped pods are meant to be coves of creativity, making a direct link into how office design helps people do their job... better.


Offices are living monuments dedicated to the American way of life, they are designed to be a microcosm of our society. While words like bureaucracy and middle management are seldom seen as sexy topics, it can't be denied that the advent of the modern office has helped the American economy achieve unrivaled levels of productivity and growth. It is a place that unites all discourse, bringing together people and organizations to search for progress and growth. It is a place that seldom receives attention, is seldom glamorized but is essential to our current existence.


Office design also has evolved from uniform assembly-line, paper-churning, formal desk jobs to more flexible, informal, decentralized work spaces. While most workers assuredly do not contemplate how office design can improve job satisfaction, the issue has gained more prominence in the last few decades.


Even in Washington DC, the supposed mecca of all things bureaucratic, times are changing. While there remains a penchant for classicism, it's been updated with a modern twist, says Tim Gajewski, Senior Design Architect at Blue Chair Design. Spaces have embodied a more classic contemporary feel by using traditional materials in modern ways, like using natural marble and wood in structures instead of polished marble and paneled wood.


"Space represents what firm is to a client," says Gajewski. "It's also important that employees are comfortable, so you can see a softening off the edges of traditional design." Take for instance the law offices of Nixon Peabody which he cites as a typical example of the classic modern. Not only are materials applied practically with detailed craftsmanship, but the design of the firm feels vertical even though the space is horizontal. The main reception area is connected by a central staircase that provides an impromptu meeting place in what is typically an impersonal location.


In a mutual marriage brought together by design, Blue Chair designed marketing firm Greenfield/Belser offices, who in turn re-branded their corporate image and marketing campaigns. They aren't exactly fields of green at Greenfield’s office but they’re darn close. The first thing one notices when entering is rocks. Not pebbles or even stones, but large slabs. The receptionist sits in a comfortable contemporary chair typing away at a computer set up on a reception desk seemingly carved of boulders. Small fern-like plants edge the 'desk’ down a stone-walkway to a sparkling pond. The open-space natural feel is intended to spark creativity and bring the stresses of daily work in harmony with peace of being at ease with your soul.


The space attempts to incorporate a 'high-tech modern Japanese aesthetic,’ to harness a certain Feng Shui of technology. Industrial accents were integrated into the 'natural’ surroundings, corrugated tin roof lines the reception ceilings with accent lighting to diffuse a warm glow in the room. The baseboard in the conference room are actually gutter guards and workspaces open up to exposed ceilings. Take a stroll and you'll see light filled open spaces achieved through intelligent use of color and transparent surfaces. Moving from the entrance level to the subterranean workspace and the stairwell will take past a rockwall of falling water, further achieving a sense of earthy connections.


"Washington is on this upswing of design consciousness that stretches into a contemporary market," says Jordan Goldstein, Senior Associate Designer at Gensler. "I mean of all the projects I've worked on I’m proud to say that I've never touched a piece of crown molding."


That type of ornateness and gaudy extravagance that Washington offices, especially law firms had been known for, has been abandoned for simplicity-both in design and function. Materials are left in their natural state, where concrete is concrete, wood is wood and surroundings are appreciated in their true colors. While DC clients have been known to be pragmatics, many have begun to realize that "good design is functional," says Kate Kirkpatrick, Gensler Senior Associate with Corporate Communications. "Bad design just doesn’t work...there's a power to good design, it's not just ornamentation."


Clients like Accenture have realized that with the creation of their Idea Exchange, a multi-media location to make presentations and sales-pitches to their clients. Ultra-luminescent purple and blue lights carrying nightclub glow greets clients as they prepare for a multi-media experience. The meeting areas attract all the senses with audio-visual galore, where different style rooms, from theaters to round-tables to lounges accommodate any type of presentation.


Flexibility is the buzz-word of the office design world. The challenge comes in making a single space serve multiple functions. Because Gensler is involved in almost every aspect of the design process from it’s conception, Goldstein is an unrestricted free agent in design. In efforts to further customize their spaces for clients, they’ve gone as far as designing and creating their own products (seating, desks, lights, etc.). They are launching four lines of office products to become a full service firm for a client's design needs.


The fact remains that annually an average American spends over 40% of their time sitting in an office chair, shouldn't it be a comfortable one. "What design brings, is that it raises the level of aesthetics and appreciation of the space," says Goldstein. "You walk away taking something from that space."

Related Article Teaser

Office Space

Office design has evolved from uniform assembly line, paper-churning, formal desk jobs to more flexible, informal, decentralized workspaces.