Start-ups naturally operate in a way that fosters collaboration and a group ethos: When you have four people crammed around a single desk working through the night to get a demo ready for a meeting the next day with venture capitalists, the office environment is almost superfluous. But that intense corps d’esprit can be difficult to maintain once a company scales up. When the venerable internet company AOL wanted to bring the feel of a start-up to its West Coast headquarters, it turned to Studio O+A, Contract magazine’s 2011 Designer of the Year, and a firm that has made a specialty out of the hip, high-tech office.
As part of its reinvention in recent years, AOL had unveiled a new logo and a redesigned New York office by Mancini-Duffy. In 2010, it decided to relocate its West Coast operations from Mountain View to a three-story building in Palo Alto that had previously been an office filled with standard, drab cubicles. By putting AOL’s office and its 200 employees on the third floor, and subleasing the rest of the space to small newcomers, AOL is creating a bustling incubator in its own building.
Studio O+A, Contract 2011 Designer of the Year
Enter Studio O+A. The San Francisco–based firm developed its niche during the 1990s dot-com boom, and has designed offices for more than 50 start-ups, including recent clients Facebook and PayPal. In particular, Studio O+A has become known for injecting an urban vibe into the calm suburban sprawl of Silicon Valley. “Everybody wants that industrial, cool, South-of-Market warehouse space. But it still has to function well as an office,” says Primo Orpilla, who leads the firm with wife Verda Alexander.
For the 80,000-square-foot AOL offices, the design brief was to create a sense of energy and excitement. “This was an opportunity to tie their brand into the space,” says Orpilla. “Their old space had a very different energy, and they knew they needed a cultural change.”
The spacious reception area establishes the new identity with a mix of designer and design-it-yourself elements. Over the reception desk, Studio O+A grouped Tom Dixon–designed aluminum pendant lights to form a chandelier and added colored light bulbs. To one side of the room is a custom seating unit/workspace/stage, which the firm made out of humble oriented-strand board (OSB). OSB is a recurring element in the office, appearing as the paneling of the main conference room and in sliding doors. Circular meeting pods, fashioned from OSB and translucent fiberglass walls, provide informal collaboration spaces. “[OSB] is an honest material. You get the sense of pulling back the layers and getting to the basic raw components,” says Orpilla. “It’s understated versus luxury, which is the message that tech firms want to convey,” adds Alexander.
The firm positioned the company cafeteria and play area right off the lobby, and in a sensible move, installed concealed drop-down screens in the space for large-crowd presentations, essentially turning the cafeteria into a Town Hall for all-company meetings.
With an open floor plan, Studio O+A grouped desks and added low dividers. But rather than gut the space entirely, the designers kept the central core of meeting rooms and enlivened them with cut-out windows. The designers were also very strategic in where they removed dropped ceilings “Open ceilings are very costly,” Alexander points out. The full ceiling height is revealed only along the primary circulation paths and in the reception area, creating a sense of depth and space while reusing much of the existing lighting.
Studio O+A also stuck to a simple white palette, so that personality is expressed by the inhabitants rather than the decor. To promote impromptu meetings, a number of whiteboards line the walls. When walking around the office, one can see various doodles, notes, and URLs scribbled out.
A formula for collaboration
After designing offices for so many start-ups, Studio O+A has its own formulas for creating an environment that encourages collaboration. One of the firm’s key tenets is more density. The AOL space, for instance, is designed to hold as many as 350 people. In general, Studio O+A calculates about 140 square feet is needed per employee (the typical commercial office specifies around 210). Individual workstations are smaller, about 6 feet by 7 feet, and walkways are extra wide at around 5 feet to avoid a sense of overcrowding.
While workstations are smaller than what has been considered typical, AOL employees have access to a variety of seating and meeting areas, with generally one meeting area for every seven to 10 people ranging from booths by the cafeteria to the aforementioned freestanding circular enclosures made of corrugated fiberglass. The staff has also created their own informal gathering areas, arranging desks and sofas in ways that work for them. And the designers are fine with that. “It’s important to leave some space unfurnished—to let that organically happen,” says Orpilla.
Less than a year after the move in, Studio O+A’s formula has proven to be very successful. “The change has been dramatic,” says Trent Herren, AOL’s vice president of strategic initiatives, who managed the move. “Our old workspace was very quiet and dark. Here, there is a lot more collaboration. It’s so bright and roomy, there’s just a lot more energy. We’ve bought five start-ups in the last few years, and it’s helped that each group has been able to make the space their own.”
AOL West Coast Headquarters. Interior Designer Studio O+A. Architect Clem Soga, AIA. Client AOL. Where Palo Alto, California. What 80,000 total square feet on one floor. Cost/sf Withheld at client’s request.