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Designer Dialogue: Primo Orpilla

By Jan Renzi

The vision behind paradigm-shifting open-plan work spaces of tech titans like Facebook and Yelp is steering office design into the future.

Did you set out to specialize in the tech industry?

Growing up, my dream was to design big houses. But I graduated in the worst economy and ended up taking a job that taught me the other side of design: facilities management and real estate. I learned that programming—space planning, how to accommodate churn—is the underpinning of design.

I’m sure that experience has come in handy.
We’re always pushing facilities managers out of their comfort zone! Knowing how to talk to them is key, especially if you want to change a client’s workstations. We often rebel against standards book; we don’t go manufacturer-specific. We make what we call “Franken-stations”: combining elements from different makers to create a custom solution.

Speaking of workstations, how do you liberate staffers from them?
Technology has enabled a boundary-less work space: With a laptop, you can rove around the office. The key is having a design—and a company—that supports that style of working. You can install a ping-pong table in your lounge, but if employees think they’re going to get dinged for using it, they won’t. Management has to accept that staffers are going to take their breaks…and that they might spend them playing ping-pong. They have to honor the game room as a relaxation space. Otherwise, after we walk away, the client starts moving folding chairs and printers in there.

“We’ve been underground for so long, people are like, Who are these guys? I feel like the Coen brothers: We’re part of the indie movement, not a formulaic big-movie house.”

What role does breakout space play?
To perform their best, employees need to think, rest, play, and socialize.

Today’s analog/digital world requires more variety to stimulate ideas. So we create a multiplicity of breakout areas. We’re big into tertiary meeting spaces that aren’t hard-walled—a nook, a cove, a surround built of plastic. Sitting in there elicits a very different kind of emotion than does sitting in a traditional conference room. We’ve also incorporated tool shops and even bike shops in some offices; getting your hands dirty is the inverse of staring into a screen.

Denser work areas also demand more phone booths and one-on-one areas. These days, with less square footage allotted to each employee and a lower ratio of conference area per person, spaces really need to multitask. Most clients don’t actually need a dedicated training room or board-room, so we create what we call “all-hands” areas or town halls, usually anchored by a kitchen.
People funnel into one central gathering space as opposed to five different break areas, which helps foster community.
To create a communal workforce, you have to get to the essence of the company’s culture…
How do you assess that culture?
With applications like Facebook and Survey Monkey at our disposal, we can figure it out on a granular level and get a sense of what every employee thinks the work space should be about. We also try to learn the founders’ view of the company; usually, they’re very idealistic in the beginning, which you want to channel. It’s easy to drink the Kool-Aid of your own company, to read the marketing materials, and say, “Well, I’m this.” As a designer, it’s important to ask, “Is this really what you’re about?” We don’t want the distilled, polished, Madison Avenue version of you.

“What gets you in the mood to do your best work? You can’t write an algorithm for that.”

Where do clients give you the most push-back?
Getting senior executives to understand that they have to walk the talk: Either they sit in the open-plan work space, too, or they keep their corner office and this democratic ideal they’re espousing never takes off. A halfhearted attempt communicates that this is still a pyramidal organization.
When executives do give up their offices, we can mitigate the privacy issues—phone calls and such—by creating a conference room dedicated to executive staff, but that’s bookable by everybody. Or, if the CEO keeps his private office, we design it to double as a communal conference space that can be used by other staffers when he’s traveling.

Is the open-plan office still a fringe phenomenon or the wave of the future?
A huge transition is happening. It’s not a furniture-plan change, it’s a philosophical change, a shift in how employers want to treat their employees. Even financial firms and bricks-and-mortar retailers are taking note of how the tech sector’s work environments have changed.
It’s because of O+A’s Silicon Valley background that we can move the ball a little more; we have clients who are willing to innovate. We’re never told to stay inside the box. Clients say to us, “We can do it better, cram in more people, this space should be livelier...” These guys—our clients—are used to hacking code, reinventing things that have been done the same way for 20 years. That’s what we’re doing: taking 40-year-old workplace design and hacking it.

What’s your own office like?
A combination of high-tech and lo-fi. When we’re researching, we comb through every blog out there; our designers leave no stone unturned. But you’ll also see mood boards stacked all over the office. They’re part of our investigative process, and help us communicate ideas to clients that can’t be verbalized.

Your work blurs boundaries between home and office. So, what’s your house like?
We live in a 1970’s Sea Ranch–style house by late architect David Boone, who designed a lot of Silicon Valley office buildings. This was his private residence. It’s something we never could have afforded to build ourselves. In the backyard, we have chickens…

Wait, you have chickens?
Yes, and I built a very nice modernist coop for them! We’ve had some problems with predators, though, and have lost a few chickens along the way. They die an ugly death out here.

At least they’re safe in their high-design coop!
We’ve had to make some modifications. I didn’t seal it off properly the first time around. Chickens can be attacked through the tiniest of cracks, apparently. But we solve problems. That’s what designers do.

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