A Blank Canvas

The chandelier is the lone extravagance in the Montreal office of Nolin/BBDO, the branding, advertising and marketing firm. It is the first thing one sees upon exiting the tiny elevator: 32.2 kilograms of white powdered steel curlicues and glass that was imported from the Netherlands, a suspended sculpture that is at once a conversation piece and a statement about controlled chaos and creativity. “We call it our ‘folly,’ ” says Daoust Lestage principal Rene Daoust, smiling. “With everything else so simple and streamlined, we wanted something that really has impact.”

Located in an early-20th-century industrial building on the city’s storied boulevard Saint-Laurent, the office is painted predominantly white, providing a blank canvas for the company’s creative denizens to come up with concepts and see them through to the end. Part of the magic is the mix of the old and the new – and an ability to make the old seem new again. “Our mandate was to keep it simple and give a real sense of the merging of two companies with related but distinct raison d’tres,” says Daoust. (Nolin, a Montreal company that specializes in branding and design, is a subsidiary of BBDO, the international advertising giant.) “We also wanted to reflect the original nature of the building, keep it light, and recycle as much furniture from the firm’s former office as we could.”

After gawking at the chandelier, a visitor’s attention is drawn to the 27-foot-long structure that runs the length of the entry space, with the reception desk at one end and a white leather lounge at the other. On the wall perpendicular to the lounge is a digital screen which displays a continuous loop of Nolin/BBDO projects and achievements. A bright red carpet runner adds warmth and reflects the firm’s corporate brand. In all, it’s a striking – and strikingly modern – introduction to an office that spreads out over 20,000 square feet in a sort of “M” shape, with BBDO employees on one side and Nolin employees on the other. In between is a joint creative space, complete with beanbag chairs, backlit desks and large magnetized panels that can be moved at will.

To achieve a sense of unity, Daoust and a small team of architects and technical experts from Daoust Lestage, used a white modular box of varying sizes throughout as if it was a building block. A single piece became the reception desk and the frames of horizontal display cases punched through holes in corridor partitions. Stacked, they became shelves filled with design books, magazines, and milk cartons that denote the firm’s work with the Quebec Dairy Producers Association.

With such a stark space, natural light also plays a key role. Floor-to-ceiling glass partitions define the offices running along the edge of the office, giving a both a metaphoric and actual sense of transparency. The interior of the office is filled with long tables painted white, and workstations placed so that people interact rather than toil in isolation. About half the furniture – desks, tables and chairs – was recycled from the old office, with the rest bought from local manufacturers. A few of the recycled tables were cut into small ovals, painted glossy red and attached to desks in the offices to add what Daoust calls “pop!”

The main conference room, which comfortably seats 12, is located behind a glass wall at the back of the reception area. For privacy, Daoust covered the wall in a transparent paper by 3M that gives the sense of frosted glass but is less costly and can be removed. Now, only silhouettes can be seen inside the room, while natural light still streams from a bank of windows into reception.

Throughout, red and white poster boards with the slogan “Je suis ce que je cre” (“I am what I create”) lean up against walls – a whimsical punctuation to a project that was conceived and completed in no more than four months. “We started in May and it had to be finished by the Labour Day weekend,” Daoust recalls. “There was no room for mistakes.”

Indeed, her company’s slogan could be “We are what we create – and we’re fast.”