Ideas Factory

Can an idea ever be set in stone? Or is it too fluid an entity to stay trapped forever in one spot, in one mindset?

Brett Channer, chairman and executive creative director of the Canadian arm of global advertising powerhouse Saatchi & Saatchi, knows all about ideas. Coming up with them is what he and his 70 Toronto-based employees do for a living. So when it came time, a year and a half ago, to start developing a new workspace for his company, Channer came up with the idea of completely changing the way his people interrelate and create.

No more suits. No more private offices. No soaring atrium, like the one in their old downtown office on King Street. More money for people, less on bricks and mortar. Since concept is king in advertising, allow room for the free flow of ideas, not overawing structure.

Channer laid it all out for Inger Bartlett, of design firm Bartlett & Associates, in four succinctly worded principles: democracy, transparency, collaboration and inspiration. Oh, and he also wanted something distinctly Canadian about the new place, to set it apart from Saatchi’s other 83 offices worldwide.

Client and designer studied their options. Stick around the funky downtown core, perhaps take over a revamped loft in the old MacGregor Sock factory? Too obvious. Let’s give ’em the unexpected by slamming this renowned creative icon smack-dab in the midst of midtown, at Yonge and Bloor, in a cookie-cutter office tower, high above the Hudson’s Bay Centre.

Let’s show ’em how to transcend one’s surroundings, by stripping out all the dropped ceiling tiles and plastic fluorescent light panels (except in one small boardroom, where these overhead pieces still exist as ironic reminders of what was and is no more). Let’s take a few of those old hanging fluorescent fixtures and install them upside-down, so the light disperses across the milk-white ceiling and bounces back down to the polished concrete floor. Throw in a few new halogens for filler, but leave the rest of the lighting to the band of windows that wraps the office’s perimeter.

Rather than walls for Saatchi’s bigwigs and cubicles for the proles, an ecumenical -and economical -space was drafted for all. Bartlett arrived at the oxymoronic concept of using permanent scaffolding made from galvanized-metal rods to simply sketch out the open workstations and corridors.

Desk surfaces are simple walnut veneer, with old black file cases tucked underneath for storage. Partitions are just hinted at, with low-rise, semi-transparent plastic panels. Sound baffling was achieved with suspended sheets of inexpensive Tectum fibreboards that “look like painted shredded wheat,” as Bartlett comments in an aside.

The resultant sensation of flexibility, of a place where ideas can freely float about, was just as Bartlett and Channer intended. That feeling carries through to the main lobby, luncheon and meeting areas beyond -though it is, in fact, hard to quantify these spaces as such, since they are so fluid as to defy description.

What in another ad agency would be a big boardroom, empty save for the occasional client presentation, is now a steady hangout for employees where work and socializing can coexist in peaceful harmony. A massive, descending 12-foot-wide projection screen set against the far wall can be used to run test commercials and PowerPoint presentations. But it can just as easily accommodate a giant Wii game or, as was the case during our visit, the televised finals of the World Cup.

While it is possible to close off the room by drawing a pair of large walnut track doors together, for the most part these remain welcomingly wide open. The space has proven to be very useful, Channer says, for holding “town hall” staff meetings, not to mention blowout holiday parties.

With no demarcation points set out, there is nothing to prevent meetings from being held, as they frequently are, in the caf area (complete with beer on tap), or, for that matter, in the lobby. The latter, indeed, resembles more the corner of some swish restaurant than an office entryway. Low white leather banquettes back onto windows ledged with dogwood branches and partially screened by four swooping, sunlight-diffusing white mesh screens.

Bartlett points to the Eames chairs here, the Saarinen marble-topped tables in the meeting room, and the Knoll Jamaica Stool seating in the lunch area as examples of how these and other design icons have been purposely placed in the likewise iconic Saatchi & Saatchi office -a semantic handshake among equals, as it were. Bartlett even discovered a reissued 1959 Heart Cone swivel chair from Vitra, now sitting across from the reception desk, which perfectly references Lovemarks, Saatchi’s trademark philosophy.

Channer’s requested Canadian elements are also scattered throughout the office. The dogwood branches and walnut veneers are Great North nods, as are the table made from two thick slabs of polished lumber, the moody forest photo murals that dominate two small breakout meeting rooms in the workspace, the trough of polished river stones dissecting a large bar table in the meeting area, and the adjacent side tables that are simply thin tree trunk slices on legs.

The wall behind the reception desk is faced with rough wooden planks, reminiscent of a cabin in the woods. And hanging there proudly, a woodsy Canadian icon -a deer head. At least an oversized, fanciful version made out of twisted wire, with small white lights attached to the antler points. The perfect response to Channer’s request for a touch of Canadiana, its acquisition was purely serendipitous: Bartlett spotted it when it was part of a holiday season window display at Toronto design store Hollis Cluny and purchased it immediately.

To date, the Saatchi & Saatchi Canada office is still undergoing some minor fine-tuning. But that has not prevented it from copping a significant handful of accolades, including the 2008 Lester Dundes award from New York’s IIDA, the 2008 Best of Competition award from the American Society of Interior Designers. The project’s custom workstations also earned an ARIDO award, and two Best of Canada awards from Canadian Interiors.

It may have even won Bartlett something more coveted: Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide CEO Kevin Roberts loves the space so much that he has put pictures of it up on his personal website and is also flying the designer down to New York to discuss remodelling his own head office. Now that sounds like a great idea.