The Office That Time Forgot

What time is the right time to schedule an upgrade to your corporate style? For Panasonic Canada, the answer appears to be about once every 30 years.

The company’s headquarters, located just off Highway 401, on the border between Toronto proper and Mississauga, was built sometime in the 1970s — and hadn’t been updated since then. When Cathy Knott, partner in X-Design, was called in to discuss Panasonic’s projected renewal, she found herself facing a block-shaped concrete building whose interior was, frankly, a period piece.

Here is the before picture: a poorly lit space with mingy brown leather chairs, dark industrial carpeting and a “nurse’s station” reception desk, all dominated by what was most likely the pice de resistence back in its day, a diarrhea-shaded ornamental tile wall. Oddly prominent for a high-tech electronics manufacturer was a cheesy low-tech announcement board — one of those ridged affairs that takes inserted plastic letters.

The after picture began developing with Knott’s facelift of the exterior (which her design team had privately dubbed the “Concrete Critter”). Off came the old, heavy grey portico that blocked most of the entrance light, and on went a new, abbreviated overhang that is now clad, like the upper half of the entire building, in a warm band of ipe wood.

That same banding has been added to a later-built, western extension of the company complex, along with a lower wall of FluidForm manufactured stone, thereby creating a coherent horizontal whole rather reminiscent of Danish modern design. Snuggled between the two conjoined buildings is a little contemplation garden with twin stone benches, S-shaped flowerbeds and a small stone Buddhist incense burner, a nod to the company’s oriental origins.

“We wanted to mimic the Japanese roots throughout,” says Knott, making particular reference to the water feature wall that now greets visitors in the main reception area. Cool liquid flows down clear acrylic pressed over sheaves of bamboo shoots, and trickles onto grey rounded river stones at the base. Very calming, very Zen.

Natural materials carry on the theme throughout the newly minted interior — basalt stone tile flooring, more ipe wood on the walls, woven bamboo planters, and shoji-style doors behind the desk, as well as leading to the new, improved boardroom.

There, a slick Krug Virtu table stands on smoked oak engineered flooring (“So nice to have wood flooring in a boardroom,” Knott comments) with overhead lights neatly hung in a row, shaded by umber fabric squares from Absolux. Fittingly, for a global leader in television set manufacturing, a 60-inch plasma screen looms above the credenza by the far wall.

Back in the main lobby, past the Noguchi table, the Hans Wegner chairs “that have a beautiful, low modernist feel to them” and the Japanese water wall (which fronts a remodelled guest washroom), we stop for a moment at the reception counter.

“Are you the designer?” its occupant askes in an appropriate undertone. “I just love my new desk.” She strokes its creamy white Corian top, her eyes lifting to the large, red resin vase slotting into a cut-out, filled with four feet of twisty brown twigs.

After more than 30 years, it was high time something was done to revitalize the company’s faded working environment. Aside from the plus of presenting an appropriate corporate face, there is also improved employee morale to consider.

But this was only Phase One of Panasonic Canada’s great upgrade and so far, the receptionist has been the only real beneficiary of X-Design’s expertise.

Moving past her desk, we sneak a peek through the central security door. Six feet of the corridor beyond has been gussied up to match the main lobby’s decor, so that a visitor just glimpsing the space as the door opens and shuts receives an impression of continuous stylishness.

Alas, such is not the case. The facade gives way on either side to depressing stretches of low acoustic tile ceilings, grubby white walls and mottled blue linoleum floors. What the actual work area looks like is best left to the imagination.

Phase Two, when it comes, probably couldn’t come soon enough. CI