Art of the deal

Edelman self-confidently bills itself as the world’s leading independent global PR firm. And well it might. Tagged as the top-ranked PR firm in the last decade by Advertising Age, the still privately owned media giant has 53 offices worldwide, supporting a staff of over 3,600 and boasting annual billings approaching a half-billion dollars. But while its dual head offices are in New York and Chicago, the firm’s CEO, Richard Edelman – the son of founder Daniel Edelman – has a special attachment to Canada and the new Toronto office. In a blog posted last October while attending the official unveiling, Edelman reflected on the nation’s emerging bravado. Shy no more and no longer second to its southern neighbour, aggressively seeking new alliances without relying on government intervention, and on the cusp of international opportunities for its agile entrepreneurs, “It is a country with high cultural equality,” he wrote, “a trading nation, global in perspective and aware of [its] strength and challenges in equal measure.”   

Inger Bartlett of Bartlett and Associates was handed a dual challenge in creating the new 20,000-square-foot facility located on the hyper-posh corner of Bloor Street and Avenue Road. It needed to walk the line between being a showcase atelier fitting into Edelman’s worldwide office look and providing a unique loftlike atmosphere that would serve as a vibrant brand statement – not for Edelman as whole but specifically for the Toronto and Canadian operation. To make the hill just a little steeper, the firm also wanted to shift from a private office culture to a more dynamic, open office environment marked by a physical clarity capable of facilitating collaboration and enhancing creativity. Renaissance Plaza, the host building, is a rather hulking pre-cast concrete tower from the 1980s. But Edelman’s third-floor location did offer generous glazing on all sides of the V-shaped floor plan, including views peaking around the preserved neo-Gothic Church of the Redeemer (1876) to Daniel Libeskind’s idiosyncratic ROM addition.    

With this brief and the able assistance of Toronto-based photo artist Nelson French, Bartlett has created a sparkling, transparent “urban village” by minimizing visual barriers and splashing an almost ruthlessly white canvas with brilliant flashes of colour.  She began by stripping everything back to basics, removing that scourge of office buildings – the suspended ceiling – and returning the floor to its concrete roots, albeit now polished. She then laid out a “street grid of neighbourhoods,” with open workstations arrayed close to windows and twinned with breakout spaces. Each of these areas is associated with a Toronto subway stop whose name has been etched onto the glazed walls of the many fishbowl-like breakout rooms.

The organizing plaza of this village is the lobby; Bartlett likens this crisp and colourful space to a lobby in a boutique hotel – a first meeting place ensuring a strong initial perception of welcome. A fireplace is surrounded by bookcases filled with carefully selected communications-related memorabilia (including an old radio microphone, a transistor radio and a turquoise dial telephone), as well as communications-themed tomes featuring bold graphics and travel books reflecting the firm’s global reach. A brightly striped, custom-designed sofa provides seating along with two retro chairs by prolific Danish designer Hans Wegner.

Off this space spins both the office’s primary boardroom overlooking the church square and a sizable staff café that also acts as “Edelman U,” an informal space for organized learning seminars. Against the crisp geometry, pristine white surfaces and icelike glass boxes of the rest of the office, this latter space, despite the sleek white lacquer finish of Ikea’s Abstract cupboards, has a softer feel. This is thanks to the liberal use of mellow maple screens, photographer Christine Flynn’s graphic photographs, and the graceful lines of its Grace chairs by Italy’s Pedrali. In addition, four serpentine ribbon-like metal handrails lead up three steps to the café’s interior terrace level.  

This change in levels was required to permit the development of an outside roof terrace. While this carved-out urban oasis is screened from the café only by a transparent floor-to-ceiling glass wall, it is sandwiched on its other side by a rather intimidating blank wall. To mediate this lack of scale and offset the wind-tunnel effect in the resulting canyon, Bartlett wrapped the space on three sides with Camouflage 700, tarpaulin sheets designed by Finnish designers Iikka Airas and Markus Wikar to improve the look of construction sites. A vibrant lime-green colour, the sheets are cut in such a way that they open up to become three-dimensional leaf-like screens. A sectional sofa covered with brightly coloured Arabesque pattern material from Mokum in New Zealand is complemented by funky blue Coco chairs (made from 100-per-cent recycled polyethylene) by Minnesota’s
Loll Designs.

Back inside, the rectilinear organization of the working areas and the transparent minimalism of the glass boxes allow Bartlett to exploit fully the impact of French’s bold, mono-coloured photographs depicting fragments of Toronto’s urban fabric. Stretching across entire walls from floor to ceiling, these eye-jolting red, blue and green graphic images have the creative kick of a fine double espresso. In a couple of cases, two identical but reversed images are placed in side-by-side breakout rooms, resulting in an intriguing visual duality. In these team-friendly rooms, Pedrali’s molded Snow chairs match the vibrant colours of the photographs.

Edelman’s new Toronto office has the clarity of a winter landscape caught in the crisp ozone-saturated light of a northern landscape but mediated by a brightly coloured, hand-knit toque. And just in case you miss the point, a series of Richard Johnson photographs of iconic Canadian ice-fishing huts provides the hook, line and sinker.  cI