Designers at work

First, a head’s up. This is not your typical design-mag feature, a decorating story with glossy images shot by a photographer with an assistant to set up lights and reflectors, and a stylist to groom the space. Instead, your humble writer/photographer barged in, on a half-hour’s notice, to document a typical working day of a leading Canadian interior design firm. Just me, my camera and tripod, and the available light. There was no styling or tidying up.

Among several candidates for the story, Figure3 Interior Design, whose client roster ranges from Allsteel to the University of Toronto, was an obvious winner. Its two-year-old office had languished unpublished. The firm had a big enough body count, at 40, to require careful thought about renovating the as-found space and deploying staff members. And with its new digs, Figure3 had a chance to walk their talk about the latest ideas ranging from collaboration in the workplace to corporate identity and
brand selling.

In some firms, the partners work in the open-office area, but Figure3 is not so “democratic.” The three principals –
managing partner Allan Guinan, strategic partner Caroline Hughes, and creative partner Christopher Wright – have private offices. “We didn’t want to create a partner row,” Guinan says. “We are involved in areas that differ from what the rest of the studio is doing.”


Starting right from Figure3’s front door, a welcoming “hello,” spelled out in red, lower-case Helvitica on the elevator-lobby entry, enunciates a lively graphic theme whose variations play out elsewhere in the office. The red is a strong, simple, primary cherry red, not some subtle toned-down mix. 

Managing partner Allan Guinan: “We wanted something timeless that makes a strong representation of our brand. From the ‘hello’ through to the naming of meeting rooms, which represent phases of our engagement of our client, through the moving graphics of people, the red lettering pervades our marketing material. Whether it’s a proposal or presentation, we try to integrate the application and integration of our brand within the environment. This is one aspect we sell as a service.”


Visible from the elevator lobby, a super-graphic of walking figures (adapted from stock photography) functions as a privacy screen along the glass wall dividing the boardroom from the reception area. 

Allan Guinan: “We wanted animation in a space that tends not to be as lively as the studio. The moving human forms wrapped around the film represent what we do, which is about activity, human scale and interaction. We like design to be friendly and human and not cold and austere.”


In the reception area, Figure3’s characteristic red hue features prominently in the first word of the positioning statement on the wall behind the guest seating, and in the upholstery fabric’s super-saturated, in-your-face tint. 


Visible at the far end of the main corridor, and beyond the reception desk, is a sculptural bowl, three feet in diameter and made of a bright red resin, by Vancouver-based artist/manufacturer Martha Sturdy. Continuing the graphic-branding colour motif, it acts as a focal point and initiates a cross-axial play, beckoning visitors to turn left as they move from the reception area to the
café/meeting area. 


Heading an impromptu meeting in the café/meeting area is managing partner Allan Guinan.


The moving-people super-graphic and the red words in Helvetica font continue along the main corridor’s outer wall, fronting the meeting rooms. 


In the café/meeting area, the table and the large islands double as display platforms for presentations.


Photographs of all staff members march along a wall in the café/meeting area, reinforcing the firm’s cultural identity. 

Allan Guinan: “You won’t see a display of client work. Instead, you see what represents Figure3. This is our home and our identity. There are other media to represent our clients’ work.”


The sample and product library, with its own generous layout and collaboration tables, links the café/meeting area with the design-studio bullpen. 


This view along the length of the design studio shows the various combinations and permutations of collaboration spaces lined up alongside the inner wall, imparting a club-like sociability to the work area.

Alan Guinan: “In the studio, we have five different kinds of innovation places, where people collaborate, sit and meet, and come together and work.”


Figure3 creative partner Christopher Wright touches down in a cozy huddle area, the most intimate of the design studio’s sequence of collaboration spaces. Says Wright, “Work in the studio is a fluid process. Spontaneous collaboration can happen anywhere; we have multiple areas to regroup, adjacent to the open office desking. It’s where I like to ideate. My favorite piece of furniture is this Teknion stool – it follows me around like my pooch!”


Alan Guinan: “We wanted to make work visible as much as possible. So we provide a lot of pin-up space.
This helps keep people engaged and offers opportunities for continual dialogue through the creative process.”

13-C’MON, PEOPLE To enhance collaboration, a desk- rather than panel-based furniture system was chosen – in this case, Teknion’s Marketplace. Its worktable can span up to 20 feet, making it the longest in the industry (as of its 2007 launch). This attribute fosters creativity and collaboration for work teams who toil in open spaces and in close proximity to others. 

Alan Guinan: “The benching approach ensures that the divisions between people are quite low. This creates an ‘all for one and one or all’ environment. People are very connected to each other and very aware of deadlines and issues. You can’t hide from what’s going on: our office is pretty open that way.”


Figure3 occupies a second-storey suite at 200 University Avenue. A lobby plaque explains that the office tower “remains one of Toronto’s finest expressions of the International style,” was built for Sun Life, completed in 1961 and designed by John B. Parkin Associates, Architects & Engineers. 

Alan Guinan: “It’s quite a little ‘60s jewel.The materials and vibe are great. It’s only 14 storeys, but it has a big office-building feel, as if we’re working in Mad Men.


Alan Guinan:: “What’s interesting about being on the second floor is that you are very connected to the street. So we wanted the most active zone in our business, the studio, to have that connection to University. The traffic, people and vegetation accentuate the buzz going on in the studio.”