Wild blue yonder

The protracted economic uncertainty since 2008 has unfortunately refocused attention onto how modern economies have operated rather than on the profound epochal change underway. This misdirection is happening as, among others, economist Jeremy Rifkin (The Third Industrial Revolution) and Wired editor and entrepreneur Chris Anderson (Makers, The New Industrial Revolution) have already sketched out a very different socio-economic future. The exponential progress of digital technology – and the imperative emergence of green-based energy – is engendering a revolutionary “distributive communication network” that, along with radically different ways of “making things,” will dramatically change how we work, play and live.

London’s Design Museum’s current exhibition, “The Future Is Here: A New Industrial Revolution,” offers a small glimpse into how digitalized manufacturing techniques such as 3-D printing, laser cutting and generic, multi-axis robots are increasingly operational. In turn, digital communication, particularly the Internet, provides the platform for rapid, highly efficient technical advances through open sourcing. In addition, rapidly maturing digital networks have thoroughly radicalized distribution options and access to funding. As well, it has opened up to event the most modest “DIY maker” access to inexpensive product testing, design improvement through open engagement, demand assessment and alternative marketing. Some of the specific digital tools responsible include social media, crowdfunding and open, flexible technical communities on a world scale.  

Since 1998, Sophie Lymburner has built her Montreal-based Blue Communications into a multi-award winning “digital agency … that creates branded websites and applications, content strategies, social media, and IT development [in order to] connect brands with people who connect to each other in the digital space.” For example, Blue created a customizing app for Lands’ End Business Outfitters Uniform Design Studio that permits users to drag and drop desired gear into their “canvas,” mix and match combinations and insert their own brand logo.

When growth demanded a move from the firm’s cramped and conventional closed offices, Lymburner choose to relocate to 2,750 square feet of open space on the eighth floor of the iconic brewing tower of the old Dow Brewery. LEED-designated, the building is located in the city’s emerging adaptive-use industrial heritage neighbourhood of Griffintown. While the space offered high ceilings and panoramic views of Montreal through mammoth windows, it was still raw, cluttered, not-to-code and unfinished. As a result, designer Anne Sophie Goneau was tasked to convert this “scrap space” into a creative, collaborative arena with flexibility to morph into a dynamic corporate events venue at night, even complete with a DJ.   

With limited time, Goneau joined forces with her old patron, veteran Montreal designer Jean Guy Chabauty. Their mandate, she says during a joint telephone interview, was to create a series of work zones that avoided walls to ensure a stimulating environment that encouraged communication. Access to natural light and city views, a comfy area for informal interaction and plenty of visual projection planes were also required.  

In response, the space, with its soaring 30-foot-high bare concrete ceiling, was stripped to its basic elements, the walls, mechanical pipes and conducts painted pristine white, the tall windows left unadorned and the concrete floor simply varnished. To enhance the initial experience of the almost glowing “less-is-more” result, a tightly compressed entrance vestibule, bare except for a blue-neon logo asking/declaring “Why Not Blue,” was introduced. The billboard floods the small space with an eerie bluish glow that ensures a distinct jolt on encountering the voluminous, light-filled box beyond.

Everything is white except for true-blue sectional couches, custom designed by Goneau and Chabauty, which centre the room and serve as the informal but comfortable and flexible meeting zone. Around this seating, Artemide’s freestanding Tolomeo lamps, says Goneau, add a bit of disorder and spatial distortion, “like the chaotic placement of park trees.” Their human scale also helps emphasize the office’s exceptional height. 

Along one side is a 36-foot-long communal table, a multifunctional and laboratory-like island for collaborative work. (Not incidentally, it also doubles as a staff kitchen and bar for evening events.) The island, with its retro-like lab stools by Jeff Covey, is custom designed by the designers and constructed of environmentally responsive honeycombed cardboard, covered with 1/8-inch plastic. Elsewhere, custom designed staff desks also incorporate the same unconventional material while supported by a white painted structure of bent steel.

Frozen in motion, painted white and mounted high on the wall above the island is a stuffed hammerhead shark, its broad mouth somewhat ominously agape. While some might see a reference to the swimming-with-sharks world of television’s Mad Men, here the intended image is more benign (to be fair, while hammerheads have been known to attack humans, there are no known fatalities). The shark’s tail overlaps a sizable frosted glass mirror that represents an aquarium. In other words, say the designers, the tableau expresses creativity escaping conventional constrictions to float in a sea of the imagination.     

While the firm believes creativity best flourishes in a somewhat chaotic open environment with frequent opportunities for casual convergence, a modicum of privacy is sometimes required. An almost seamless glass box that appears to float within the larger volume provides acoustical if not visual privacy when needed. Inside, Berlin-based Studio 7.5’s Setu office chair for Herman Miller, designed to LEED standards and ubiquitous throughout the office, surrounds an Eames conference table. Beside this meeting room and tucked into the building’s corner is Lymburner’s enclosed but also transparent executive office, made just a wee bit cozier with a baby-blue Herman Miller coach and shag rug.    

Anderson’s book provides a fascinating insight onto an emerging digital industrial revolution that suggests a new “maker” economy characterized by ordered chaos. Increasingly there is an almost oxymoronic blend of intense, open and creative collaboration forming and reforming across geographic and occupational boundaries but also driven by a culture of individual entrepreneurship. Blue Communications’ corporate office suggests a digital company stripped back to core elements, generic for flexibility but still oddly compelling enough to bring home the brand.  cI