Look. Look again. And again.

There are as many ways of defining art’s “function” as there its styles. But when seen in a corporate setting, the definitions begin to crystalize, and we tend to agree that the role of corporate art is the expression and management of corporate identity. Admittedly, the dominant stereotype that springs to mind when using the words “corporate” and “art” in the same sentence is of companies building a personal gallery for the office: banks and law firms lining their hallways and vaults with paintings by famous (read: valuable), artists, seen mostly by partners and clients.

While it may be true that there are still many companies that see art as an “investment,” there are many more that have become aware of what corporate art can do: function as a motivator for workers and a source of creativity. And when set against the backdrop of a growing cohort of employees for whom this kind of environment is not only appreciated but expected, smart companies focused on talent attraction and retention are realizing the office walls are not just places to post internal memos or WHMIS posters.

For 30 years American Express (Amex) had been operating its Canadian business from a drab, lifeless corporate environment in an equally drab, lifeless industrial quadrant in the Toronto suburb of Markham. But in April of this year, the company moved its 2,000 employees to a shiny new campus in North York that not-unintentionally evokes a Silicon Valley feel: traditional cubicles and assigned desks have been abandoned in favour of an open environment based on hoteling, desk booking, modular spaces and systems that support a mobile workforce (a corporate mental shift Amex calls BlueWork, already being used in other global offices such as New York, London and Taiwan).

With business casual dress, a Montessori school, Tim Hortons, dry cleaner and convenient store all on site, every decision made about the new headquarters was focused on building a positive corporate culture. “We didn’t want to build a headquarters for a bank: we wanted to build a space that houses and cultivates youthful, creative, ambitious people,” says David Barnes, VP of Advertising and Communications at Amex Canada. And this extended to a desire to animate the space through art.

Amex sees itself as a “service” company, with credit cards just a product that facilitates the desires and lifestyles of their customers. Many of the services are centred on “life-affirming” experiences — travel, music, shopping, what Barnes calls “passion points” — that were to be reflected in the subject matter of the art. And while the primary audience for this art is employees, Amex also sees employees as cardholders, and the cardholder experience is what they wanted represented through the art.

This was the basic brief that landed on the desk of OgilvyOne, a firm whose name should be familiar to many: they are the advertising agency that has produced many award-winning campaigns for Amex. Yet the firm shrewdly eschewed the idea of just putting up old ads on the wall: while acknowledging past triumphs, “that just looks back, and they want to look forward,” says Alex Furrer, Chief Creative Officer at OgilvyOne Toronto.

They understood the brief, but they had to know their physical limitations too: with much of the working spaces given over to whiteboards and other display technologies intended for mobile collaborative work groups, their canvass was the spaces in front of the elevators, and some small spaces in public areas like reception. Using mostly modified stock photography, the results are a riot of colour and form that explode in front of you as you exit the elevators, with feelings of movement and adventure and intrigue permeating the space.

Barnes admits that Amex could have gone to an art consultant, as many firms do when looking to integrate art into an office environment, but instead decided to go to their advertising agency. “We have a long-standing relationship with the agency and trust in collaboration is already there,” he says. “But also mainly because this is an exercise that represents and reflects the brand and OgilvyOne is the brand agency, so they understand that very well.”

While many companies spend significant sums of money hiring firms whose skill is in carefully tailoring a brand, in some cases brand creation comes from the most unexpected places. Such was the case for Public Health Ontario (PHO), a Crown corporation charged with the responsibility of studying, preventing and controlling infectious disease. For years, toiling in nondescript laboratory facilities not far from Pearson airport, brand was not really on PHO’s mind. But with the SARS virus epidemic of 2003, PHO (which at that time was operating under a different name) was thrust into the public spotlight. Along with it came governmental funding and expansion, which ultimately resulted in relocating this year to state-of-the-art facilities along “Hospital Row” in downtown Toronto.

The new headquarters, designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects, a firm with plenty of health care project experience, are housed over four floors in the new MaRS Phase 2 building. Since the guts of this complex, like the sci-fi sounding “containment level 3” labs, are out of sight, a four-storey interconnecting stair became the central spine. This staircase, along with adjacent lounge and meeting spaces, was meant to encourage informal collaboration and interaction among scientists, staff and visitors. A continuous wall adjacent to the stair offered the architects both a headache and a blank canvas, who saw it as potential to “animate and reinforce the unity of the space,” says Joshua Cohen from Diamond Schmitt.

Originally, ideas about integrating volumetric pieces of millwork were explored (a Diamond Schmitt hallmark), but the wall and the space did not lend itself to that. In fact, the wall did not lend itself to many things, including a simple rendition of two-dimensional portraits of the institute’s founders, which was also considered. Ultimately, working in concert with the scientists, the architects devised a multi-storey wall installation comprised of almost 8,000 stainless steel rods and tubes derived from images of the SARS virus across four microscopic scales, magnifying them from 20,000x magnification, which shows hundreds of viruses on the surface of a cell, to a simulated 650,000x magnification of a single virus.

The architects were fascinated by the transformational potential of scaling tiny microbial organisms to a monumental architectural surface (hence the name, Made Visible), but wanted to make sure it still speaks to the intended audience: researchers who stare at viruses all day. Abstraction was achieved using a custom algorithm that converts pixilated digital images into a three-dimensional array of brushed stainless steel cylinders and tubes (which loosely represent racks of clinical test tubes) on a bright Hi-Macs surface. Coloured Lucite disks recessed into the tips of the larger tubes highlight the viruses against the surrounding context.

The success of the installation was immediate. “It resonates deeply with the staff, as it refers directly to the mission and daily work of the institution, which in many cases is about magnification and identification,” says Clive Kessel, facilities executive director at PHO. “It’s really about the story that it is telling.” And in both a literal and symbolic way, that sentiment echoes what art – even corporate art — is intended to do: make us look at something in new ways, not just be another profit item on the bottom line.

Made Visible ii Photo - Lisa Logan
Located within the new Public Health Ontario headquarters, Made Visible is a multi-storey wall installation derived from images of the SARS virus, which was chosen as it was in response to this outbreak in 2003 that PHO was established. (Photo – Lisa Logan)
Located within an infectious disease laboratory setting, the installation is constructed of 8,000 durable, non-porous, brushed stainless steel cylinders and coloured matte acrylic Lucite disks.
Four images of the SARS virus at different magnifications were deployed to ascend along with the stair, arriving at the highest magnification on the top floor.
The relatively confined context dictated that the installation needed to be effective from a range of viewpoints and would often be visible only as a fragment or from an oblique angle.
Made Visible i Photo- Lisa Logan
The shallow relief of the wall produces an ambiguous effect, not entirely image nor object, but serving as both from different vantage points. (Photo- Lisa Logan)
Cardmembers’ passions and experiences inspired the artwork that appears in elevator lobbies and other public spaces in the new headquarters for Amex Canada, including references to travel, music and adventure.