Bartlett & Associates: Whatever (Un)common People Do

Bartlett & Associates delivers three uncommon office common spaces.

When Inger Bartlett gets asked how much of her practice, which she founded in 1983, is devoted to designing offices, she raises an eyebrow in mock indignation. “Here’s what I tell people,” the gregarious president of Toronto-based Bartlett & Associates (B|A) says, with a knowing smile and expert comic timing. “‘We don’t do corporate work; we do work for corporations.’” Understandable. No one likes to be typecast; and not for Bartlett a cookie-cutter approach. She regards each new project, in any sector, as a blank slate. How does she begin? “I listen,” she says. “Listening is an important part of our work.”

In the past dozen years, several offices B|A designed have raised the studio to a higher level of prominence. These include Toronto offices for three global powerhouses: Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising firm (the project won six major awards); McCann, the marketing agency; & PR firm Edelman. Though all individual, these spaces share the hallmarks of B|A’s design: clarity, urbanity, playfulness; the best natural materials (“They look better. They last,” says Bartlett); a biophilic element or two (dogwood branches and a colossal deer head made of twisted wire at Saatchi & Saatchi; 3D leaf-like screens at Edelman); and timelessness (“Clients are spending a lot of money and we offer long-term value”).

Since the Great Recession of 2008, it has become clear that the “incredible shrinking office’’ is a phenomenon that is here to stay. “It was reduced real estate that led to open offices and more collaborative spaces for a lot of companies, but it’s actually a better way for people to work together,” says Bartlett. “We saw it first in the ad agencies and other creative industries, where leaders were giving up their private offices in favour of adding more shared spaces where people can better communicate.” These democratic domains are often the snazziest in the office, as three recent Toronto projects by B|A illustrate.

For Mill Street Brewery, the craft-beer indie purchased by Labatt in 2015, Bartlett transformed an unpromising industrial building just east of Don Mills Road into a contemporary headquarters. On the main floor are a striking reception area and a streamlined open office adjoining the actual brewery. Upstairs are glass-walled meeting rooms, private offices and a spacious bar for staff meetings, parties, product launches and tastings (true to its “crafty” roots, Mill Street regularly changes up its product line with special seasonal offerings). 

A sweeping, sunny space fitted with large screens and a projector, it’s surrounded on three sides by glass: glazing on the wall facing south and two walls of black-metal-framed glass from PC350, the latter playing up — along with floors of polished concrete — the industrial nature of the building. The fourth wall features an invigorating “Mill St.” mural, painted by a graffiti artist. A long butcher-block-topped bar combines textural cuts of wood along its front, evoking the rustic appeal of beer casks. Easily reconfigurable, the space also serves as a cool spot to eat lunch.

For League, a fast-growing tech firm that runs an innovative online platform for healthcare benefits, B|A designed an entire floor of an office tower in the Entertainment District. Conceived to appeal to a young staff, the space is “hip, comfortable and fun,” says Bartlett, with not one but five common areas. These comprise twin rounded corner lounges with built-in banquettes, offering fantastic city views; twin breakout spaces with high-backed modular seating to encourage private collaboration; and, the pièce de résistance, an expansive town hall.

Overlooking Roy Thomson Hall to the east, the town hall is airy and nimble and entirely seductive. One end is defined by perpendicular blocks of stadium-style seating in pale-wood, framed by white perforated-metal screens. Custom-designed by Bartlett and constructed by MCM (Millworks Custom Manufacturing) the bleachers are equipped with power outlets so staff can easily plug in their laptops for solo or collaborative work. A long bar defines the other side, behind which a matte-subway-tiled wall conceals a fully stocked kitchen; tables in front, also custom-designed by B|A and built by MCM, echo the bleachers. The town hall accommodates everything from all-staff meetings and parties to company-hosted yoga and knitting classes. It’s also a lunchroom, a social hub and at times a quiet space to work, think, rest.

Providing a change of pace, Crown Realty, a commercial real estate company, hired B|A to reimagine the lobby of an office tower on Yonge Street in Toronto’s North York district. That meant morphing it into an attractive, flexible space that could serve as an amenity for all the building’s tenants to enjoy, an extra place to work and a dramatic venue for all sorts of events. “It was a modest budget,” says Bartlett, “so we allocated costs according to impact and focused on a few key gestures.”

The focal point is a laser-cut, black-metal screen — a biophilic art piece, anchor for the reception desk and acoustic intervention all in one — devised to play up the lobby’s best feature, its 30-foot-high ceilings. Designed by B|A and made by MCM, its perforations creating an abstract image of a forest. In front of the screen is a lounge area with smartly tailored seating. Running perpendicular to the screen, a contrasting white wall with a 3D surface suggests a rippling wall of water. Bartlett created the project’s public café by opening a disused storage room; crowned by a series of walnut slats, it’s defined by a high-back banquette adding a splash of colour with its tomato-red upholstery. “The goal was to make an impression on prospective tenants, but this is also a place where a lot of people will begin and end their workday,” says Bartlett. “We wanted to give them something equally tranquil and energetic.”

What lies ahead for B|A? Already in the works is another floor for League, along with some energizing residential work. A second lobby for Crown, this one featuring life-size sculptural trees, has been conceptualized. Edelman has again come calling, for a design update. “It’s the edit you get to do 10 years later, bringing it up to speed,” says Bartlett. Perhaps the most exciting project of all is one custom-made for a pair of avid balletomanes that are Bartlett and husband Marshal Stearns, who takes care of the firm’s business development: the headquarters of the National Ballet of Canada, on Queens Quay Boulevard in Toronto.

After 37 years in business, Inger Bartlett remains fully engaged and enthusiastic: “The great thing about design is it’s for everybody and it is everywhere.”

Photography by Tom Arban