Acting Like a Start-Up

After designing offices for a veritable who’s who of Silicon Valley tech firms, Studio O+A has a new challenge: bringing the behemoths back to their renegade roots.

In the late 1980s, Primo Orpilla was a young interior designer at a small practice in Silicon Valley, sketching bathrooms and cubicle farms for the big aerospace companies that—in the time before the Web—dominated the region. “It was all hard-wall offices around the perimeter, and cubicle farms on the interior,” he recalls. “That was my life.

It was not a great time in the Valley. I wish I had gotten that internship up in the city, but I didn’t. I had a great future in facilities management at Lockheed!” But the evenings brought creative relief. Orpilla would head over to the art studios at San Jose State University to help his future wife and design partner, Verda Alexander, construct elaborate mixed-media installations in the student gallery. Already, the pattern of their design collaboration was in place: a colorful, textured, and often playful surface laid atop a deceptively high-performance core.

As Silicon Valley evolved, Orpilla and Alexander—who began working under the banner of Studio O+A in the early 1990s—evolved with it. The pocket protector–clad aerospace engineers moved to the periphery and the hip Web start-ups and design-focused consumer electronic companies came to the center of Silicon Valley’s consciousness. Today, what was once an out-of-the-way corner of American industry dominates the popular imagination. And O+A finds itself at its center, designing work spaces for an endlessly renewing list of hot start-ups—as well as the former start-ups that emulate them.

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The last few years have seen O+A design offices for PayPal, AOL, Trulia, StubHub, Quid, Square, DreamHost, Yelp, and Microsoft, among others—most especially, Facebook, whose Palo Alto office has, hands down, attracted the most attention for O+A, with a design so iconic that it was mimicked in The Social Network. Accordingly, their 20-person firm now punches way above its weight, competing with giants like Perkins + Will, HOK, and SmithGroup. When Facebook passed over O+A to design the interiors of its massive new campus in Palo Alto, choosing Gensler (the behemoth) instead, the loss seemed to prove the point, acting like a subtle siren call to the next wave of start-ups, and giving O+A the chance to say, “We’re the ones you hire to design the office that gets you the big campus.”

The firm’s surface design is nearly beside the point, as bold as it is. In talking with Orpilla and Alexander, what’s striking is their emphasis not on any particular aesthetic but on their specific programmatic recipe for creating “high performance offices”—spaces that don’t merely accommodate work but try, very explicitly, to supercharge it. O+A’s designs take the concepts behind the longstanding buzzwords “collaboration” and “innovation” and tweak them for a workforce that’s younger and more, you might say, determined. These are honey-traps, designed to encourage employees to never go home, with video-game areas, big kitchens, and comfy couches that welcome napping. But more importantly, the offices all have a kind of density, which is meant to stimulate collaboration while also cultivating high-intensity, fully focused work—being “jacked in,” with your headphones on and the computer screen fully occupying your field of vision. These are offices that allow everyone to be alone—but together. They are the new paradigm for the high-tech office. And given the trajectory of workplace technology, we’re likely to see it expand beyond Silicon Valley—as surely as smartphones and organic office lunches.

“There’s a certain energy that a start-up has that’s like lightning in a bottle, but companies lose it over time as they get mired in their own systems,” Orpilla says. “So how do you hold on to that? How do you keep companies in that start-up mode?” The answer would make Orpilla’s imagined Lockheed bosses proud: “It’s the programming aspect of it; it’s figuring out where all the different groups need to be.”

Alexander traces O+A’s origins to its early work for industrial engineers. The couple would often spend a day arranging new cubicles, only to return the next morning and discover that they’d all been rearranged. “These are creative people too,” she says. “We could have never imagined some of the uses that they came up with.” It was a powerful lesson in function. “Our philosophy evolved from the egocentric, let’s brand it ‘us,’ to designing it for what the user needs,” she adds.

In broadest strokes, the strategy driving O+A’s current work is often to shrink the individual workstations in order to expand and create different kinds of common areas. This tends to result in a net decrease in total space—but it’s pitched as a productivity gain, not a cost-saving measure.
The key to the concept is the ubiquity of the laptop. With some start-ups forgoing landlines entirely, and with Wi-Fi a given, there isn’t the same need for a cubicle or worktable to be a fixed home base for the day. People want to float around, and they do. That means the metaphor of the computer “desktop” that we’ve been living with for 25 years has finally overtaken the workplace desk itself. Everyone might have their fingers on their keyboards all day, but they’re physically roaming—accommodated by new categories of spaces, which are specifically designed to contrast with the world on the screen. This mode of work can “be very insular and very lonely,” Orpilla points out (as many of us already know). “So maybe that’s why people are gravitating to this kind of work style. We’re trying to offer many different ways for that to happen and to be supported.”

The first move is to get rid of the cubicles. Rather than having space assigned to individuals, a project team might now, typically, take over the corner of a building as if it were their own. “We’re trying to make the entire area cohesive to the group that’s there,” Orpilla says. “You share the space and you collectively brand the space.” This is facilitated by traditional office accoutrements—family pictures, personal tchotchkes—moving online, to Facebook, or Tumblr, or a blog. You don’t need a picture of your kid—or your fixie—on your cubicle wall if it’s already there on your virtual wall.

With individual workstations reduced to a fraction of their former size, the traditional conference room mutates, first shrinking, and then spawning smaller versions of itself—many of which wouldn’t be identified as conference rooms at all. “Most of the time, these twenty-by-fifteen-foot conference rooms would only have two people in them,” Orpilla says. Instead, O+A creates smaller rooms, ranging in size from a phone booth to cozy two-person “cubbies” and former offices transformed into lounges for impromptu meetings of four or five people. At Quid, a San Francisco start-up focusing on financial data, one of these spaces is called the “library” and is modeled after the founders’ fond memories of their favorite places to work as students. The space is still communal but designed specifically for a culture of quiet, “heads-down” work—a necessary relief from the distractions of an open-plan environment where everyone is elbow to elbow.

Finally, the conference room–like spaces are overshadowed by what Orpilla terms the “living rooms” or “town halls,” which occupy a tertiary zone somewhere between a traditional office kitchen, a cafeteria, and a reception area. What they resemble most of all are hotel lobbies, filled with all kinds of activity—but always with plenty of people nose-down in their laptops. “It should be a scene,” Orpilla says, pointing to the lobby of the Ace Hotel in New York as an example of his goal. “Most of the time we leave it as a place to gather, play games, and eat—like the food court at a retail mall. You want that activity, that vibe. You certainly don’t want it to be empty.” The furniture has to be flexible enough to shift from accommodating small groups to all-hands meetings or afternoon lectures. School is a popular motif—and a familiar one for a workforce skewed toward twentysomethings.

But the most surprising type of space in the recipe—the one that would give a traditional corporate space–planner an aneurysm—is what Orpilla terms the “workshop.” In O+A’s design for Microsoft—the software giant put them to work on 60,000 of the 40 million square feet that it has at its Redmond, Washington, headquarters—this meant an area where employees could work with their hands, a kind of machine-shop atmosphere, as a necessary antidote to too much time at the keyboard. At Yelp’s offices in downtown San Francisco, the traditional elevator lobby on each floor was transformed into space for bike parking and meetings. It’s an aesthetic nod to the culture of the employees, but one still meant to allow every inch of the space to work functionally while building community.

“When we had cubes and conference rooms it was all linear,” Orpilla points out. “You could figure out the office hierarchy in sixty seconds. Now there’s a major shift. I look at it every day. We’re continually moving things around to redefine the work environment, because all of it’s going to send a message right away to your community: it’s about them.”

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