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Acrylicize's collage of Lego people for Qubic Tax in Newcastle Canopy Study by Conrad Shawcross turns in the window of 123 Victoria Street, projecting a changing silhouette of leaves This Scott Brownrigg-designed reception area for law firm Baker & McKenzie features a glass piece by artist Amy Cushing, based on the company's logo Acrylicize creates artworks for music licensing company PPL, including this wall sculpture made from speakers
21 Jan 2013

Art at Work

Words by 
Category: Features

Fun, edgy and personalised artwork is an extension of corporate branding – and it’s not just younger creative companies that want to get in the frame 

In its more traditional form, corporate art was often ineffectual decoration, bought to fill a gap or as an investment intended to reaffirm status. Now, developments in workplace design have loosened the reins on creativity in workplace art. Architects, designers and clients alike are realising its potential as a more expressive outlet for brand identity and an intrinsic part of an inspiring working environment.

A recent report by International Art Consultants (IAC) titled Making Art Work in the Workplace, which surveyed BCO members, says that the changing office landscape has had a dramatic impact on its artwork. Open-plan offices and flexible meeting pods are hardly ideal spots to hang a print, whereas “third spaces” provide the perfect spot to get creative – but this calls for artwork that thinks outside the frame. “We’ve definitely seen a development of new media, and the context is the changing nature of the workplace,” says Alex Heath, chairman of IAC. “There are fewer white walls, which means that there’s also less of a footprint available for traditional artwork.”

This, together with technological developments, has seen the definition of art broaden to include lighting, kinetic structures, interactive technology, graphics, acoustics, you name it – making the process
of commissioning a far more populated minefield, and the experience, expertise and resources of art consultancies perhaps even more invaluable. Where studios like Jason Bruges and Cinimod are leading the way, there are plenty more cutting-edge designer/artists just waiting to be deployed on creative endeavours.

Mobile working has also had an impact, with companies using art to get employees to actually use the office, rather than working at home or in the coffee shop. “Art is now very much part of companies’ retention strategies,” claims Heath. “There is a real demand for things that will make the workplace more sophisticated and attractive.”

As a device for connecting employees as well as visitors with the space and the brand, workplace art is upping its game to make a lasting impression. “I have seen more and more ‘wow’ pieces that grab your attention,” says Rebecca Joseph, senior interior designer at Scott Brownrigg. “There’s less framed work and more installations. Designers are pushing the boundaries, and clients know they are a talking piece. If you can hold someone’s attention, they’ll remember you.” Crucially, many consultants are quick to urge that installation artwork cannot be an afterthought, as factors such as lighting and load-bearing need to be considered alongside the architecture.

Patrick Burrows, who runs consultancy Artsource (and also happens to be husband to Linda Morey-Smith of workplace designers MoreySmith) subscribes to the philosophy that corporate art should have depth, be challenging and start conversations. “When I started doing [consultancy], the art was a tick in the box. They needed art on the wall, so they’d put up a patterned rug and there was no real thought behind it. Don’t you think people expect a little bit more now?” Burrows worked with MoreySmith on the recently completed 123 Victoria Street for Land Securities, commissioning a kinetic artwork by Conrad Shawcross (left). The piece, inspired by the geometric forms of the neighbouring cathedral, not only has a wow factor but a story behind it.

This is also core to the work of collective and consultancy Acrylicize, which could also be accredited with making corporate art cool again. When commissioned by an architect or end client, the Shoreditch-based studio holds creative briefing sessions with the company staff to get under the skin of its unique brand identity. Then – either in-house or in collaboration with an external artist – it produces a fun, edgy, personalised artwork, using any type of media you can imagine, from speakers to Lego men to train tickets. “The world we live in is really saturated, so people are striving for a way to differentiate their identity,” says Acrylicise’s co-founder James Burke. “It’s not about brand guidelines it’s more about values and personality. A space tells so much about a company, and we are an essential part of that.”

The studio is currently working on a number of huge and high-profile projects (which are top secret for now), but Burke and fellow founder Paul Arad still admit the recession has made budgets lower but expectations higher. For them, like others, this means thinking more creatively with materials and production, and working with clients who understand the value of creative freedom. “I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised so many times, assuming that a traditional firm wouldn’t go for this sort of thing,” says Arad, “but actually, everyone is trying to rethink their identity.”

According to the IAC’s report, workplace art is more relevant than ever despite the economic downturn, but its motivations have shifted. Instead of being a decoration or a status symbol, companies are
approaching the acquisition of art carefully and in a more meaningful way.

“Budgets for art are lower, so people want to be more creative about how they spend their money,” says Heath. Consultants are brought on board to organise temporary shows and artists in residence, or to curate existing work, rather than investing large sums on permanent work, “getting the benefits of art, but on a flexible basis,” he says.

Companies are also turning to emerging artists, to lower costs but also enhance social responsibility. For example, Michael Boitier, who runs Workplace Art Consultancy (WAC) consulted on law firm Clyde & Co’s London offices (designed by TP Bennett), which has an annual show of graduate artwork (for example Conall McAteer's QR code piece, shown above). Exhibitors are paid to take part and, perhaps more valuably, assigned a lawyer to give them free legal advice for a year. One participant is awarded a prize of £5,000. Such schemes may not have been deemed suitable before, but thanks to the shift in society’s attitude towards creativity in the workplace, they are now welcomed.

“Art is no longer just bought to match the carpet,” explains Boitier. “Clients are savvier. There are a growing number of art fairs, and people have far more access to art. This has made the job easier, as clients have an appreciation for it. It can also sometimes make it harder, but it’s never an onerous point.”

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