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25 Jul 2013

Lauren Geremia: Silicon Valley's go-to designer

Words by  Photo by Ike Edeani

In under a decade, she's gone from art school student to hip interior designer, bringing her creative flair to San Francisco's biggest tech firms, including Dropbox and Instagram. Here's her take on fitting out workplaces that are seen as critical tools for attracting the best talent

The first few minutes of my conversation with Lauren Geremia is fraught with distractions. First, she sounds robotic due to a bad line, caused by her pacing through her office on the phone. Then a background soundtrack of barking dogs takes her scurrying away for a moment.

“Sorry,” she says, “there were, like, three dogs in the office, having a party.”

Finally, someone brings her a morning coffee and I have her full attention. Her business brain switches into gear the minute my serious questions begin, but for those first few moments I feel I’ve had a glimpse into the hectic day-to-day buzz of a young studio still trying to catch up with its own success.

First though, we chat about the weather. It’s a gloomy summer’s day in London, but a sunny morning in Emeryville, a small city just across the bay from San Francisco, where Geremia’s warehouse conversion home doubles as an office for her burgeoning design practice. Amid a neighbourhood of artists and other creative people, her team of ten are currently working on a couple of offices, some restaurants and “a ton” of new residential projects. “When Facebook went public, a lot of my clients bought houses, because they had stock,” she says, speaking volumes about the thriving local tech community.

In cool Californian style, her space is unfussy, laid-back and easily adapted to whatever project takes her fancy. It also happens to benefit from the flourishing creative hub in its vicinity, something the studio has become known for.

“It fits my lifestyle,” she explains. “I can make art, have people come in to collaborate; it’s pretty simple and minimal. I don’t need a lot to do my job, just some space and a laptop.” In many ways, the setting mirrors the designer herself – easy-going, artistic and unassuming.

Geremia studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD – pronounced “rizdee” by its arty alumni), graduating in 2004. Her time there was spent rubbing shoulders with a future generation of leading artists and designers, building up a network of creative friends that would soon become the foundation for her business.

After graduation she moved to San Francisco, and this community extended to not just RISD kids, but a wealth of other emerging makers too. “I enjoy making art but I definitely like buying it better,” she laughs. “Plus, I was always the one who liked presenting myself professionally, so now I get to be the one who represents all these people, choreographing their work and connecting them to opportunities.”

Armed with this invaluable pool of talent, Geremia began assisting an independent interior designer on a handful of commercial projects. From client meeting to install, she worked on every aspect of the job, and it wasn’t long before she felt confident enough to go it alone. Fitting out small local bars and restaurants – like Umami, which she designed when she was only 23 – on small budgets, Geremia had to be resourceful, calling on her arty mates for help.

“The first projects I did were scrappy. We stripped interiors down to their natural state then used the spare materials to build interesting things. We had to get artists involved to make that look good. I think my ideas, coming from an art background, were bold and made an impact in San Francisco.”

Through luck or clever strategy, or maybe a bit of both, these projects launched her career. The places she designed became hang-out spots for California’s most promising technology entrepreneurs, so when there came a time that they needed a designer for their new offices, they knew who to call.

Dropbox tipped the first domino. Geremia worked on the file-sharing service’s original HQ in 2010, when the company was still small potatoes; then, when it hit the stratosphere, the directors called her to pitch against big fish like Gensler for a new office of much grander proportions. Winning the commission saw the studio leap from two to seven staff.

During the design process, Dave Morin, formerly of Facebook and Apple, approached her to design the offices for his start-up, Path (a more intimate version of Facebook), and has since been an advocate of Geremia’s work, opening up his black book of Silicon Valley’s finest.

It’s not just location she shares with many of her clients, but also age.

In 2011 Forbes magazine named her as one of its “30 under 30” making an impact in the art and design spheres, and the CEOs of her clients are mostly in their late twenties to early thirties. Recent client Asana (offices pictured left), a shared task-list program, was started by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and former Google and Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein, both still twenty-something and with an estimated company worth of $280m. Danielle Fong, current client and founder of groundbreaking energy company LightSail Energy, is 25.

“Clients want to spend money on making their offices unique, rather than on super-ergonomic desks”

Another prime example is Instagram founder Kevin Systrom, who recently became a friend and client – though mid fit out, Instagram made global headlines when Facebook bought the company for $1bn in April 2012 (less than two years after launching) so the team relocated to the social media giant’s Palo Alto HQ. (Apparently they took all the furniture with them.)

This growing group of young CEOs are pioneering technology that is revolutionising the way people around the world interact socially and professionally, so it’s only right that their workplaces reflect this outside-the-box attitude. They seem to trust Geremia’s small practice, more so than big, established firms, to apply a fresh outlook and artistic flair and create something new and different.

“I’m very transparent about who I am and our process, and I think that’s something they gravitate towards,” she says. “Being small works against us sometimes when they want the capabilities or the quick turnaround that someone like Gensler has, but there is a definitely a way I can interpret their needs better than a 55-year-old architect.”

To say she nabbed these jobs just by being young, cool and in the right place at the right time would be neglecting the credit she is due. The root of her exponential success is a talent for analysing people and brands, and translating them into deeply personalised interiors that their inhabitants adore.

This, she reveals, begins with a list of carefully sculpted questions she brings to the first client meeting, to extract the core interests and priorities of the client. “I ask them what they want visitors to say when they leave the office, things like that, to get inside their head. Every client has a formula; a structure with rituals for how they eat, how they work, how they communicate,” she explains. “A lot of these companies are young enough that I’m able to have an input there, and develop it together.”

Mostly the outcome is shaped by the personalities of those working there, she says, and the product itself always provides a lot of visual fodder.
Whether it’s music, photo-sharing or science (another current client is Lumosity, a leading developer in brain games) Geremia tries to represent the company’s focus in a physical way.

One way the studio adds individuality, and saves money, is by commissioning the majority of the furniture to be made bespoke. “My clients want to
spend money on making their offices unique and visually impactful rather than on super-ergonomic desks or mass-produced products,” she says, describing an evolution in workplace design that is forcing many furniture brands to adapt or die. “A lot of what’s out there isn’t customisable or flexible, or the materials aren’t attractive.”

She is a connector between the two worlds of cutting-edge technology and handmade crafts, which, Geremia says, is made easy by the clients’ instinctive appreciation for the artisan. They are willing to spend money on design and art because they recognise its worth in the workplace. “It’s really valuable to them because they absorb some of that energy and creativity. The world is changing quickly through advances in technology, so it’s important that we maintain elements of soul.”

The base architecture is also a major influence of the design direction, and in many cases has been the impetus for the installations that become the project’s talking point. At Yousendit’s HQ, there was a sound absorption issue in the hallway, caused by exposed ceilings, plus the office didn’t have a reception, so it needed a wayfinding solution that wasn’t cheesy signage. In response, the studio installed a collection of dangling paper planes pointing the way (pictured left). At Dropbox, Geremia looked for a way to filter severe sunlight coming in one aspect, so she took inspiration from the company’s love of table tennis and installed a mural made up of 23,000 ping-pong balls (pictured top). “I try not to be too crazy or whimsical or playful, but to make places people like to go into,” she explains.

Recruitment has become so competitive in Silicon Valley, however, that employee requests are always considered and often incorporated into the office plans. Geremia recalls several requests for rock-climbing walls, while more common demands include nap rooms, showers, catering for three meals a day (sometimes made by an in-house chef) and a surprising amount of standing desks, not just for sales staff but engineers too. One of the biggest trends that she’s noticed is towards health – whether it’s food, treadmill desks or creating space for yoga instructors to teach daily classes.

“It’s a democracy,” she says. “These start-ups have realised the talent is so indispensable that they’ve linked the success of the company to how happy people are in the workplace. That’s the main difference to old offices full of cubicles and drab carpet.”

Having only worked in workplace design for seven or so years, she is anything but arrogant about her knowledge of the industry. She freely admits that she’s still learning, and stops frequently to remind me of that fact, yet her refreshing and shrewd insights into a rapidly changing sector are ones that many experienced designers could learn from. Falling accidentally into office design for technology companies was something unexpected, but she acknowledges she has shaped much of her business model on tricks picked up from being on site.

This year has seen the completion of offices for Asana, Yousendit and Rdio (a music-sharing platform), and the arrival of new types of projects. The developer that owns the building where Asana and Rdio reside has commissioned Geremia to design the lobby, and many other developers are following suit, investing in public spaces in order to attract such trendy tenants. Meanwhile she’s managing to maintain a stream of art consulting jobs, staying true to her passion, and her residential portfolio is threatening to overtake her commercial one, with a flurry of projects due to hit the design blogs imminently. As her existing tech clients continue to evolve, return business is frequent, and as far as larger-scale, more corporate projects go, she would definitely consider one if the right brief came along.

On the horizon, she’s hoping not for big bucks, but instead to slowly build her business, her way: “I’m truly not that motivated by money. I don’t live in a fantasy world; I want to make sure I make a living and look after my staff, but I also like the agility that having a small company offers. It’s easier to manifest what you want to do, to be spontaneous. And at this point it’s important to get interesting opportunities that are going to guide what’s next.”

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