Finnish architect Jukka Halminen is refreshingly honest when quizzed on a design detail of this Helsinki office. “I don’t really remember why we used yellow,” he admits, before considering the question and offering an answer: “We just thought it was fun.”
His response is a break from the rehearsed and occasionally long-winded vernacular of workplace design. But more than that, it sheds light on Halminen’s design practice, KOKO3, and the happy marriage of whimsy and simplicity applied to its projects.
This particular fit-out for software development studio MK&C had a fairly simple brief – “a human-friendly, relaxed and personal space for chilling and chatting, with its own atmosphere and attitude” – plus massive worktables to accommodate technical equipment for 10 employees. Despite such low numbers, a flat hierarchy and a very young staff meant cellular offices were out of the question.
In a city centre block dating from the 1820s, KOKO3 has carved out an environment that is cheerful and unusual, but still gives the overriding impression of balance. White walls and taupe carpet contrast with the punchy mustard colour of the custom-made desks. Movable sofa modules in the lounge area (white lacquered MDF and soft furnishings in taupe) are brought to life by the reds, blues and haphazard patterns of the textile patchwork above it. The effect is uncomplicated and playfully sophisticated – a combination that tends to pop up regularly in contemporary Finnish design.
“The yellow underlines how important the big worktables are,” says Halminen, slowly getting into the interview zone. “When you enter the space, you go straight into the work area. There is no reception because they don’t usually have visitors. The space is very much for the staff.”
This sentiment explains the gem of a kitchen, with its vivid, banana-coloured tiles. It is not at all high-tech, but most definitely a place one would linger over a cup of tea. The overall budget wasn’t huge, so it is refreshing to find a decent kitchen that will do much to brighten the moods of employees. “The original kitchen was particularly boring and ugly, so we had to do something drastic,” explains Halminen with customary frankness. “At parties, the best place is always the kitchen, maybe in offices also. People like to spend time in kitchens, plus they can support impromptu meetings, so we try to keep them as nice as possible.”
This, along with the lounge concept, ties in with KOKO3’s manifesto: to provide alternative settings for employees, even within a small workplace. “The feel in this office is one of flexibility,” adds Halminen. “It is simple in the construction – a very optional space. It offers relaxation, which creates possibilities for brainstorming and provides them with the opportunity to work in other ways if they wish.” The desired knock-on effect of which is that the mood will foster creativity, as well as efficiency.
“We always try to avoid things that are too strict. If the only aim of the design is to be efficient, it becomes like a factory. It just demands employees work harder, but doesn’t give them anything in return,” he says.
Unexpectedly, the bright and spacious main work area leads to a sombre, brown meeting room. At first glance, it strikes a discordant note with the rest of the office, but the pared-down Scandinavian furniture and almost frumpy, full-length curtains give it an air of irony. Halminen stays true to the theme of balance and contrast.
“The meeting room was already very isolated from the rest of the space. We wanted to emphasise this to make it very different from the other parts; a nude space with dressed walls,” he explains. “It’s a surprise when you enter the room. Sober and serious are good words to describe it. It’s a bit like: ‘Hey, we are actually grown-up, we don’t just like to play.’” The press release is less convincing, arguing that the nude palette “leaves the colour to the humans, the most important part of the business”.
In creating this room, KOKO3 demolished some light wall structures and added a glass partition in the open-plan area to separate workers from the door, but most of the existing interior structure (walls, ceilings and electricals) was retained.
“The normal Finnish office look is very much the same everywhere,” says Halminen, touching on a universal problem. “Of course, there are small differences among these offices, but generally they are quite the same.”