Alchemy can be defined as “the process of transforming a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value”. Apply this concept to an interior fit out for a boutique advertising agency called The Furnace and the result is a workplace experiment laced with unexpected details and quirky anecdotes.
Concocted by Australian practice Bates Smart, the office is located on Kent Street in Sydney’s city centre, on the first floor of a heritage-listed warehouse. “The concept is based on the transformation of existing ideas and everyday concepts into something new,” explains project leader Dana Tomic. “The process of alchemy also suggests a craft, something handmade with real attention to detail, not commonplace or mass produced. This idea also reinforces the client’s work values and the nature of advertising.”
The aim was to provide an inspiring space that enabled the young agency to work in a new way. It had to “promote social engagement, artistic freedom and experimentation”. Whereas in the past staff from different teams were quite segregated, the new workplace was to be much more collaborative.
The brief was translated by Bates Smart into a scheme that encouraged staff to interact. The square plan comprises communal spaces along two opposing glazed facades, and workspaces that line the other two walls. A central zone accommodates the existing lightwell and lift core, reception, meeting rooms, cafe and other communal spaces. Open corridors lined with black recycled cork – ideal for sound insulation – provide defined circulation routes. The new open working areas allow staff from the creative, production, digital and studio departments to sit together and achieve greater visual connection between people. “That’s been great for morale, great for interaction and great for cross-pollination of ideas,” says The Furnace CEO Anthony Gregorio. “One of the barriers to creative thinking is lots of walls.”
Pragmatically, the tight budget and construction schedule of seven weeks was challenging, and existing features of the heritage building, such as the lift core and central lightwell, greatly affected the planning. The high ceilings, lightwell and glazing provided an airy and light-filled basis for the interior; the original timber flooring was restored and beautifully aged timber columns were retained. To provide a clean backdrop, the shell received a monochromatic makeover. The exposed timberwork walls and services were painted white, highlighting the structure and, combined with uplighting, they help to carry light through the deep plan.
The project became an experiment and a statement – for recycling, reusing and reclaiming – in a way not normally enjoyed in corporate workplace design. Trash became treasure, bringing with it stories along the way. Old materials and objects were revived and the furnishing combines design classics and new pieces with vintage gems scoured from second-hand shops, auctions and architectural salvages all over Sydney. In a nod to the agency’s identity, disused fire extinguishers line the reception corridor. Dipped in gold, they become utilitarian “bling” facing the reception desk, which is filled with ready-to-burn firewood logs. Dotted along the wall of another corridor facing the print and production area, pictures of staff are housed in a hotch-potch of second-hand frames. Unlike the average corporate headshots with cheesy smiles, staff were asked to draw caricatures of each other anonymously, through pulling names out of a hat. Whoever had to draw the boss must have had a tough gig!
The full-height glass walls of the formal meeting rooms allow light to stream into the workspaces from the lightwell, though still retaining privacy, while a screen of recycled cardboard tubes is used as a trademark divider for meeting spaces. Here a rather eclectic collection of pre-owned patterned rugs adorns the floors and a variety of odd new and old chairs provides the seating. The existing bathrooms were illustrated by a graffiti artist commissioned by the client.
The east-facing communal staff cafe, which has the prime city views in the office, best encapsulates the ideas of the project. The long dining table and lounges provide informal meeting areas, while the adjoining games room allows staff to indulge in a lunchtime battle of ping pong, foosball or darts. The mismatching furniture and fittings suggest a feel of rustic French barn meets lounge meets industrial warehouse. Cable reels are transformed into coffee tables, pendant light fittings are playfully created from old bread baskets, cooking pots, birdcages and teapots, while used champagne corks became door handles for the kitchen joinery.
Taking the idea of collaboration further, desk spaces have even been provided for visitors. It could be attributed to the new central location, but many more clients are spending time at the agency – so much so that meeting spaces are becoming harder to book. Along with clients, suppliers and media also frequent the office. “There are so many meetings happening with clients, which is what you want,” says Gregorio. “We encourage them to come and work here, and they do it because they like the space. They get the value out of it and we do too.”