Words by Gareth Gardner
East London-based practice IDE-Architecture was charged with fitting out fledgeling creative agency Work Club’s first office, avoiding the pitfalls of over-branding and wow for wow’s sake
Pity the poor creative agency. The pressure to occupy a workspace that makes you stand out from the crowd must feel overwhelming. Indoor lawn? Seen that. Caravan as meeting room? Been there. Brand messages emblazoned over the walls? Don’t even waste my time buying the T-shirt.Far braver is the agency that eschews these gimmicks in favour of a Ronseal work environment. Work Club’s office was designed by IDE-Architecture as a space that first and foremost works as an office. While there are a couple of features that might be seen as attention-grabbing shticks – such as bleacher seating more commonly found at Junior League baseball matches or as a backdrop in Grease – they have been carefully chosen to support the company’s working practices.
Founded only six months ago, Work Club specialises in digital campaigns for blue-chip clients including Coca-Cola – a fast-growing sector. The location of its first office was important, both in terms of making a statement about the company and attracting new staff. “We spent a long time looking at where we wanted to be,” says Work Club founder Martin Brooks. “We liked Borough Market because it feels like proper London. It’s also very central with great transport links.”There’s a chronic digital skills shortage in the advertising industry, which means the office plays a key role in attracting new staff members. “This industry is a young person’s industry,” explains Brooks. “And they can only afford to live in south or east London. This made Borough the best location.” The workplace needed to be “somewhere cool that people would turn up to and enjoy every day”.
It’s a particularly vital issue because Work Club is expanding fast. Already it has grown from the three founding partners to 15. The space needed to be able to accommodate a rapid rise in numbers – potentially up to 50 – but not feel like an empty wilderness at the start. Size matters, says Brooks, “because you need to look big and credible as quickly as possible.” It’s also better to take a space to grow into, rather than relocating every time more staff are employed. “I know from experience how massively disrupting it is to keep moving everybody.” Brooks adds that it was also imperative to “get somewhere cheap and make it ours”. Work Club eventually settled on the 372sq m top floor of a former warehouse building, tucked away in a hidden courtyard off Borough High Street. “When we found this space, it was all subdivided up and pretty horrendous. But we liked the high ceiling and workshop feel,” he recalls.The tight budget of £145,000 has helped drive the project’s priorities: lavish money on furniture that will last and keep the budget for the fit out itself as low as possible. “The life span of the office is seen as being three years,” says John Nordon, director of IDE-A. This explains the high-spec furniture such as Vitra’s Joyn desking system, which will hopefully be reused at the company’s future offices.
One of IDE-A’s main aims was to avoid those aforementioned ad agency gimmicks. “We said instead of creating a branded space, or using metaphor, why not just create a very good office,” recalls Nordon. “We showed them all this metaphor stuff at a meeting and shoved it in the bin.” He adds that it meant “we didn’t have to spend all our time trying to be clever”.Rather than recreate the ambience of Borough inside the office, IDE-A has encouraged Work Club to think of the neighbourhood as an extension of the workspace. “We wanted to create somewhere that is just a good office to work in,” says Nordon. “If you want an art gallery then use Tate Modern or the Jerwood Space. It’s all nearby, just use it.”The space itself has been planned simply. In a coup de théâtre, a narrow enclosed staircase leads up to the office, terminating with expansive views right across the open-plan workplace. “It’s completely unexpected when you come into the space,” says Nordon. The only punctuations are three Joyn workstations – which sit well in the large space and support communal working – and a flexible presentation area.
With numbers likely to grow rapidly, efficient use of space was imperative. “They wanted somewhere to show presentations to 40 people,” explains Nordon. Rather than build an auditorium that would sit empty most of the time, bleacher seating was specified, imported from the US. It can be stored against the wall and pulled out when needed – its steps can also be used as an informal meeting area. “We wanted to put a forum in the centre of the agency, as the main presentation and communication space,” Brooks says. “We wanted to be able to enjoy things in the round.” The building itself set its own design challenges. Nordon explains that its listed status meant that a raised floor couldn’t be installed, while the deep plan and small windows result in low natural light levels. IDE-A looked above its heads for a combined lighting, power and data solution. A square-section channel carrying all the cabling has been installed around the perimeter of the space, threaded through the timber roof structure. Attached to it are uplighters creating a “floating halo of light,” says Nordon. “The perimeter ring of lighting gives the space a nice light feel, when it’s actually quite dark.” Bespoke ducts, rather like drainage downpipes, supply power and data to the Joyn workstations below.
With the landlord insisting on the space being carpeted, there was an urge to resist a standard spec grey carpet, which would have deadened the space. “All astroturf moves were out of the window, as we had rejected the metaphor approach,” says Nordon. Extensive and effective use of Milliken Dash carpet tiles, arranged in broad stripes of vibrant colour, helps to break up the enormous space. “The bands of colour create semi-distinct zones within which the desks sit,” he adds. Along one wall is a suite of meeting rooms, retained from the building’s previous fit out. Their facade has been covered in blackboard paint, turning them into a giant canvas that can be covered in chalk drawings and messages. In the distance lurks a large kitchen/dining area, which acts as a social hub. With limited funds, the kitchen units came from Ikea, tarted up with slinky LG Hi-Macs work surfaces and bamboo flooring. The two island units and dining table make it a place where all employees can congregate or parties be catered for. “Creating great social areas was really important,” says Brooks. “We want to use our office for parties, events, even film nights.” While it’s still early days, there are signs that the combined ambitions of Work Club and IDE-A to create a buzzy workspace with a great social atmosphere have been fulfilled. Apparently someone even wants to book it for their wedding reception.