Words by Helen Parton
11.04 Architects’ new offices for Donovan Data Systems, based in Allies and Morrison’s Blue Fin building in Southwark, feature rotating booths, giant signage and classic red phone boxes
I’ve never been on Blankety Blank, but I think I’ve come one step closer to feeling what it must
be like. “If you wouldn’t mind doing the honours,” says Chris Roche, design director with London-based practice 11.04 Architects. He’s talking to Alan Ford from fit-out firm Structuretone, which worked with 11.04 on the project. We’re sat in an innocuous-looking circular booth in the cafe area of Donovan Data Systems’ (DDS) new offices in the Blue Fin building in Southwark when, with the pull of a lever, we’re off, rotating, just like they do on the gameshow. Where’s my chequebook and pen?
“We wanted a design that could be outward looking instead of just looking inwards,” Roche tells me. When the directors are having a private meeting, for instance, they can simply turn around to face the window, where they are afforded views of the back of Tate Modern, to signify “do not disturb”. He also admits that the revolving booths, upholstered in Connelly leather – more usually found in Rolls-Royces – are also partly a result of a chance remark in jest that the client then took seriously enough to demand in the final design. I’m not surprised they did – Roche speaks in evocative soundbites. He describes the main colour used in the cafe as “kind of King’s Cross knocking shop”, going on to explain how a similar shade of apple red was used in DDS’ previous HQ in Mayfair. “So at first we thought we would avoid red,” he tells me. “But then we thought it would be more subversive to actually engage with it, especially when we came across some unbelievably beautiful red glass flooring.” Combined with lighting from Modular suspended at different heights, plus a large TV screen, the overall ambience is more bar-like than works canteen.
Next we come across a set of original K2 phone boxes, sourced on eBay, which serve as a location for private mobile phone conversations. They are not only a gesture to the importance of communication in DDS’ business – software management for the advertising industry – but also a reference to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who designed the original kiosk as well as Bankside Power Station (now the enormously popular art museum Tate Modern, designed by Swiss practice Herzog & de Meuron).There are other subtle nods to Herzog & de Meuron’s revamped power station, such as translucent Reglit glass walls bordering the data centre designed to imitate the light box on top of the museum. And just as Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall – once the mechanical heart of the building – is still its focal point, so DDS’ data centre, all black boxes and blinking lights, is in the middle of the office. “Rather than hide it away, we put it on show to demonstrate the technological prowess of the company,” says Roche. These back of house facilities also have oak-braced and battened doors to add a semi-industrial quality. There are, he says, a number of cheeky motifs within the project, not least the 2.7m-high lacquered MDF letters spelling out the words “DINER” and “DDS” in the cafe area. Exiting the knocking shop, sorry, cafe area, we pass a large Google Earth shot of the local area, which has been blown up for employees to get their bearings in their new surroundings south of the river (the offices were previously based in Mayfair).
As well as altering its geographical position, DDS is aiming to achieve some crucial organisational changes too, explains the company’s CEO Henry Lawson. “This is a great opportunity to look at how we work today and in the future,” he tells me. “It gives us spaces for a range of different styles of working, from formal meetings to more relaxed dialogue and collaboration. Being completely open plan, it removes hierarchy and enhances communication.” Everyone has the same desk, chair, accessories and access to a generous provision of meeting rooms. Putting his money where his mouth is, in the move from cellular to open plan Lawson has not bagged himself a cushy corner office, but instead has opted for a rather more anonymous place in the middle of the floor. All the better to see what his employees are up to, it could be argued. In the main workspace, away from the bright red of the cafe, the colour palette is more monochrome, with white Knoll desking systems and black carpets. Meanwhile many of Steelcase’s Leap chairs were retained for added environmental brownie points. The reception area is, says Roche, “a combination of organic and engineered surfaces.” There’s Elterwater honed slate on the floor, with the company’s logo introduced in stainless steel on the reception desk, which also features a tan leather blotter. While the idea of “sexing up” this IT company to attract a younger demographic is obvious in the cafe area, a concerted effort has been made to impress in the reception, with no less than Eames furniture completing the look of corporate luxury. More Eames can be found in the larger meeting rooms, where Roche says he was keen to avoid conventional ceiling tiles and instead opted for oak-veneered, acoustic ceiling panels more usually found in concert halls. Although he says the intention in this part of the project was to avoid aping the interior design flamboyance synonymous with the advertising industry and let the material details speak for themselves, his sense of mischief gets the better of him – he is soon describing how the mirrored, fold-down storage drawers are not only the perfect surface for reflecting an enticing lunch, but also ideal for the advertising industry’s reputed fondness for a certain kind of white powder-based sustenance. The chap from Structuretone looks a bit perturbed.
But for the most part, 11.04 has not been tempted to compete with the architecture of Allies and Morrison’s Blue Fin building, whose other major occupant, IPC, represents one of the most talked about relocations this year. Instead, the practice has concentrated on giving DDS a more youth-orientated yet sophisticated interior, not to mention a good dose of fun design.