Words By Monique Nelson
When London-based web design company Poke moved floors, Quinn Architecture was looking to provide a dynamic and open space reflecting the progressive ethos of its client. Monique Nelson went to investigate
Having arrived early for my interview with Poke co-founder Tom Hostler and the director of Quinn Architecture, Laurence Quinn, I entered Poke’s fourth floor office space in the Biscuit Building in Shoreditch without announcement – just a biscuit sticker for visitors.
As I awaited my interviewees I was able to take a look around as far as a seat on the leather sofa in the lobby would allow me – a note on the receptionist’s computer said “Poke is at lunch … Please do not wander around the studio”. The view from the sofa is of the entrance lifts, two meeting rooms and the main boardroom, through to cafe seating and a kitchen and on towards the creative studio.
Light is a key part of this scheme. This is a late 19th-century warehouse with thick supporting columns and large windows – the whole level is bright and neutral. Poke is a creative agency and it’s all action, all the time. Though it was lunchtime, around the three small circular tables in the lobby were meetings between Poke staff and clients. To the left, the conference call room and a development room were occupied, as was the main boardroom behind me, with the proceedings in each visible through large pivoting glass panel doors and frameless windows set into the continuous white concrete block wall that Quinn installed to break up the space. “The original features that were here we’ve tried to soften by having all these angled walls. Angles are a way of breaking up the heavy industrial look,” says Quinn. The blockwork wall encloses meeting rooms, the centrally located kitchen and concealed storage areas.
You arrive in the heart of the agency. As I sat observing the early afternoon action without having been formally welcomed, it felt like I wasn’t really meant to be seeing all of this, but Poke has “an open book policy,” says Hostler, so clients are welcome to move through the office and see the way they work.
“You have to understand Poke to understand the project. The brand is the working methodology and the scheme deploys neutral colours to throw emphasis on the work of the practice and its people,” says Quinn. During our talk he continually refers to this, also picked up by Hostler: “Laurence has given us a lot of options with this space that fit around the way we like to work. He spent a lot of time really observing just what goes on in Poke, so he could make sure that all of those tasks and functions were captured.”
Poke was looking for a design scheme that would employ some “different thinking” to facilitate the practice and provide a great, cost effective place to work for the 50 or so staff. The architectural team, including Quinn and Michael Lavin, looked at the wider history and cultural environment of the site, which led to a scheme that provided the client with what Quinn describes as “a very neutral, flexible, simple container for the business to develop in.”
“There are very quiet yet intelligent ideas in the choice of materials,” continues Quinn. “The constraints of the very low budget were used as a positive springboard to produce a unique scheme. The blockwork was chosen to reflect the existing warehouse building. It’s a very cost effective way of creating spaces and rooms. The material also offered excellent acoustic separation, and an unexpected solidity. Carefully detailed, concealed steel reinforcement cancelled the need for expansion gaps and offered very large openings in the wall.”
Hostler adds, “The wall isn’t stud partitioning and doesn’t cost any more than stud partition work. Another architect would have given you the standard, ‘This is how we divide spaces up.’ But we were always challenged by Laurence to come back with different thinking.”
Another key feature of the concept is a striped four-way aluminium cable tray – a ceiling-mounted central system containing the wiring for the data, lighting, fire alarms, air-conditioning and power, inspired by Harry Beck’s London Underground map. Coded in bright primary colours the tray runs from the server room beside the lifts and through the studio, the lines branching off into rooms and down walls to switches, ending over the outdoor terrace. As a web design company, this is a crucial bit of kit.
“The websites are notionally launched at the end of the cable tray. This making of the narrative play in physical terms involved switching the lift exit point and carefully routing and locating the sequence of spaces,” says Quinn. “The cable tray actually saves costs as it branches off where required (unlike conventional trays) to make significant savings on wiring.” It also aids navigation, as well as the creative processes at Poke – from the public areas where initial meetings with clients are held and pitches are presented, to the cafe meant for ad hoc conversations between colleagues and onto development in the studio.
Prior to its move to the fourth floor, Poke shared the third floor in a building occupied by the advertising agency Mother. There, and at a previous sublet on St John Street, EC1, Poke had little say over what kind of environment it worked in. In stepping upstairs to a previously unoccupied floor, the company has found a permanent home and gained two-thirds more space plus, importantly, autonomy. Therefore, says Hostler, “Everything down to the placement of a light switch has been considered, so it’s exactly where we want it to be and exactly the type we want it to be.” Quinn adds, “We were very conscious that we didn’t want to make a space capable of ageing too early. It’s a long term solution, as well as a very contemporary and innovative one.”
Quinn spent seven years working with respected Italian architect Antonio Citterio, five as partner. He notes that in Italy, “Architecture doesn’t stand alone. The idea of an architectural interior is that it’s integrated with furniture, lighting, space – all these things are viewed as being one. Architects work very closely with the artisans to construct better quality things. Certainly that’s been a lasting influence in our demands of what we try to do.” On this project, the artisans worked closely with Quinn and Poke. Jason Bruges produced a light installation that hangs over the large elliptical boardroom table, designed by Greg James, and furniture design company Crystallise is responsible for the overhead cable tray and much of the detailing and furniture. Quinn and Hostler will collaborate again with Crystallise on further pieces, including a reception desk. “It will be more of a working table for someone who does that job,” says Quinn. “It’s just part of the culture of not isolating disciplines. It’s a very inclusive working environment and so the concept is that everything is equally important.”
In this vein, designers are encouraged to present their own work – there are no account managers – and clients work alongside designers. “The designer understands what’s gone into the idea, he’s best positioned to present it, and the client is best positioned to give direct and immediate feedback,” explains Hostler.
There are many subtle inclusions aimed at promoting flexibility and informal interaction. The open floorplan with its central cafe and kitchen area provides vistas of both work areas and ample space for employees to multitask. As we sat there and discussed the scheme, a small group of Poke staff came along and began tacking large pieces of paper on a nearby wall for what looked like a brainstorming session. Is this a regular occurrence? “Yes pretty much,” says Hostler. “This is one of the sort of delightful elements that we’ve found. This wasn’t particularly intended. We get these little surprises now and then when we find something that we hadn’t considered we could do.” Yet all of this appears to be part of Quinn’s plan, having studied Poke’s unusual ways of working.
This spontaneous meeting is known as “idea formation”, a process that moves on into the courtyard studio space, where Quinn’s scheme really comes into its own: the 70m-long back wall is covered with a concertina wall showing ideas and work in progress. Designers can also run into each other at the printers in the centre of the space. Both of these areas work together with the free space and social areas to encourage employees from different departments of Poke to interact. As Hostler explains, “There’s much less emphasis on being in front of a monitor, more emphasis on talking, meeting and collaboratively brainstorming ideas.”
Poke employees should also prepare themselves for a shake up every now and then, as Hostler revealed that the directors “would like to move people around twice a year, so ghettoes and cliques don’t form too strongly”. This is made possible through the flexibility of the overhead tray. “You can add an arm or take one way as you see fit to re-orchestrate how the space works,” says Quinn, “and there is a series of flexible floorboxes set inside the concrete floor which link up the walls to the floor.
In this light, airy, open-plan office Poke’s present and potential needs have been well catered for. So now they are in a much larger and flexible space, can both the company and its operations expand? The last word goes to Hostler: “They can totally stretch out.”