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When Innovation Looks Back

Since the dawn of the digital revolution, workplace environments have adapted to new technologies and innovation. Now, in the search for the perfect, modern workplace, we may be regaining some of our touch by learning to embrace our past.

By Erika Templeton
Photography by Jasper Sanidad

Since the dawn of the digital revolution, workplace environments have adapted to new technologies and innovation. Now, in the search for the perfect, modern workplace, we may be regaining some of our touch by learning to embrace our past.

American innovation is by its very nature opposed to turning around and looking over its shoulders, but sometimes it might do us a little good.

When online reputation and privacy management company needed to upgrade its office, it turned to Studio O+A, a San Francisco firm that has maintained Silicon Valley start-ups as clients since its practice began in 1991.

“People spend all day at the computer and in this digital world. You know, you’re working, you’re working, but there is no tangible proof of that work, and so there is this natural inclination to want to see and feel and build something,” says Denise Cherry, principal at Studio O+A and project lead for’s 30,000-square-foot headquarters in Redwood City, Calif. “We’ve taken a turn back. This idea of craft, this maker concept, is really prevalent in American design now, and I think that’s great.”

“The impulse is not exactly retro,” notes O+A’s project statement. “It’s more in the nature of bringing virtual enterprises back to earth.”

Additional inspiration came from conversations with Michael Fertik, CEO of, who insists that the fight against our digital pasts can be brought down to a science.

“What they do is very serious work and it is technology-based, but they think of themselves first as researchers and scientists and mathematicians before they think of themselves as engineers, so that was really a pivotal discussion for us,” says Cherry.

With that in mind, the O+A team quickly centered on Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J. as a point of inspiration for their design. Here, in the space where he invented the phonograph and the light bulb, Edison had combined “the stark infrastructures of 19th century science with traditional wooden construction and wood furniture of the period,” into what Cherry and her team call “a prototype for the modern R&D facility.”

A quick stroll around reveals custom cast iron desks and conference table bases, reclaimed wood, exposed ceilings and industrial uni-strut framing.

Panels of pegboard, corkboard and whiteboard appear throughout the space, making every surface a work zone (spontaneous formula development) or a play zone (impromptu birthday greetings).

“Our office is set up like a race track. I can literally just go jogging around the office and talk to the people that I need. I don’t have to go knock on doors,” says Loren Lachner, program manager at “I think that’s my favorite part about it, that the teams are just so out in the open.”

Edison would be proud. He was as adamant about hard work as he was about hard play. As John P. Keegan, president of the Edison Preservation Foundation explains in his forward to Blaine McCormick’s book, At Work With Edison, modern workers “are rediscovering and applying his great lessons: spurring innovation through play (just another word for trial and error) and breaking down constricting structures of conformity, standardization and efficiency.”PageBreak

Edison worked from two desks—one where he conducted business and one where he “played” or invented. Work in the office, as with many start-up spaces, places a strong emphasis on play, as well—loose interaction and collaboration, spontaneous meetings, and flexibility that allows the mind to explore.

In the years before the bursting of the dot-com bubble, Cherry notes, these fun-filled spaces may have seemed like a gimmick as start-ups competed with each other on the premise of cool, rather than substance. One only needs to take a look at a Flash site from the mid-‘90s to see how bells and whistles can quickly overtake functional utility.

“Now the focus is much more on not overspending, and creating a space that works really well and represents the brand and culture of the company, but it isn’t frivolous, and it isn’t silly. There’s some authenticity to it,” Cherry says.

Edison was a pre-corporate thinker. He did not exist in a world of PSE&G or Time Warner. He didn’t have to compete against organized corporate powers controlling tens of thousands of employees.

“Soon after the coming of the large, multidivisional firm, the dominant image of an American changed from ‘rugged individualist’ to ‘organizational man.’ Big organizations dominated the American landscape for about 60 years before they began to unravel under the pressure of international competitors and new technologies like the Internet,” writes Keegan.

And there you have it: the Internet, breaking down standardization once again. We see viral stars emerge from nowhere, hacker groups like Anonymous take down government systems, and protestors brought together by tweets. These people are all playing, and shifting paradigms in the process.

“Everyone is more heads-down in traditional offices, and you don’t have an opportunity to communicate with your peers,” says Lachner. “Here the environment facilitates that, so you’re not just talking to your co-workers and making sure you’re facilitating your task at hand, but you’re facilitating awesome friendships and relationships.”

And, great—then it doesn’t have to be a problem if people are mingling around a space, making noise and getting a little hoo-hah out of their work. Aren’t we all looking for that light bulb moment?

“But in my day, we took the job that was available and we liked it,” says the man who also hauled an offset typewriter uphill both ways to work.

That is organized man, the corporation. Today, we demand more of our workspace so that we may make more of ourselves—special millennial snowflakes, all.

To sum it up from Studio O+A, “the effect is to create a workspace reflective of the values the Internet embodies: brightness, inclusiveness, ease of navigation, transparency, informality.”

1001 Marshall Street
2nd Floor
Redwood City, CA 94063
(650) 241-7491

 project team 
architecture + design
Studio O+A
950 Howard Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 908-1880

Primo Orpilla, principal
Verda Alexander, principal
Clem Soga, architect
Denise Cherry,
director of design
Elizabeth Guerrero,

Kroeun Dav, designer
Justin Ackerman, designer
Alfred Socias, designer
Alma Lopez, designer
Sarunya Wongjodsri,
Caren McDonald,
Jeorge Jordan, graphic
Will Chu, graphic designer

Jasper Sanidad