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.

05/01/2013 By Erika Templeton
Photography by Jasper Sanidad

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 Reputation.com 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 Reputation.com’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 Reputation.com, 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 Reputation.com 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 Reputation.com. “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.”

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