Given that many of us may spend more than a quarter of our lives at work, our offices had better feel somewhat like a home. It’s fitting then that Gensler design director Jason Hall, who led the firm’s design of an office expansion for branding agency SapientNitro in Chicago’s Inland Steel Building, called the process a kind of homecoming. Gensler’s own offices were in the same 1950s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed building for more than 10 years until 2008.
“There were things we wanted to celebrate,” Hall said. The terrazzo flooring on the 12th floor, for example, was adapted from the iconic building’s lobby. “Having worked there, it was really just a respect and love for the building.”
SapientNitro had their own vision for the space, of course, which the Gensler team incorporated into its salute to the original design details of Inland Steel. Self-described “idea engineers,” SapientNitro listed “a sense of style that is uniquely Chicago” among its wishful descriptors for the new space. They also wanted to promote cultural and personal growth while maximizing flexibility.
The 11th and 12th floors comprise “an amazing column-free space,” Hall said. It was a prime condition for imagination. Gensler identified themes of overlap and balance in the client’s schematic design document, which—in keeping with the company’s character—is crisply designed and replete with whimsical Venn diagrams.
SapientNitro’s previous space took up just half of the 11th floor, with open spaces along the edges. “It felt a bit like a tale of two offices,” said John Carstens, SapientNitro’s executive creative director. Gensler pushed all the collaborative program elements to the center for an orientation Carstens said promotes just the right amount of “forced cross-pollination” across departments. The absence of columns allows for natural light throughout.
“The way you access space is always through the collective,” Hall said. “You have to go through the ‘we’ space to get to the ‘me’ space.”
There’s a slight separation of function between the office’s two floors. The sleek 12th floor houses the main reception area for clients, while Carstens describes the 11th as “the creative monkey house.” The 11th floor café is screened off from the work area and decorated with a distinctive SapientNitro twist: tables made from local bowling alley flooring; a chalkboard mural of the Chicago skyline rising out of flames; a wall grid of small boxes for each individual employee to display tokens of his or her personality.
That so-called “pixel wall” has housed several contributions from Carstens, including a rhinoceros stuffed animal and a toy John Deere combine. The wall was a way to make the space feel like home while SapientNitro slightly tightened its standards for employee decoration in individual office spaces. “Our last space did kind of feel like Grandma’s basement,” said Carstens, whose goal was to contain, but not discourage, personal expression. “This space belongs to us. We do want people to feel like they own it,” he said.
“It’s a wonderful thing when we see people take ownership of the space,” Hall said.