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Ad agency's new offices designed as idea factory Creative Space


High above Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a new "factory" just opened for business.

An unexpectedly cave-like lobby, its walls flecked with oxidized metals, sets a surreal tone at the entrance. Beyond that, individual departments are separated by partitions that occasionally lean and slope, for no apparent reason. Chairs tilt at odd angles, too, as if they have a mind of their own.

When not at their assigned workstations, employees may be found scanning futuristic video monitors from plush, restaurant-style banquettes. Or huddling in the "James Bond Room," a conference area named for its ultra-sophisticated gadgetry. Or taking a mid-afternoon softball break -- using an extra-wide corridor as their playing field.

Could this be a secret hide-out for 007? The latest Flintstones fantasy? Or something more suited to the Jetsons? None of the above. It's the East Coast headquarters of W. B. Doner & Co., one of the region's largest advertising agencies, atop the Inner Harbor Center at 400 E. Pratt St.

To agency chairman and CEO Jim Dale, it's an "idea factory" for the Information Age, an intentionally unbridled work-circus, carefully designed to keep the creative juices flowing. Unlike a company whose employees make widgets on an assembly line, "We're in the idea business," Mr. Dale explained. "I wanted to create a factory of ideas."

Motivating the motivators

Besides advertising the creative resources for sale on the premises, Doner's idea factory represents one of the first examples locally of an office design trend in which the work environment is treated as a tool that can help employees do a better job, rather than simply provide a setting for work. In many ways, it's a prototype for a new kind of postindustrial workplace that could mean increased vitality for downtown Baltimore and other American cities.

Founded in 1955, Doner is a national presence in the advertising industry, with dual headquarters in Baltimore and Detroit. When they decided several years ago to move Baltimore's 150 employees from cramped quarters in Charles Village to the 11-story Inner Harbor Center, Mr. Dale and Doner executive committee chairman Herb Fried had several objectives:

Since Doner creates campaigns that motivate the public to buy goods and services, they wanted an environment that inspires staffers to develop the best campaigns imaginable -- a space that motivates the motivators.

They wanted to take advantage of the dramatic harbor setting, incorporate new technology, and make use of the latest thinking about reinventing the corporation, fostering collaboration and increasing productivity.

Finally, they wanted a space that would communicate instantly to clients and prospective clients that this is a creative hot spot -- and a place where people have a sense of humor.

"This has been a vision of mine for two years, to move our offices into a space that would be reflective of who we are and what we do, and where the space itself would be a source of energy," Mr. Dale said.

More than anything else, an ad agency is "a place where clients come to find ideas that will change their fate in the marketplace, change the destiny of their products," he continued. "Ideas are our currency. I wanted people to come here and think: 'They'll have an answer to my problem.' "

The space Doner chose for its headquarters is long and narrow, and spread over the top three levels of a 13-year-old office building. But it also has a front-row seat on the harbor, complete with a landscaped balcony 10 stories off the ground.

New to town

For the high-energy design they were seeking, Doner's executives turned to two Washington-based firms that had never worked in Baltimore before. KressCox Associates was hired to be the architect, with David Cox as director of design, Christoffer Graae as principal-in-charge, and Ernesto Santalla as project architect. Marlene Weiss and Lisa Bartolomei, of Weiss/Bartolomei, were the interior design consultants. All had extensive experience creating corporate offices in the nation's capital. Doner, which didn't want a predictable corporate look, encouraged them to buck tradition and have some fun in Charm City.

One of the designers' first decisions was locating Doner's various departments within the 41,000-square-foot space. They put the creative types, artists and top-level executives on the 11th floor, the account managers, researchers and media buyers on the 10th floor, and additional administrators and support personnel on the ninth. All three floors are connected by an internal stair as well as elevators, with the two-story lobby starting on level 10.

To the Batmobile, Robin

In search of a visual theme that could unify the space, the designers drew heavily from the industrial and nautical imagery immediately outside the window -- the rich harborscape of cranes, ship's masts and smokestack industries in the distance. These industrial-strength images provided the beginnings of a vocabulary that the designers used to execute the client's vision.

To suggest the idea of office-as-factory, the architects selectively exposed many of the overhead ceiling pipes and ducts that are typically covered up. They also exposed elements of the building's structure. As opposed to hiding the building's structural and mechanical systems, Mr. Santalla said, "We wanted to make [them] part of the aesthetic."

The city's industrial and maritime heritage are also reflected in materials and colors chosen for the public spaces. Walls in the main lobby were made of galvanized steel duct metal covered with copper leaf and then washed with chemicals to speed up the oxidation process. The floor is clad with black Vermont slate. Stair rails were painted brown.

This emphasis on industrial colors and materials produced a raw, vaguely ominous entrance to the idea factory, a curious mix of grittiness and elegance. One half-expects to see Robin and the nTC Batmobile at any minute.

Darkness and light

But with the wide open space of the harbor just out the window, and sunlight streaming in, the interior never becomes too gloomy or threatening. There's an interplay between darkness and light, inside and outside, that transforms the cavern-in-the-sky to a tantalizing forecourt for the rest of the space. The intentional lack of embellishment also serves notice that this is a shop where people roll up their sleeves and get down to work.

Against the industrial backdrop, the designers added several layers of detail that provide richness and meaning, while serving as visual counterpoints.

Beyond the lobby, they introduced partitions that subtly reflect symbols of the New Baltimore in the harbor below. Some of the walls slope from one side to the other, echoing the sloping pyramids of the National Aquarium. One conference area is enclosed by a glass wall that is curved like a fish tank -- another aquarium reference. Employees call it the Shark Tank.

One theme the architects were exploring with these dynamic shapes was movement -- of people in space, of ships in the harbor, of Doner to a new location. But ultimately, Mr. Santalla said, they can be seen as metaphors for the constant flow of ideas.

"One of the major goals of the space was to express energy, to open the space up, to bring people out of their offices and get them to interact," he said. "We wanted to create a space that starts to express the creativity of the agency."

Caves and commons

Another visual counterpoint to the industrial backdrop comes in the form of technological devices -- from the cellular phones employees carry around to the audiovisual equipment in each conference room.

The most memorable manifestation of the new technology is a series of "commons" areas -- casual gathering spots that have been set up in the middle of hallways to encourage collaboration. Each contains a television monitor that employees can use to view commercials and other videotapes, and seating in the form of upholstered banquettes or movable tables and chairs.

Mr. Dale said these informal meeting spaces were inspired by the "caves and commons" workplace design pioneered at the headquarters of Apple Computer. Like many companies, he explained, Doner has employees who function best when they have more than one kind of work setting at their disposal. Sometimes they want to retreat to the privacy of their own offices, or "caves." At other times they'll attend formal meetings in conference rooms. But there are many in-between occasions, he said, when they may need to brainstorm or otherwise bounce ideas off their colleagues.

That's the purpose of the commons areas -- to serve as unprogrammed spaces that give employees a chance to come out of their caves and work together. Everything about them seems designed to invite interaction, from the funky turquoise cabinets containing the audiovisual equipment to the sofa-like seating. They're like restaurant booths with televisions.

A counterpoint to both the industrial imagery and the futuristic technology is the witty, eclectic office furniture.

Sharks below

One indication of the designers' playfulness is the "No Swimming" coffee table in the lobby, whose plain glass top floats above a base that resembles ocean waves. On closer inspection, one sees that it's held up by a series of fins, as if sharks are just beneath the surface.

Other one-of-a-kind pieces include the "Jetson's Booth," a space-age control panel where the receptionist sits; high-heeled chairs in Jim Dale's office; and the surfboard-shaped table in the Shark Tank conference room. While some design moves may give the space drama and tension, these whimsical furnishings give it personality.

Before the end of the year, the front lobby of the Inner Harbor Center will be redone to be compatible with Doner's. The ad agency is also contemplating holding a design competition to choose an artist who will create a public sculpture for the plaza outside. Both changes would extend its presence within the city.

Of course, design alone can go only so far toward making Doner's headquarters the vibrant idea factory Mr. Dale envisioned. So much of architecture, like advertising, is a matter of suggestion, illusion, veneer. It would be silly to think the metallic finishes, or any other high-style touches, could actually make employees more creative when they get off the elevator in the morning.

The space clearly should pay off, though, with the clients. Advertising is all about making a strong first impression, and Doner's space does just that. "I am so pleased with it that it scares me," Mr. Dale admits.

Another clear winner is the city itself. With its high-powered staff and influential clientele, Doner is precisely the sort of newcomer the Inner Harbor needs to keep jumping with activity. Offbeat, but not off the beaten path, its new home demonstrates not only that companies can reinvent themselves for the 21st century, but also that they can energize cities in the process.

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