Offices, Personal & Professional

From peach baskets to lake views, professionals in Madison have tailored their offices, both corporate and individual, to advance their respective missions. For the architectural firm Kahler Slater, it’s about fostering collaboration among members of the creative class. For UW men’s basketball coach Bo Ryan, it’s about describing the narrative of a winning legacy to those he recruits to carry on that legacy. In each case, the office is perfectly aligned with the task at hand, marking the continuation of a trend away from what design executive Scott Slaughter calls “the 90-degree cube” in which people build walls around themselves. Slaughter, associate principal for the Madison-based Interior Investments, speaks of 120-degree space planning. “We’re seeing things that are more organic in terms of their design,” he said. “Overall, that means lower panel heights to allow in more light, more collaborative work environments, and a more relaxed work environment.”

Serving a Purpose

Kahler Slater’s new Madison office, situated on the seventh floor of the 44 E. Mifflin Building on the Capitol Square, comes complete with a large window views of Lake Mendota. It virtually screams “advertising agency!” with its open environment and collaborative spaces, but Kahler Slater is an architectural firm. This design lends itself to creativity of another kind, yet still takes advantage of the environment outside the company’s walls.

Kahler Slater refers to itself as an “experience design firm,” and it wants staff to experience openness where walls are broken down and private offices are minimized. For the seventh consecutive year, the firm has been recognized in the annual “Great Places to Work” rankings of Entrepreneur Media, one of only two firms to be cited in each year of the awards program.

Marlisa Kopenski, brand director for Kahler Slater, said the new office rests in a space that was once designed as an AT&T marking office, but now has been gutted and transformed into an open space that is more appropriate for nurturing creative relationships between teams, including impromptu team interactions. It is the most open layout in the building, a point not lost on people who work on the other floors. “The views are important,” Kopenski noted, “but it’s about the ability to collaborate, either formally or kind of on the fly when you run into people.”

Designed in-house, the space accommodates private conversations, has smallish and less intimidating board rooms that are equipped with modern media and technology tools (and views of the Capitol Square), and a small kitchen where creative skills are sharpened as employees sit at a bar-height table and work on daily crossword puzzles during lunch or breaks.

Kahler Slater’s first Madison location was what staff described as a funky little field office on King Street, which was established for work on the Capitol restoration in the 1990s. There wasn’t nearly the openness or natural light that employees craved, and when it came time to move, the staff used visioning sessions to establish drivers both for the building location and for the interior space.

Colleen O’Meara, an associate with Kahler Slater, said the firm’s staff of architects, interior designers, and others wanted to remain downtown and enjoy the public transportation and cultural amenities the Square has to offer. “We looked at all sorts of spaces, but only in a small, two-block area around the Capitol,” she recalled. “Everybody wanted to stay downtown, and it was important for the Madison group and the Milwaukee executive team to keep the Madison office within Capitol Square walking distance.”

Inside the chosen office, the desire for space that accommodates impromptu action and team collaboration would be consistent with the staff and personal work styles, so in addition to open space for team work, there are more work stations for “head down” work as well. As part of its cultural identity, the firm has a magnet board for magnets that absolutely must be brought back from employee travels, or the well-traveled have some explaining to do.

A company white paper on 13 things “Best” work places have in common — things like natural light and the ability to control office temperature — also informed Kahler Slater’s decision making. The individual workspaces are thankfully devoid of floor to ceiling walls or dividers, and situated along the exterior glass line. Since the office building wraps around E. Dayton, N. Pinkney, and E. Mifflin Streets, it accommodates views of not only Lake Mendota, but the Madison Children’s Museum rooftop playground, and the Capitol Building. Situated in the middle is a library of materials used in the design process.

Kopenski believes the various elements in the office environment, occupied since 2007, encourage fun and creative thinking. “We also needed to make a statement for the clients who came to our space,” she added.

David Sheedy, director of Madison operations for Kahler Slater, likes the fact that all employees are on the same floor and contiguous with one another, and the fact that the building can be expanded horizontally, which will accommodate a long-term design vision. He also appreciates the alignment of work culture with company values of openness, creativity, and imagination. “Those ideas came from our core values,” he said, “and they are part of our company DNA.”

In this or any economy, you don’t have to break down walls, or incur a major expense, to promote collaboration. Slaughter’s firm (Interior Investments) has added a coffee bar where employees can gather to enjoy a beverage and exchange ideas or host clients. “We’ve simply taken our space and allocated it in a different way,” he said.

Speaking of Recruit & Retain

Personal office design also can be used to advance an organizational mission. Designed with the help of Zebradog Environmental Design, Bo Ryan’s office is a miniature Badger Basketball Hall of Fame, with photographs from his highly successful tenure as UW men’s head basketball coach. Prospective recruits will see custom-designed wall murals with photographs of the Badgers’ recent first-team Big 10 players: Kirk Penney, Devin Harris, Mike Wilkinson, Alando Tucker and Brian Butch. There are photos of special team moments like the Badger’s December 2006 victory over second-ranked Pittsburgh, and a picture capturing the fanatical student section, the “Grateful Red.”

One of those special touches is a perfectly preserved 1920s peach basket tracked down on eBay. They cut out the bottom and affixed it to an interior pole in Ryan’s office and to an original chicken wire backboard encased in two-by-fours. It’s the kind of backboard they once put behind peach baskets to keep basketballs from bouncing up onto the walking tracks in old YMCAs on the east coast. A life-sized photo of an original UW basketball player from the late 1800s is positioned under the peach basket.

Ryan uses the office to ground prospective recruits in the history of the game, and the UW players who came immediately before them. “Immediately” is a key term because before Ryan’s 2001-02 team, which finished in a three-way tie for first in the Big Ten, no UW men’s team had won or shared the conference basketball title since 1947. “In athletics, you always want to try to make sure that when people have an impression, especially their first impression, they see something that’s attractive to the eye and emotes success — something that makes a statement about the school and about the program,” he said. “Everything in my office makes a statement about the school and about what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The nice part is that Ryan can change pictures fairly easily, so a photo from the UW’s 2009 win over eventual NCAA Champion Duke might find its way up there. Schmitz has worked with Duke on a similar project, but his work with Ryan helps chronicle more recent history. “Bo is a phenomenal storyteller who has a great appreciation for the history of the sport,” Schmitz said. “The design adds a layer of personality that allows Bo to use his office as a story-telling platform.”

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