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

July 17, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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