Primo Orpilla: Listening and Designing

primo orpilla, studio o+a, Verda Alexander, architecture, design, san francisco architect, architect, creative office space, tech space


The Bay Area’s design dynamic duo is leading workplace evolution inside and out.


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the early 1990s, Primo Orpilla and Verda Alexander wanted to start their own design business. They were warned that they were young and didn’t have much working experience, but they looked around them and saw entrepreneurship was the norm in the Bay Area. They went ahead and put their initials on Studio O+A.

Their pivotal contract was with a tiny startup called Ascend Communications. The client grew and eventually changed its name to Lucent. As Lucent grew, so did Studio O+A people.

“It was a great company, and the facilities manager demanded the best,” Orpilla says. “I remember once we had the wrong type of caster on a task chair—that’s the most stressed out I’ve ever been.”

Orpilla sees good designers as storytellers and, ideally, ghostwriters. They give a voice to the desires of the client. And in these days of HGTV, Ikea, blogs and magazines, clients are more aware than ever of what good design can do to a space.

Contract magazine named Orpilla and Verda Alexander the Designers of the Year for 2011.

Q: The businesses your clients have grown are like their babies, and they have such specific needs and ideas of what makes them work. How do you translate those specific needs into workable solutions and help them convey their strategy into a physical space?

PO: Well, that’s the job as we see it. Those specific needs and ideas are the materials we work with. They are just as important—actually more important—than the existing architecture, the finishes we select, the spatial decisions. Those things become meaningful only when they are filtered through an understanding of what the client wants. So we spend a lot of time at the beginning of a project getting to know the baby, learning what the client’s aspirations are, what their values are and how they like to work. Then we apply that knowledge to the physical space. It’s all about creating the best possible environment for the baby to grow up in.

Q: We understand that your first dream was to design big houses. Today many people, especially tech workers, seem to spend most of their lives at work, or at least take a lot of work home with them. How does your original interest in housing inform the way you approach the modern workplace?

PO: When I first started in design, residential and commercial interiors were two separate worlds. But you’re right—because of the way people live today, they’re starting to merge. Most of our offices now include spaces that you’d be happy to have in your home. It’s a common-sense concept: If you’re going to spend a good part of your life in a place, aren’t you going to be happier and more productive and more creative if you can make yourself comfortable? That’s the idea behind the in-house cafes and pool tables and yurts. At Giant Pixel we put in a fireplace and lounge area that looks like a cool young professional’s pad. It just happens to have a whiteboard on one wall.

Q: Your firm has been in business for more than two decades. What are some lessons learned in that time? How have changing demands affected your approach to a job?

PO: The lesson you learn—in any business really, but especially in design—is listen to your client. Over the years you come to realize that the way people work is always changing. You have to be alive to that change. You can’t afford to rest on past successes or expect the old assumptions to apply in every case. Really, you have to remake yourself with every project. That’s what keeps it exciting after 20 years. I think we’re more creative and innovative now than we’ve ever been.

Q: You have been spoken at a couple of conferences here and in Europe on the evolution of workplace design. What strikes you about the differences of how we approach that topic versus someone in Europe, or even in another part of the U.S.?

PO: In Europe the old hierarchies are more entrenched than here. Managers over there still want their corner offices, and the separation between management and the general workforce is still pretty pronounced. But there’s a definite interest in what we’re doing. I sense it whenever I speak abroad. The questions from the audience are always respectful, and you can feel people trying to figure out how this kind of design might work in their contexts. The workplace revolution is definitely coming to Europe.

Q: What are the top trends in workplace design that you foresee being the most impactful in the near term?

PO: One of the most interesting developments, I think, is the way technology is being integrated seamlessly into spaces that are drawing inspiration from past forms. There’s great respect among young entrepreneurs for the working traditions of the past, and the new workspaces often reflect that. The light-industrial aesthetic is increasingly popular—a fully wired, state-of-the-art facility, but in a framework of rough textures, raw concrete, unpainted wood. A workshop.

And then the other trend is the continuing expansion of mobility. This idea that creative work can happen anywhere, and often happens best in a cafe or in a cab on the way to the airport. The workplace, then, becomes the hub for a network of spaces, on and off the premises, where productive work gets done.

Q: What are the top trends that you are identifying in the Bay Area?

PO: The Bay Area continues to be at the forefront of workplace design. The trends are the same as those we see nationally, but that’s because they’re moving from here to other places. Every time a design magazine does a feature on cool workspaces there are one or two from New York, one or two from London, a few from other cities—and a bunch from the Bay Area. Our projects often get a mention in those surveys. It’s an exciting time to be working in design in San Francisco.

Q: Does the Bay Area still command the title of the pre-eminent workplace design leader in the world? Are other cities, and companies in other cities still emulating what we do here?

PO: I think so.

Q: Are they successfully doing it, because workplace design is not just about the interior setting, it’s about the strategy, the location, the space, the connectivity internally and externally (transportation, retail, live/work balance)?

PO: Absolutely. Workplace design has become a branch of sociology. We’re figuring out how work is changing, how new generations of employees are bringing new values to the workplace and different expectations that have to be addressed in design. We’re right on the cusp of changing technologies and shifts in the economy and demographics. We’re smack at the heart of urban revival, this great movement back to the cities. All of the changes that are having profound effects on our society are being played out in the workplace and designers are caught up in the whirl.

Q: Are you optimistic about next year and why?

PO: I’m always optimistic—even when circumstances may not warrant it. But next year looks genuinely promising to me. We’re moving to a new office, you know.

Q: What else we not asking that we should be asking?

PO: Keep an eye on non-tech. I think we’re about to see an explosion of manufacturing and service industries.

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