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Workplaces in the tech space are often showcases for playful one-of-a-kind placemaking installations that encourage recruitment and employee participation. With art walls made from hundreds of Rubik’s Cubes, light switches and more, “Block 20” (Seattle) is a prime example of what can result from creative collaborations between designers and fabricators CRĒO Industrial Arts, IA Interior Architects and NBBJ.
As told by CRĒO’s Kyle Ottosen:
Our team at CRĒO worked with wayfinding and placemaking designers at NBBJ, as well as placemaking designers at IA Interior Architects to bring Block 20—a 37-story office within a larger multi-building tech complex in Seattle—to life. Block 20, also known as re:Invent, features a variety of character-defining physical interactive and digital elements.
The design teams at Studio 7 and IA were asked to create installations that would activate employees and integrate the company’s culture and values in mostly low-tech, sensory-driven ways. The goal was to provide employees a break from digital immersion, while creating appealing placemaking landmarks and amenities.
NBBJ’s Studio 7 led the experiential graphic design effort for all common areas of the building; IA Interior Architects designed the interiors and EGD for the workspace floors above (floors 5, 6, and 8‑37). NBBJ’s interior work included the parking garage and first four levels, dubbed the “Center of Energy,” because its spaces allow people to get together, mingle, eat, and work.
This was a large project with an aggressive timeline and many custom elements, each with their own requirements. So, to develop the fabrication strategy a significant amount of R&D and collaboration between designer and fabricator was required. The seamless implementation of the elements required close coordination with the general contractor as well.
The work we’ve done at Block 20 and other workplace environments for this, and other tech companies, is very unique, a combination of art and interactive exhibits. In many cases, the designs we were presented with were more aspirational or conceptual, so we had to figure out how to achieve the designers’ vision, and, do it in a manner that was both cost-effective and durable.
The light switch wall in the game room is a good example of this kind of innovation. The Studio 7 designers had a vision for this wall of light switches that individually illuminate when activated by the user; the concept was inspired by the humble on/off switch. This also metaphorically represents the most essential function of the modern computer: the ones and zeros of binary code.
The switches would create an embedded wall or bank of 960 “pixels” that would allow workers to keep score, spell out messagesto welcome visitors, or “draw” using the lights. It seemed like it would be simple to execute; there were off-the-shelf products available.
Those products, however, were lacking in architectural quality and being battery operated, weren’t acceptable from a maintenance standpoint. 960 standard light switch boxes when investigated, came in over budget, and required a lot of extra electrical circuitry. This element needed to be integrated flush to the wall, look and function like individual illuminated light switch plates and fit the budget.
We had never built anything quite like this before, which is often the case in our world of custom fabrication. So, we rounded up our team internally—four or five departments all putting their heads together—a group of likeminded people all with different ideas of how to reach the common goal to understand and accomplish an intricate solution.
Our team came up with the idea of routing panels of clear acrylic to mimic the shape of typical light switch plates and integrating the plates with actual light switches to achieve the functional and aesthetic design intent. It ended up working best as a single panel with routed individual “plates.” Behind each plate or pixel are LEDs you can turn off or on at—you know—the flip of the switch. The wall measures almost five feet tall by over 20 feet long.
The light switch wall, Tyvek wall and other novel installations fit into Studio 7’s model of landmark-based wayfinding to orient users in space. It was the basis for their design concept, “Nature’s Energy,” inspired by the unseen forces of nature to activate the senses and inspire user activity that is completely different than their everyday work.
IA’s concept for the workspaces was to celebrate “The Part” or local team, and “The Whole” or the entire company, through five core characteristics. This was translated through clever interactive installations that communicate company culture and mindset. Surface flair, like neon and toys mounted to the wall attract attention, then hidden “Easter eggs” draw employees more deeply in.
IA’s team produced the designs and production art, and our team fabricated and installed over 34 unique pieces. These placemaking installations were highly interactive and tactile, with contrasting vintage and contemporary styles, materials, colors, functions, and moods—yet maintained a sense of brand continuity.
For example, the “Byte” truck and “Blink of an Eye” installations both feature wheat pasted graphics in direct contrast to the digital elements. The vintage-marquee-inspired “Stay Awesome” was rendered in a more contemporary interpretation featuring the company’s brand colors.
For us at CRĒO, one of the coolest fabrications was the “Game Changing” wall made from 1,312 Rubik’s cubes. You might think this could be an easy one, but interestingly, we couldn’t really “cheat” the cubes that weren’t solid—we tried, but they came out looking, well, not quite right!
We sent a lot of our employees home with Rubik’s cubes to have some fun recreating the patterns, which were mapped out in great detail by our documentation team to perfectly create the design. They were then assembled, cleat mounted to a backer, then mounted to the wall, so it appears to be flush.
Of late, the workplace segment has become a significant portion of our business. In particular, interactive elements—both digital and mechanical, like the IA-designed “Four Legged Friendly Since 2006” crank-powered dogs in Block 20—are becoming more common in the design packages we see for workplace environments. Building those elements requires a different fabrication approach and a different base of knowledge and skillsets. You’re dealing with lots of moving parts and digital components, and people physically interacting with the products which creates an even higher standard for the build quality.
The increasing popularity of these types of installations, combined with our team’s experience in the exhibits market, where interactives are quite common, has driven us to enhance our capabilities in these areas. It’s interesting how exhibitions and placemaking are overlapping as everyone strives to create experiences for their target audience. With each project like Block 20, our expertise grows, and we are more and more capable of taking on the next interactive challenge.
Project Name: Block 20 / Re:Invent
Open Date: September 2019
Project Area: 1,100,000 sq ft
Project Budget: $1,200,000
Experiential Graphic Design: IA Interior Architects, NBBJ Studio 7
Fabrication: CRĒO Industrial Arts
Collaborators: Site Workshop (landscape architect), Sellen Construction (general contractor), IA Interior Architects (interior design)
Photography: Alex Grummer for CRĒO, NBBJ
Thanks to Jessie Quan and Jordan Amoth of IA Interior Architects, and Eric Levine of NBBJ for additional details on the design process.