Inspiration On Tap
Johnson Chou's office for Grip Limited is as energetic as the Toronto agency's ads.
Tim McKeough -- Interior Design, 10/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
A goateed young man approaches a sink. He holds a glass under the faucet and lifts the lever, only to be drenched by a blast of water. Six more guys do the same—with the same result. Cut to bottles of Labatt Blue. "Cheers. To Friends."
Now cut to Toronto, where Grip Limited creatives, who made this TV spot, still can't believe its success. Within months, the gut-busting ad became the talk of the town, and the agency swelled from 26 employees to 94.
Moving, however, raised a major question for Grip's eight founding partners. Would new clients think that the agency was just a group of Labatt's frat boys? To convey an image that's carefree yet grounded, Johnson Chou's firm blended raw and refined materials to transform 21,500 square feet of unfinished space spread over the first, fifth, and sixth floors of a downtown building.
Inspiration for signature elements came from the agency's client list. A Bell Canada tagline, "We are all connected," gave Chou an idea for the building lobby: He installed a glass wall covered in semitransparent reflective film, so visitors see themselves at the same time they catch a first glimpse of Grip's commercials, which play on monitors behind the glass.
Behind the mirrored wall are the agency's lunchroom and "hot tub," a meeting area that consists of a circular banquette upholstered in the orange of the Grip logo and sunken in a white-tiled enclosure; access is via aluminum steps with a handrail like those found in real Jacuzzis. The joke is intended to free clients' minds for brainstorming. "It completely disarms everybody, even the most difficult ones," Chou says. The hot tub comes with a beer cooler, but the adjacent plywood presentation walls are all-business.
Most visitors, however, take the elevator directly up to the sixth-floor reception area. Here, Chou placed a circular desk clad in black rubber, a material meant to evoke associations with Honda, a Grip client. A few steps beyond is the "air bag," a round white stretched-fabric enclosure that functions as a waiting area, a place where clients can perch on white Verner Panton chairs and preview ads on video monitors.
Equally inventive meeting spaces are spread across the sixth and fifth floors, where the majority of work space is located. For formal presentations, there's the "fridge," another nod to Labatt's. This boardroom's exterior is clad in stainless steel, and there's a vintage refrigerator handle on the door. Inside, white synthetic "frost" covers the walls and ceiling—a humorous touch with serious acoustical benefits. The same frost lines both the interior and the exterior of a small meeting room, dubbed the "ice cube." Equipped with Panton chairs and Tom Dixon's Mirror Ball pendant fixture, this cool cube offers much-needed privacy, away from the very public workstations on either side.
To unify the two main floors, Chou punched out a massive atrium that lets in the sun and serves as the primary circulation route. To go up, people generally climb the stairs, made from 1/4-inch-thick hot-rolled steel. To come down, there are more exhilarating options. You can take a ride on the slide, an orange acrylic half pipe wrapped in stainless steel, or breeze down the stainless fire pole, landing on a round ottoman upholstered in black vinyl.
Of course, moving people around by such unorthodox methods presented certain challenges. "We were assured by the slide's fabricators that it wouldn't be very fast," recalls Chou, who nevertheless insisted on being the first to try it out. "Two thirds of the way down, I realized I was gaining too much speed. When I was spat out at the bottom, the momentum had me running toward the windows." A gentle interior sanding helped slow the slide down for staffers, and they now ride it (safely) on a daily basis.
Appearances to the contrary, there's nothing really superfluous in this space, Grip creative partner Rich Pryce-Jones explains: "You could argue that slides and fire poles aren't necessary, but they are practical. If you want to go down, you can get there instantly." In the breakneck world of advertising, every second counts.