Chalk It Up to Imagination
Hickok Cole makes the honor roll for Blackboard in Washington, D.C.
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 5/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Sean Wayne steps into the headquarters of the education-software company Blackboard in Washington, D.C., and is nearly bowled over by several employees bustling past from different directions. "It's really active today. This is fantastic!" he says with a grin. "This is exactly what we designed the space to do." In addition to Wayne, director of interior design and associate principal at Hickok Cole Architects, that "we" consists primarily of designer Jessica Maples. Their team transformed 112,000 square feet in a granite-faced 1980's office building—a street-level corner lobby and the three top floors—into a space that promotes the company's brand in every detail and connotes professionalism while encouraging creativity.
Although the dot-com generation equates cube-farm openness with no-holds-barred entrepreneurial spirit, that was never Blackboard's style. The company's first office, two rooms in a town house, quickly grew so cramped that, as CEO Michael Chasen half-jokingly recalls, the last person to show up for work had to sit at a desk that swung into position, blocking the front door. Perhaps that's why, having outgrown an interim space as well, Blackboard puts a premium on private offices. "The assumption that an open office breeds communication is not always true," Wayne acknowledges. He and Maples had to prove that it's possible to foster collaboration, communication, and interaction among employees in a more partition-intensive environment.
Playing off Blackboard's educational mission, the designers studied site plans for college campuses and laid out each level like a quad, complete with paths around and shortcuts through commons areas. At the elbow of the building's angled wings is the hub, a skylit open stair linking all three levels. The stairwell's focal wall is sheathed in shiny white plastic-laminate modules cut and contoured to look woven. The steps themselves are built from solid-surfacing—white in the center with black borders, like a giant chalk slash across a blackboard.
Three-dimensional chalk references unify the space as they inject a playful dynamism. In the lunchroom, three white ribbons of solid-surfacing unfurl in partial S shapes, slithering down a wall from the ceiling, jutting out horizontally to form bar-height tables, and terminating at the floor with delicate fillips. In the lobby, part of the white-painted MDF surface behind the receptionist peels away, seamlessly, to become the long, narrow top of a credenza perpendicular to her desk. Along a chalkboard-black perimeter corridor, a huge white squiggle of MDF undulates in and out.
White MDF also wends its way through the offices, morphing into soffits, ledges, and benches. Given the degree to which these elements define the space, it's amusing to hear Wayne and Maples describe how hard it was to convince the client and contractors that construction could be simple and inexpensive. The designers took to starting each meeting by saying, "These are, after all, not so different from drywall bulkheads"—only turned sideways. Hickok Cole even had the words "It's just a drywall bulkhead" printed on T-shirts. As Wayne says, laughing, "It's one of those things. Either they get it, or they just want you to shut up."
The white stands out against a muted scheme of taupe, gray, and black—the latter frequently blackboard laminate or actual blackboard. Pale yellow walls, which denote common areas, are the lone exception. "There's a lot of form in the space, so we mostly stuck with a monochromatic palette," Maples explains. She's the one who came up with the idea of creating the teaming areas' tackboards out of hundreds of gray chalkboard eraser "bricks" apiece. "Those erasers sat on my desk from the beginning of the project, and I just knew we'd incorporate them somehow. The felt is tight enough to pin things to, so we could use them as a functional element," she says.
Maples and Wayne took Blackboard's logo, the letters "Bb" on an old-timey slate, and parsed it in a number of ways. The slate's eased edge repeats endlessly, from those famous bulkheads to the lunchroom cabinets. Vinyl film on the glass fronts of private offices features the perforated lines of a primary-school writing tablet. Next to the doors of offices, like sidelights, are skinny blackboards that occupants are encouraged to personalize with colored chalk—there are even organized competitions. An analyst drew a school bus driving toward distant Successville; a travel manager and an administrator in accounts payable chalked up the Chinese characters for travel and expense.
In this spirit, mini blackboard plaques have allowed employees to name the office's 12 meeting rooms for different subjects: Grammar, Literature, Underwater Basket Weaving, etc. In corporate life, as in school, there is a time to work and a time to play or, perhaps, a time to doodle.
Photograpy by Adrian Wilson.
Yolanda Cole (Principal); Annie Mccall (Project Manager); Dave Denny (Project Designer): Hickok Cole Architects. KCE Structural Engineers: Structural Engineer. Encon Group: Mep. Creative Dimension Group: Woodwork. Tate Ornamental: Stair Contractor. Castro's Company: Drywall Contractor. C2C: Construction Manager. Coakley Williams Construction: General Contractor.
From front Delray Lighting: Pendant Fixtures (Stairwell). Del Ray Glass Co.: Custom Chalkboards (Office Halls). XAL: Recessed Ceiling Fixtures (Reception). Deltalight: Spotlights (Reception, Perimeter Hall), Linear Fixture (Meeting Room). Global Upholstery Co.: Chairs (Reception, Boardroom, Office Hall, Meeting Room). Decorative Films: Glass Film (Reception, Meeting Room). Steelcase: Stools (Perimeter Hall), File Cabinets (Workstations). Vecta: Custom Table (Boardroom). Designtex: Bench Back Fabric. Momentum Textiles: Bench Seat Fabric. Mark Architectural Lighting: Linear Fixtures. Wilsonart International: Counter Material (Boardroom, Lunchroom), Flooring (Stairwell). ICF: Stools, Chairs (Lunchroom). Kohler Co.: Sink Fittings. Bisazza: Backsplash Tile. Wolf-Gordon: Wall Covering. Alcan Composites USA: White Cabinet Surfacing. Abet: Black Cabinet Surfacing (Lunchroom, Workstations). 3Form: Paneling (Stairwell). Lightolier: Recessed Ceiling Fixtures (Stairwell, Meeting Room, Office Halls). Prismatique: Table (Meeting Room). Selux U.S.: Linear Fixtures (Office Hall). Unika Vaev: Bench Fabric (Office Hall, Lunchroom). Throughout Constantine Commercial: Carpet. Bolon: Vinyl Flooring. Armstrong: Ceiling System.
We would love your feedback!