The Daily Heller: The Workspace as Respite in the Post-Covid World

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Brian Collins does not skimp on his work or his workspaces. From 1998, when he became senior partner and chief creative officer for the new design and brand identity division at Ogilvy & Mather, to 2008, when he launched COLLINS, he has built spaces that encourage creative interaction. (At O&M his walls and columns were painted in chalkboard black to enable collaborative conversations.)

In this time of COVID, he saw an opportunity to build a new transformative space outside Manhattan. He is keeping exactly where under wraps for a while—but he acknowledges it is under construction and will open soon.

He allows that owing to the pandemic experience, an office should not be imprisonment but “a respite. And entirely voluntary.”

The new space is street-level accessible. No elevators. A former storefront and artist’s loft in an 1870s brick building. It has been mostly gutted. It has been optimized for fresh-air ventilation. It’s open to the street, with skylights and cross ventilation, and access to an outside garden. And at the front of the office is a massive library.

The library defines Collins’ idea of this space. (Complete with hanging fireplace—above left.) And I’m with him 200%—no, make it 250%.

Over the years the library has grown to more than 5,000 volumes covering mythology, fairy tales, history, science, art, architecture, archeology, anthropology, philosophy, music, economics, semiotics, biography, design, pop culture, religion, typography (including a few of my own books) and more.

“Like Dr. Who’s Tardis, the library defies conventional physics, taking up a much larger space than
mere size would suggest,” Collins says. “It is also built for time travel.” Books will be stacked floor-to-ceiling on jet-black shelves (which makes the colors on the spines pop), providing plenty of nooks and crannies for a notable array of marionettes, elephants, vintage signs, cartoon characters, bronze dragons, old cameras, Collins’ red Etorre Sottsass typewriter, crystal balls, “and, and, and … the library is a space apart from the urgency of the present.”

The office layout syncs with Collins’ overall purpose, and this purpose is not design for its own sake …

“Design is not what we make. Design is what we make possible,” he says with conviction. “Design is how we empower others to try new things. To do more, bigger, better. To be different, delightful, fantastic and fabulous. To help people find their own path to the future.”

He returns to his favorite element: “All of our work begins in the library, the literal heart and soul of our practice.” The library is the entrance to the company–it is not in the back. So designers on their way back and forth from the workshop, kitchen or “meditation” space can pause, even if just for a moment, to soak in perspective and inspiration.

“It is an improbable space brimming with kismet connection. The books are rockets to anywhere and everywhere,” he adds.

Beyond the library—and in the center—are bathrooms and a giant shower for people who want to bike or run to the office and not feel gross all day. There’s a full kitchen for people to prepare breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Up a staircase is the secluded meditation/sleep/yoga space that, if opened up, looks out over the studio. There, a large workshop and TV studio is where team meetings are held and classes are conducted.

“We have repurposed everything from our office in Greenwich Village,” Collins says. “Very little is new. Even our old, giant conference table where we did Spotify, our museum work, Twitch, the Muppet exhibit and everything else has been saved and refinished.” He catches his breath. “And that orange, Herman Miller, Eames chair in the lower-right corner [of the floor plan]? That was the first piece of ‘design’ I bought at 13 at Design Research in Harvard Square. It has followed me everywhere, from Boston to New York to Minneapolis to San Francisco and back to New York City a second time.”

COLLINS is “absolutely no longer a traditional desk-driven workspace.” It aims to be more like a cross between “your favorite local coffee shop and your favorite bookstore.”

In other words, he convincingly insists, “a mix of many creative people’s favorite places to hang out and dream and think and draw and write and doodle and explore and fart around and hang with a friend and drink coffee and have a sandwich and daydream and put down your iPhone for a few hours and, maybe, some new ideas might see the open space in your brain and come in for a landing.”

And speaking of creative, much credit goes to Collins’ design colleagues, Nancy Thiel and Julie Hanselmann Davies of Thiel Architecture + Design.

I presume the grand opening will be a trip.