The ad agency that told you to ‘think different’ gets a facelift for its 50th birthday
Story by Christina Campodonico | Photos by Maria Martin
Boasting an indoor “park,” award-winning workstations, a very cool beverage bar, a basketball court and its own entrance tunnel, advertising giant TBWA\Chiat\Day’s Los Angeles headquarters has long been the envy of any cubicle-bound worker since 1998, when it moved to a completely tricked out light industrial warehouse on Grosvenor Boulevard. (Before that, it occupied Venice’s also very cool Binocular’s Building, now home to Google L.A.)
But even the coolest of office spaces needs the occasional facelift. In June during the L.A. Design Festival, the Playa Vista-adjacent ad agency unveiled some of the recent work it’s done for its 50th birthday.
Peter Culley, founder and creative director of architecture and design firm Spatial Affairs Bureau, and TBWA Global Chief Strategy Officer Nick Barham led a free guided tour of the headquarters and talked through their strategy to update parts of the 120,000-square-foot office space originally designed by the architecture firm of architect Clive Wilkinson, a Gehry Partners alum.
Initially conceived by Wilkinson as an “advertising city” with corridors that function like “main streets,” executive office suites that stack on top of each other like apartments and an indoor “park” that functions like a central meeting area, the building was revolutionary at the time it was designed.
“This was one of the first creative office projects that we associate with [places] like Google,” says Culley. “The basketball court would have been radical in 1998. Now it might not seem pertinent.”
So to keep Chiat\Day on the cutting edge of workspace design and embrace its rebel ethos (the company’s logo is a pirate skull and crossbones), Barham tapped Culley about three years ago to do an architectural study of the building and make recommendations on how “to make the place more in line with the way that the creative process works in the 21st century.”
“We’re in a business that’s extremely chaotic and ever-changing and fast-moving. It’s pretty fluid, and I think we wanted an architecture and a partner who would kind of understand that,” says Barham. “A kind of neat, one-size solution wouldn’t have been the right one.”
Especially for a company that has defined itself by going against the grain, he says.
“When it opened in 1968, no ad agencies [like it] were on the West Coast,” notes Barham. “The West Coast was for hippies and surfers. What Jay Chiat and Guy Day realized was that you could still make great advertising but not have to live in New York. I think the decision not to follow Madison Avenue allowed Chiat in its early years to make a very different kind of advertising and to bring on a different type of client. Working in L.A. … they were the pioneers of it.”
With that legacy in mind, Culley’s suggestions ranged from moving the basketball court to the roof to turning Chiat\Day’s central park into a veritable forest. Those ideas didn’t quite pan out (they were more on the “fantastical end,” says Culley), but he did manage to transform Wilkinson’s park into a more functional meeting space and update the company’s legendary bar laden with ramshackle surfboards into a sleek and sophisticated espresso bar where creative teams could intermingle.
“When I first started working here it would be impossible to have a meeting here,” says Barham while standing in Culley’s revamped park, which wiped out Wilkinson’s original trees and sandpit and replaced them with a smooth cement floor, a clear pathway for light to travel from the skylight above, and colorfully spray-painted tables and chairs.
“There were bugs hanging off the trees. It was a Tim Burton-like forest,” he says, “Full of dead trees and it was dark. You had to kind of fight your
“I think the nice thing that Peter has done is kind of broken down some of the barriers between different teams. They can also migrate to these more public areas… so I think he’s kind of freed people from being trapped at their desks the whole time.”
Ultimately, Culley did not set out to abandon or erase Wilkinson’s architectural signatures — “Clive’s moves are sacred, in a way,” he says — but he did seek ways to honor and enhance them for a contemporary workplace with deep ties to the culture and history of Los Angeles.
“I found L.A. here and thought I should be careful with it,” says Culley. (He left a surfboard above the bar as a nod to Chiat\Day’s embrace of surf culture, as well as left Wilkinson’s exposed plywood touches and industrial yellow accents intact.) “But also it’s a changing city, I felt like there are other ways this building should be adjusting and looking out a little bit more than it had to be in the past.”
“Cities don’t transform overnight,” adds Barham. “They change. You’re kind of in a work in progress.”