What Works Now

Jan. 1, 2009

Giannone Petricone Associates' new workplace design shatters the law office stereotype.

By Carol Tisch

| Photography by Tom Arban


New workplace design is more than a catch phrase for Toronto-based Giannone Petricone Associates Inc. It defines the practice and its proclivity for transforming amorphous office spaces into vital instruments of change. Indeed, change is exactly what Wildeboer Dellelce LLC, an out-of-the-box Toronto law firm, had in mind when they decided to pack up their office mascot (a head-turning vintage billiard table) and move to a headquarters custom-tailored to their unique work hard/play hard corporate image.

Wildeboer Dellelce is definitely not your grandfather's law firm. "It was important that their representation was as a very young, very forward-thinking firm," explains Ralph Giannone, a member of the Ontario Association of Architects and principal-in-charge of the design/build of Wildeboer Dellelce's avant-garde new headquarters. "At the same time, they specialize in a very specific field of mergers and acquisitions, and wanted to be sure they were themed that way."

Therein lay the design dichotomy: the work was extremely serious, but the work patterns of these successful, high-powered attorneys were more aligned with those of a hip ad agency than with an uptight conservative law practice. "It's very interesting: Wildeboer Dellelce feels very young ... both in attitude and makeup. They have senior lawyers, but there's a general sense of youthful exuberance that's very different than other law offices," explains Giannone.

What's more, Wildeboer Dellelce is ad agency social. "They are really well known for having great parties; whether it's internal social functions, which are frequent, or the annual industry-wide parties they've held once a year for the past 15 or more years," adds Giannone. Designing the public space for functions capable of holding hundreds of guests was one of the client's key mandates, the architect notes.

Another edict: no matter how contemporary the interiors, the gorgeous '50s pool table stayed. "The pool table is a symbol of their company personality: it's casual, fun and easy—a unique blend of business and pleasure," says Giannone. While the table was "in your face" obvious, right behind the reception desk in the law firm's previous office, Giannone Petricone moved it further inside in the new headquarters, using it as a focal point outside the staff lounge on the main public floor.

"This was the kind of iconic element that they felt said to everybody: we're a different law firm; we're actually putting our pool table in the lobby," describes Giannone, "and we treated it as a sculptural piece lit by a great little squadron of three Tolemeo lights. Artemide was actually very excited about it because the Tolemeo is typically used singularly above a dining room table. It had never actually been used for a pool table and never in a series of three."

Though hell-bent on change, in the end Wildeboer Dellelce did not move far from its previous location at Canadian Place, a large office building in Toronto's financial district. "They felt they were lost in Canadian Place," says Giannone, "and they believed relocation was essential to conceptualizing the way they worked. They see themselves as a very small but very boutique practice, and were hoping to find a smaller building where they might be the lead tenant."

That hope materialized in the form of a refurbished 1960s building (now known as Wildeboer Dellelce Place) in the heart of the financial district on Bay Street (Toronto's equivalent of New York's Wall Street). Wildeboer Dellelce signed up for 20,000 square feet—the top three floors—while the landlord was in the throes of completely redoing every aspect of the infrastructure, from mechanical systems to the lobby and elevators. At the same time, Giannone Petricone completely gutted the existing office interiors in order to create a canvas for change.

"Our firm is brought in when there is a mandate to re-conceptualize an office or a company," explains Giannone. "We don't just come in and ‘do' an office. We don't even like talking about it as an office. We approach the problem culturally: Who are you? How do you work? How do you want to work? How do you want to represent yourselves to your clients, to the public? And how can we create the office as an instrument for you to work more
efficiently or more comfortably in?"

These critical questions are standard fare for clients of Giannone and his wife and co-principal Pina Petricone. In fact, the pair's groundbreaking new workplace design for ad agencies won them the Wildeboer commission. "In the ad world, clients look at office space as a real machine for getting new work, attracting new staff, and retaining really good people. And that was Wildeboer's strategy as well," notes Giannone.

When Wildeboer Dellelce retained the architects, the law firm basically asked them to recreate the hip urban vibe of the ad agency offices they had admired in Giannone Petricone's portfolio. But the lawyers soon learned their designers were all about solutions unique to each client's particular culture. "We're different in our approach because we see ourselves as custom tailors. We're not off the rack: we won't go in and say from the get-go, ‘here's the system we're going to use' and then start laying things out. We see every project as making a suit for each specific client. If they want a double-breasted suit, that's what they're going to get. If one arm is a little longer than the other, you know it's going to fit perfectly," says Giannone, noting that this level of intensity limits his firm to two such projects a year.

Still, some clients don't quite understand the need for the pre-planning and investigation inherent in custom-tailored solutions. "We actually frustrate our clients a little because they often think we're going to come in, create a space plan and tell them how many people they can house in their space," explains Giannone. Instead, his 22-person firm begins with a ground-up analysis of the client as a corporate entity, kicked off with a series of one-on-one meetings that include everyone from the president and CEO down to mail room personnel.

The goal is to get insights into the nuts and bolts of what people need, and to find out what junior people think of their company. "Often the president of a company will say he can tell us what his people need, but we want to know what the intermediate staff actually think the space should be like, and how can we help them. For us, it's about listening, analyzing and making sure the design is going to fit perfectly."

The process revealed that Wildeboer's staff worked very long hours. And that management was extremely concerned with creating an office that would attract and retain really good people. Like everyone else in the service industry, their employees were working harder than ever before. Employee comfort and addressing the needs of people who come in very early or work later in the day would be key components of the design.

Probing Wildeboer staff also underscored the fact that attorneys—no matter how progressive and young-spirited—were not willing to compromise on their private offices. Still, what Giannone was able to turn on its head was the notion of office size as a function of pecking order. "We wanted to create an office layout that was as flexible as possible and that meant everyone had to get the same size office—even the partners" he says. No matter how the firm grows or expands, that 9-by-12 office is standard, unlike the very traditional hierarchal law firm approach.

Each office is set up like a machine, explains Giannone. "You have everything you need, but it's not about space. It's about how you're equipped as opposed to your pecking order." The architects specified a Unifor system by Italinteriors for each office: a hybrid work station-based system that was more desk-oriented. Set against one wall in every office, the panel system can be customized with the attorney's choice of components. "It looks like a workstation stuck up against the wall, with a desk coming off of it in an L-shape," adds Giannone.

Offices are set along the building's fenestration, each equipped with an interior wall of sliding glass panels to allow light to filter through to inboard workstations. "One of our major ambitions is to try to bring natural light to all the people who work in an office. Lawyers really need private offices; but we wanted to create an incredibly bright space for the support staff as well because the people who support each lawyer are vital to keeping things going," explains Giannone.

Giannone Petricone's space planning exercise triggered more forward-thinking solutions. The space is programmed with the top two floors (floors nine and 10) as "working floors" and the eighth floor as a destination floor with reception area, meeting rooms and clubhouse (a combined lunch room/meeting space and TV lounge); the space also includes a small gym and shower facilities. This leisure space addresses the needs of employees who come in early and either run to work or go out for a run at lunch, as well as the needs of those who work very late.

"People are working longer hours, and they're working different, flexible hours: if they're going to work very late they might want to use the gym to unwind or sit in a comfortable sofa and watch a big screen TV. Giving them a place to get away from it all when they're working late is an important component of the program," says Giannone.

On the public destination floor, the architects programmed the space in a surprisingly atypical configuration with circulation spaces on the perimeter and all meeting rooms inboard. The design gives anyone going into or coming out of a meeting a magnificent view of Bay Street. But once inside, the meeting rooms have no windows and no distractions.

Giannone Petricone's next step was creating the interior design scheme best reflective of Wildeboer Dellelce's uniquely irreverent, yet ultimately corporate personality. "The fact of the matter is that they are lawyers and they come out of a culture of what lawyers' offices look like. Though they wanted to be different, we felt it would be more compelling to make them different by using a palette and materials associated with law firms," explains Giannone.

The solution: traditional brass and oak. "The materials became a running joke," recalls Giannone. "They would say, ‘We wanted something different, so we're getting a brass and oak office.'" But Giannone Petricone promised this would be brass and oak in a way they would never see them again!

Indeed the highlight of the L-shaped eighth floor is a breathtaking curved wall of mirror-polished brass. The lustrous 100-foot-long wall curves from the front desk to the pool table, concealing a series of internal meeting rooms, and culminates at the law firm's main board room. The nod to oak is clean and fresh in the form of lightly stained oak floors and a 12-foot reception desk crafted of exploded chunks of oak. "The idea was to make the chunks stop and start as an idea of movement," says Giannone.

The allusion to custom men's suiting recurs throughout the space. In the reception area, the proverbial gray flannel suit is referenced with horizontal bands of Maharam upholstery felt, here in two tones of blue—Wildeboer Dellelce's corporate colors. Hardworking Interface carpet tiles, chosen because they actually look like gray flannel, are spiked with thin fuchsia lines in the same shade as the club room's bold curved feature wall and the fuchsia that accents the staircase connecting the ninth and 10th floors.

The pink is the one splash of color in a very business-like color palette of brass, oak and neutrals stereotypical of the conservative Bay Street culture. "That splash created an amazing graphic quality: "Think about the tie or handkerchief you put in your chest pocket," concludes Giannone. "That was our tongue-in-cheek reference to the Bay Street suit."

Carol Tisch is a freelance writer, editor and marketing consultant based in Sarasota, FL. She was formerly editor-in-chief of Shelter Interiors magazine and Home Furnishings News (HFN), and has developed communications programs for commercial and residential design industry clients. She can be reached at [email protected].

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Reminiscent of a posh business class lounge in an airport, the custom leather main reception seating is designed to instill anticipation of a great experience. A Noguchi table and light sculpture lend a sculptural quality to the room, as a marble slab cut in drywall behind the sofa leads the visitor's eye back to the reception desk. (larger image)
The hallway connecting the reception area to the company's iconic pool table illustrates the curved brass wall housing meeting rooms. Oak shelves jutting from the marble are used to display themed annual invitations to Wildeboer Dellelce's renowned industry-wide parties. (larger image)
The 1950s pool table, an icon from Wildeboer Dellelce's former office, assumes center stage in front of an acoustic wall of strips of wood applied to pivoting panels. A symbol of the law firm's work hard/play hard spirit, the pool table is treated as a piece of sculpture, dramatically lit by three articulated Tolomeo lights. (larger image)
A dark brown ceiling cutout with three Float lights graphically reveals the concrete building's waffle slab construction. The comfortable club room's picture windows overlook old City Hall and Bay Street. (larger image)
A sculptural staircase floats with one side paneled in glass, and the other side in white powder coated steel. The custom-designed stairs, visible from several vantage points, pick up the fuchsia walls in the club room, and accents in the gray flannel carpet tiles. (larger image)
An existing natural skylight illuminates the stairwell and small meeting rooms on floors nine and 10. All private offices and these two meeting rooms utilize a sliding glass partition system; each system includes one opaque white glass panel, which is used as an easy-to-clean whiteboard. Another graphic element, the white panels are nearly translucent so that writing is visible as employees walk through the halls. (larger image)
The law firm occupies the top three floors (20,000 square feet) of what is now known as Wildeboer Dellelce Place.

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(508) 679-8131

Mille Luce

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Wildeboer Dellelce LLP
365 Bay St., Ste. 800
Toronto, ON



Giannone Petricone Associates Inc., Architects
462 Wellington St. W., Ste. 501
Toronto, ON

Ralph Giannone—principal-in-charge
Carlo Odorico
Joelle Craig
Deiter Janssen

Smith & Andersen Consulting Engineering

Marant Construction

Tom Arban

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