Co-Founders Primo Orpilla & Verda Alexander of Studio O+A have created some of the most ground-breaking offices for some of the world’s largest technology companies. The duo is based in San Fransisco, CA and brings an innovative approach to design. They made their name rethinking the impact workspace has on work, but today their reach extends beyond the physical environment. Studio O+A received the International Interior Design Association’s 2010 Northern California Honor Award for the Facebook Headquarters in Palo Alto, CA. And, Contract Magazine named the duo Designers of the Year in 2011. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Orpilla and Alexander’s philosophies and approach to design.
On becoming designers
Verda: Primo and I go way way back. We started the program in 1991 so it’s almost 25 years old. Before that we were in college together. I got a degree in fine art and Primo was in a separate program and discovered Interior Design by coming to Art openings through my art program. We had always talked about starting a business. We had this entrepreneurial mindset and that was the attraction we had for each other. He ended up studying interior design and I went on to landscape architecture and public art. I was in the middle of starting at a landscape architecture practice and Primo after having worked five years in interior design decided he wanted to go off on his own and asked me if I would join him. I did of course and here we are today.
Primo: After school I interned at a firm in Sunnyvale, California so I got my start in the late 80s early 90s in Silicon Valley. I learned a lot about facility planning and scaling facilities for company use then. Design wasn’t as much a part of my earlier career as was learning how to utilize space. Working with facility managers with large companies, what you’re trying to do is manage the space and help them grow into their space so we got a really good foothold and understanding of how facilities work. Being in Silicon Valley it was more or less large corporate entities who were trying to grow into space or grow out of space or pick up new space and fit it out.
That was my early career which I did for around six or so years in the Valley and that’s when I decided to break off on my own with Verda and that’s when we started O+A.
On their approach to workplace design
Verda: We started in the Silicon Valley so our very first clients were technology clients. Back then it wasn’t internet and cloud companies it was hardware and software firms. We had clients building router boxes and a lot of experience working with engineers and setting up clean rooms and sim rooms and the thing that I felt like I brought from landscape architecture was this focus on space and how space comes together and how texture and materials are used. We really love what we’ve fallen into in terms of workspace. Right around that time there was this conference that blew up called altoffice — alternative officing. We were really intrigued by this idea of pushing the concept of the office beyond cubicles and how could it be a better environment for people. We just fell in love with that investigation and that is what we continue to do today.
Primo: It was just cubicles and getting a lot of people into space. There wasn’t a lot of thought put into the other areas of the space. We used to call conference rooms brainstorm rooms. Workplaces used to be offices and conference rooms and maybe a break area. Those were the only options people had. As we’ve grown we’ve realized technology has allowed us to work anywhere. Where are all of these opportunities to work? The campus really is your office now not just the floor you’re on or the cubicle you’re in. We need to make sure that all of these areas on the campus or in the facility are really set up to help you work. And by work we mean all of the different things that you use during that day to get to that moment of really great work, whether that’s resting, or socializing or playing ping pong in the morning we want to make sure that all of those options are there for the employee to take advantage of. The workplace has become more robust in terms of what it offers to people in order to get their work done. That’s what we focus on.
On their big break and their unique approach to design
Verda: We’ve had a long career so it’s hard to pinpoint any one, but early on I’d say it was an ad agency called Cunningham Communications. They had such strong values in their firm, it was really great to work with them to build these alternative office spaces. Paypal really pushed us by using different typologies of spaces in 2005. How many small private offices, breakout rooms, mini lounge areas and town hall spaces someone might need.
After those I think our big breakthrough was Facebook’s first headquarters. What was exciting about that was that the building had a very interesting history which we were able to work with. We were able to work with a sense of place more than we had ever been able to before and take what we learned from Paypal and apply it to Facebook. It was really exciting. They knew this was a temporary space and they had a small budget but that didn’t faze us, it was just a really fun project in which we got to test a lot of our theories.
Primo: The thing that stands out the most about this project is that Facebook really represented a new generation of worker. Culture and building community was more important than anything else. In other projects we were certainly aware of that but it wasn’t mandated by the company that that’s what we needed to make work or improve or create. Whereas at Facebook it was all about culture. We designed it with a lot of influence from all of the employees. That may be the first time we got to interact with an entire company in order to design a space. Before it was dictated by a few people in a company, this turned around and asked what do the people want. Let’s get their take and then let’s design.
We were actually using their Facebook product to gather intentions on design, and we would post them daily in Facebook for feedback. We got real-time design feedback to design the space. Before, you didn’t do that, you worked with one or two people. We pulled the entire company into it. This was the start of a democratic design approach, which a lot of other companies then looked to once they became aware of Facebook’s facilities. They all began to want to show their facilities were collectively decided upon, to show employees that you’re not just a butt in a seat. You’re actually a part of this ecosystem.
On their dream project
Verda: We’re working on a dream project right now with Uber. They are so in-line with how we work that we’re really able to push our design pretty far. This is the client where we’re testing the theory of complete customization. Our dream project is one where we have an incredible client-designer process that yields an incredible result and that’s what we’re getting with Uber. We hope to get these kind of clients in the future that push the envelope of how people work.
Primo: There was a lot of vision that Facebook allowed us to be a part of. We like clients that have a vision and who want us to be part of realizing that vision. We’re good at playing that part. We have our own design aesthetic and our own feel and approach that we like to employ but we also know that it’s about them. It’s about gathering their information and co-authoring every place. If we get really good input and they have a vision good design can happen. It’s really about that.
On the future of workplace architecture in the next 5–10 years
Verda: I’m really interested in seeing how small the individual workplace can get and will it disappear. So many people, especially young people, it’s so easy for them to work anywhere. I’m curious to see how far that’s going to play out and how it changes the physical environment of our workplaces.
Primo: I think Verda is describing on aspect of workplace design, which is that you can work anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be at your desk. I do not believe the office is going away. I think we’re going to get more and more efficient with the footprint. Companies allowing work to take place in different places like co-working spaces, in the street, obviously people who work abroad and in-transit. I think the early-adopters on the West Coast are creating a lot of the new ideas but it’s spreading quickly throughout the United States and the world. In five years you’re going to have an office full of Millennials and you’re going to be working differently. Companies are becoming aware of this. If they don’t have the right working conditions or space they won’t be successful.
Verda: Working and living being more symbiotic is going to be a factor. That includes the work environment being healthier, less toxic. Not just environmentally but physically and mentally.
On advice they would give themselves at the beginning of their careers
Verda: I am just blown away by where our firm is honestly! (laughs) It’s been an incredible ride. I can’t believe where we’re at now. If I had known I would have thought a lot bigger back then! I’ve always played it a little conservatively, which has helped us ride through a couple of recessions, but I had known where we would be at I would have planned! It’s an incredible place to be.