The Magic of Maximalist Design
Obsolete factories, warehouses and office buildings continue to take on new life as enterprising landlords and coworking operators convert the often charming, but dilapidated buildings into inspiring modern workspaces designed to resonate with Millennials in search of authenticity.
In the process, the building itself can become a marketing tool as unique or historic details are showcased in eye-popping interiors that occupants and owners leverage to build their brand.
Joe McGinley, founder of Iconic Offices, has built a network of coworking spaces in Dublin using this very principle, applying it not only to century-old buildings adapted from a prior use, but also to outdated office buildings from the 1970s, 80s and 90s. I spoke to him about how he uses design as a marketing strategy.
Whatever the provenance, McGinley’s strategy is to identify unique spaces that can be further differentiated by design. In some cases, the building’s original features become a focal point. In others, a dated space is stripped down to a blank canvas before being transformed for modern users.
Currently underway is renovation of a 70,000-square-foot “Grain Store” set to open later this year, adding to a portfolio that also includes nine Georgian mansions that have been renovated into flexible workspace buildings with a focus on modern design and amenities supported with state-of-the-art IT infrastructure.
While all of Iconic’s spaces are developed to deliver “productive, collaborative and empowering environments utilizing innovative and inspirational design,“ according to the firm’s materials, among the most unique are three spaces that were given a new lease on life with a particularly bold and dramatic approach that pushes boundaries and celebrates excess and an absence of rules.
The Brickhouse, South Point and The Greenway each feature a healthy dose of maximalist design, an approach that McGinley considers a multi-pronged tool in the operator’s toolbox, capable of wowing clients, attracting and retaining talent, expressing branding, and even balancing risk in a real estate portfolio.
What exactly is maximalism and where did it come from?
Maximalism has been defined as modern design’s expressive side, a style that allows greater freedom and opportunity for personal expression.
Designer Alexandra Markey of IA Architects, Atlanta, describes it as a layering of wildly juxtaposed colors, textures, patterns, forms and finishes that work together to create a rich visual environment. “At its core, it’s about complexity,” she says.
Maximalism plays with scale and proportion and is not afraid to be fun and eclectic, with spaces that can encompass visible collections of art and artifacts sourced over time and travels, according to Ruth-Anne McMillan of McMillan Interiors of Dublin.
THE SWINGING PENDULUM OF DESIGN TRENDS
Markey attributes maximalism’s popularity to a backlash against the clean, sterile aesthetic of minimalism so popular in recent years.
While modernism prevailed for much of the 20th century, in the 1960s American architects such as Robert Venturi ushered in an era of postmodern architectural design.
“’Less is a bore’” and ’more is more’ go hand-in-hand,” explains Markey. The former is attributed to Venturi, who in response to Mies van der Rohe’s famous credo of “less is more,” published “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” a book calling for more decoration, symbolism, color, pattern and clever references to historic structures according to the New York Times. Old buildings were not just worth saving, he said; they could inspire new ones.
The movement gained traction in the 1980s and 90s with Michael Graves and Frank Gehry, according to Markey. “Gehry wouldn’t necessarily call himself a maximalist, but his work, in which outrageous forms intersect and juxtapose with others, speaks to that,” she maintains.
By the 1990s, minimalism came back into favor with wildly popular Scandinavian-style interiors and the sleek and modern aesthetic popularized by Apple and other technology manufacturers.
The stark look prevailed up until about the last 10 years. “Now we’re getting away from stark, simple forms and exploring complexity again,” Markey said.
“Look at the new iPhone,” Markey suggests. “It went from having a single button, to a number of buttons. Now there are no buttons. Tech is getting cleaner, sleeker and smoother. There has to be some sort of contrast to that. That’s why maximalism is getting traction.” A related theory points to maximalism’s excess providing a multi-sensory counterpoint to today’s overdose on two-dimensional screens.
Up until recently, maximalism has been associated primarily with fashion and residential environments, where disparate elements are blended into a single environment. But it is now being used to create high impact work spaces where its multifaceted design approach provides a platform for companies to communicate mission and culture.
“Layering in different materials, objects and architectural elements can convey a rich history and communicate values and culture throughout the space,” explains Markey.
DESIGN AS A BUSINESS STRATEGY
For McGinley, who acts as his own designer, maximalism is achieved with a combination of broad swaths of color via painted walls, furniture and carpeting with eclectic pieces that can be reconfigured at will, such as plants, artwork and collectibles.
Maximalist design is a business strategy first and foremost for McGinley, who leverages a portfolio of legacy buildings and unrestrained design to successfully compete in a crowded and competitive marketplace which includes 15 Iconic properties in Dublin’s central business district, underscoring the need to create unique identities for each environment.
“We feel that when you design a space that’s different from another, you attract a different type of client. That gives us a more diverse portfolio and lower risk,” explained McGinley.
“Our philosophy is in order to have a strong community, it should be a diverse community, so we’re not targeting any specific sectors. In fact, we welcome as many different sectors as possible. We feel that’s what makes the space interesting.”
In some cases, the result does not match up the intent. But that does not make it any less successful, as McGinley recalls a space designed to appeal to the tech community.
“It ended up all finance and legal.”
“Young, innovative firms took the space because they wanted to give the staff somewhere inspiring to work. They bring their clients to that building, and it reflects their brand.”
Iconic is now guided more by instinct. “We try to build space we and our friends would like to work in.”
“We build space for innovators. It doesn’t matter what sector of the market,” McGinley noted. “Our space is aspirational. It’s where our clients want their brands to be in the future.”
Oftentimes the building’s origins guide the design.
“We typically are chasing older products that have history and give them new life,” notes McGinley. “We feel a building with history is a more warm and welcoming space. Plus, heritage buildings lend themselves to maximum-focused design style with that attractive mix of old and new.”
A trio of buildings circa 1970-90 illustrate McGinley’s point. The Brickhouse, South Point and The Greenway, were unappealing second-generation office buildings with acoustic tiled ceilings, carpeting and grey interiors.
Sensing potential in these tired buildings, Iconic collaborated with each building owner to update the spaces to appeal to the 21st century worker.
Each building was stripped to its concrete shell and reimagined into modern flexible office workspace with exposed ceilings, breakout spaces, concept cafés and maximalist interiors that incorporate local art and occasionally graffiti.
Constructed in 1978, the aptly named The Brickhouse provides 21,000 square feet of office space. Housing about 329 members, it features high impact monochromatic rooms with color-dipped wall, furniture and accessories. The kitchen, café and two meeting rooms are blue from top to bottom. The Dragon conference room features red walls, tables, chairs and even coffee cups. A bespoke floor and furniture made by Irish joiners (“keeps it local”) are punctuated by a massive lime green bubble sofa showcased prominently in the lobby.
At South Point, the 345 members enjoy the library with a selection of whiskeys and vintage books curated by McGinley himself, who procured them from rare book dealers in London. “We like to use collectibles for a more personal, lived-in look.”
Oversize furniture in novelty colors is strategically placed throughout: a triple-size pink velvet Chesterfield couch, pink velvet breakout booths juxtaposed with dark green velvet private booths, and an Italian pink marble table so huge and heavy it took 10 men to get it into the building.
Glass walls throughout showcase awe-inspiring city views from the top floor of the 21,000-square-foot space.
Built in 1981 as part of the Telecom Eireann / Eircom headquarters complex, The Greenway sat vacant for five years until Iconic Offices rescued it from its former drab existence.
Today suede Gubi Beetle chairs are juxtaposed with graffiti and lushly planted surroundings in The Greenway’s cafe. The mix of materials, motifs, patterns and colors make for an irresistible choice, according to McGinley. “People absolutely love that space,” he said, noting it is much preferred over meeting rooms. “When the clients come in, it blows them away. Everyone wants to do their meetings in the café.”
Client feedback confirms Iconic’s strategy is on point.
“Design is one of our main competitive advantage in the Dublin market,” says McGinley. “We constantly hear back from clients how much they love working in the space, how they feel the space inspires their staff and adds value to help them attract and retain staff.”
Iconic Offices Headquarters
Portions of this post appeared in Allwork.Space and Workplaces magazine. They are reprinted with permission.