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'Dot-Coms' Seek Cutting-Edge Office Space

Out are corner offices and marble foyers. Instead, designs include AstroTurf, metal garage doors and particle board.

March 21, 2000|JESUS SANCHEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AstroTurf covers the concrete office floor. Exposed heating ducts dangle from the ceiling. Signs of a business in trouble?

Not in the Internet realm, where these and other funky design features found in the home of GoTo.com are actually symbols of success.

"They're not like insurance firms," said interior designer Steve Karegeannes, who created the new Pasadena headquarters of GoTo.com, which operates a popular Internet search engine. "They said, 'Make it as cool and as creative as it can possibly be.' It's fun."

It's also profitable for the people who can make an office look cool. The vast amount of space being leased by Southern California Internet start-ups has generated a boom for interior designers with a flair for the unconventional and the ability to deal with a great deal of uncertainty. How do you, for example, create spaces for a firm that may outgrow its new offices before the blueprints are even dry?

The emerging specialists in "dot-com" design enjoy a great deal of creative freedom and face enormous challenges as they attempt to reflect the energy and attitude of companies that often reject the traditional symbols of Corporate America. Gone are the private corner offices, wood paneling and marble-clad lobbies of old-economy companies. What's in are vast flowing spaces, polished concrete floors and stainless steel surfaces.

The designers have also had to change their style of influencing clients, shedding their time-honored role as gurus of taste in deference to young, style-conscious managers who have their own ideas about what looks right.

Many designers are scrambling to learn more about the Internet, dot-com culture and how the new firms use space to attract key employees and impress investors. Pat Algiers, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers, regularly reads Internet and technology magazines, such as Red Herring and Fast Company, to stay in tune with her dot-com clients.

"It's a completely and totally different culture" than most traditional corporations have, said Algiers, whose Milwaukee firm has designed offices nationwide for Monster.com and other e-commerce firms. Her design for Monster.com's Silicon Valley offices, for example, features carpeting with purple and lime green stripes running on a diagonal.

"It had to scream energy. It had to scream attitude. And it had to look like a technically advanced space."

In Southern California, Wirt Design Group, where Karegeannes is a senior designer, has emerged as one of the most popular designers to the dot-coms. In addition to GoTo.com, Pasadena-based Wirt has created spaces for EarthLink Network, EToys, Idealab, Fastv.com, Cooking.com and the Wedding Channel. As a result, Wirt's revenue has been doubling annually in recent years and it has grown from two to nearly 30 employees since 1995.

Founder Jeff Wirt's knowledge of cyberspace has certainly grown in the more than five years since he was hired by Sky Dayton, the young entrepreneur who started EarthLink, now one of the nation's largest Internet service providers. In their first meeting, Dayton asked Wirt if he was familiar with the Internet. Wirt's reply: "No, but I've heard about it."

Now, Wirt's company Web site allows its designers and clients to collaborate online. On a recent Sacramento project for EarthLink, a Wirt designer used a digital camera to take photos of a building interior under construction and then posted those images on the Web site. EarthLink managers in Pasadena were able to monitor and comment on the work in progress.

The new technology helps Wirt keep up with the rapid-fire approach to design and construction that its new generation of clients demand. The 40,000-square-foot GoTo.com headquarters, for example, was built in eight weeks instead of the 12 it would normally take to construct.

"We are being asked to do more in less time," Wirt said.

Wirt and his fellow designers have also learned to abandon their egos. Instead of creating and selling a look to a client, interior designers often find themselves being challenged by style-conscious Internet entrepreneurs who know what they want.

"They'll pull out a picture from a magazine and say, 'We want our space to look like this,' " Karegeannes said.

The rapid growth of Internet start-ups has also forced interior designers to come up with more creative ways to accommodate new employees and upgraded technology. Plans for EToys' new headquarters on the Westside include specialized desks on casters that can be rolled closer together as the staff grows. A San Francisco high-tech incubator wants to experiment with walls--containing high-speed wiring--that can pivot into new positions to accommodate expanding firms and new tenants.

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