Focus on Leadership: Designer Primo Orpilla looks back on his nearly three decades in design - Oct 2020

Interview by Kemp Harr

Co-founder and principal of San Francisco-based Studio O+A, Primo Orpilla, has spent his career designing workspaces for iconic brands such as Slack, Nike, McDonald’s, Yelp, Levi’s, Facebook, Microsoft and Uber. Orpilla founded Studio O+A with Verda Alexander in 1991 with a focus on space planning for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and the pair was at the forefront of what we now consider contemporary workplace design, with its open floorplans and collaborative spaces. Today, the studio sees itself not only as a space creator but also as a creator of experiences. Studio O+A has won many awards for its innovative approach, including a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2016 from the Smithsonian Design Museum, which “honors the timeless legacy of preeminent design leadership in America and recognizes the power of design to change the world.” Orpilla and Alexander have a son named Apolo.

Q: What drove you to pursue a career in architecture and interior design?
Really a lack of [skills in] mathematics and science drove me to design. I wanted to be a jet pilot for a long time. When that was dashed (by an eye exam), I tried to save it with engineering. But the first semester of engineering was so boring; I was [missing] the whole creative thing. I walked into the art department and saw what I wanted to do.

Q: What was your first break on your path to becoming a leader in workplace design?
It was a company called Cunningham Communications. The woman who ran it, Andi Cunningham, was maybe one of the first in Silicon Valley to embrace culture as an element of design. She realized it was the way to manage and cultivate a company’s ethos and philosophies.

Andi was very into creating her own ecosystem, not just any communications PR firm. And it was the first time we did brainstorming rooms and things like that-things that just didn’t exist in Silicon Valley at the time. I feel like she really set the stage and gave us a glimpse of what this work could be in other places. Could we take brainstorm rooms and kitchens and this non-hierarchical philosophy into tech?

We had done many offices at that point, and we’d done them pretty much in the same fashion they’d been done for most companies: workstations, cubicles, hard-wall offices on the perimeter. Seeing what she had done and how rich the culture was at Cunningham gave us a glimpse into what we could potentially do. She had customers like Cisco and Apple, and they would come to this office that was deliberately designed, and they would say, “We need to have a brainstorm space!” We started playing with these ideas that began in an unrelated industry and brought them into tech.

Q: As you look back on your work, what was your most meaningful project and why?
We were among the first to experiment with removal of panels, and it wasn’t in the usual places. We tried it, of all places, at Levi’s. They had a group that basically was their jeans design group for the 501 product-sort of hipster couture. The space that they were in was designed in the ’70s and it was a cube village. It was not collaborative. I remember they were really looking for productivity gains. And at the end of the day, productivity was being inhibited by cubicles. And the reason was that, at that time, the Internet was just starting, and employees would go into their workstations, and nobody could see what was on their screens. They were just surfing.

The executive who ran Levi’s’ jeans division came from Amsterdam, where workspaces were miles ahead of everybody else, very non-hierarchical. So he realized that productivity was higher in an open plan because employees were, in a sense, exposed. They couldn’t not be working on product or projects. So we had a huge onboarding of this idea.

Remember the book Who Moved My Cheese? It was about this mouse, and these good things happen because his cheese gets moved. The point of the book is that, if something is massively disruptive to our way of doing things, that’s actually a good thing. This guy at Levi’s got that very early on.

So that was the start. And then the dotcom boom hit. And that was the period where everybody had the Internet, but the infrastructure wasn’t there-it wasn’t really working yet. It was terribly slow, and there was no way to buy anything because PayPal was just in its infancy, so after two or three years, it went away in an instant.

But O+A survived and took what we learned from that instance. That’s when we got Facebook as an account. We got this one iconic brand, and suddenly workplace was everything in the Valley. Social media, and that whole my-life-is-online thing was just beginning. But Facebook realized this and felt they were a social lab [of sorts]. They were trying to create this virtual social scene and experiment to see how they could [apply that] in the workplace. Mark Zuckerberg was all about no partitions and offices-he sat out in the open plan. This is where the big change in the Valley happened in the workspace culture. This is when it really took off.

Q: When you engage with a client, what is the process of determining what type of workplace would work best for them?
Somebody explained it to me in a way I’d never thought about: we’re research-based designers. It sounds horrible, but we do a fair amount of research to understand a company’s culture. I think we’re kind of mad scientists when it comes to what we do with the data. We’re going to take that data and then we’re going to kind of stretch it and test it. We’ve got the people who occupy the space. We’ve got the technology that occupies the space. We’ve got the whole idea of creativity and empowerment. All these things are there, and somehow we design that backdrop environment for a lot of things to happen.

Q: We see in the workplace the use of a lot of polished concrete, which many in the flooring businesses consider a subfloor. How do you balance the aesthetic you are looking for with the performance characteristics that are conducive to a high-performance work environment, while also factoring in acoustics and comfort underfoot?
An environment doesn’t need to be defined by walls. The floor can define circulation and workspace. It very much becomes an indicator of how the space functions. It’s almost like wayfinding, an intuitive way to understand what the space is doing. Yes, it’s important to understand its performance factors, its cleanability-all that is definitely a part of the decision-making on flooring.

But flooring has become a strong design element. Warmer colors can evoke calm. Something about the humble and natural features of concrete is appealing. It sends a message about who we are, what we represent and what we value. It has many different dimensions. It’s hard on the foot, yes, but it’s easy to roll carts on. It’s got this utilitarian aspect to it. It looks like you didn’t spend too much, but it conveys authenticity and the legibility of the materials.

We still employ wood floorings and tile where necessary. We use it to break up space and delineate areas and make it sort of a map of how to use the space. We know that concrete very much goes with circulation and then underfoot maybe we build a softer surface to manage acoustics. So we strategize the surfaces.

Q: What guides you in choosing the right flooring for any given set of criteria?
I feel we’ve developed a language with flooring over the years so that we understand its performative characteristics, what it means in a space and how it messages out. I think we’re fairly confident in our judgment in that respect. Performance-wise and technology-wise-how it reacts to spills and that kind of thing-we definitely rely on the manufacturer.

Q: What is your preference in terms of real flooring products versus lookalikes?
It’s all very much application based. I love to use natural tile where I can, but sometimes existing conditions don’t allow it, and we have to use something that might mimic it but has no seams and is so elegantly done that it looks good and performs well. I can’t say that I like any one product over another. It’s very much driven by the function and the end user.

Q: How much of a factor does sustainability play in the materials you select?
A lot. It’s sort of baked into our thinking. We’re very conscious of where a material comes from-its manufacturing, its recyclability. The flooring industry has managed the process of recycling better than most.

Q: Name some of the mentors that helped drive you to reach this level of success. What did they teach you?
Studio O+A co-founder Verda Alexander would be one of those people. Her outsider point of view has always been a big part of O+A’s thought process.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of different companies, and I’ve admired the way they have handled the growth of their companies, their building of their company culture. It would be unfair to name one executive. I feel like I’ve learned from everybody.

I’m a fan of Gary Hustwit, the documentary filmmaker. I like to look through his lens at the way he sees a process. In a way, ghostwriting is kind of what we do. It’s like the client is the real author. We’re just the creative hand.

Q: How do you get feedback, post-project, to ensure your design solution was effective?
We’re usually around for a long time after the project-doing anything that we missed or revisions on things that aren’t functioning right. We’re vigilant about the finish of a project because we’re building that knowledge and using it in another space. We more or less know if our spaces are functioning correctly by staying close to the client and monitoring it.

Q: As an expert in workplace design, how do you think coronavirus will affect the workplace?
That’s a great question. We’ve been asked to do a couple of case study projects for clients. And we’re lucky that we’ve been ready with our own typologies and our own understanding of how we use them to make a space. Again, it’s kind of a mad scientist type of thing. What does the future look like?

Well, we have a sense that the thing that people are missing the most is being with other people and that collaborative aspect, and we know that our spaces help cultivate some of the creativity that we feel. That’s the thing that seems to be lacking while we work decentralized. So I think the focus might be on those moments, those gathering moments-the meetings, the scrums. And the quiet, heads-down work might be better served in your home office for some parts of the week.

We understand the benefits of agile work. This is, to me, another kind of agility. It no longer takes a two-hour train ride each day to get to and from work. Maybe you’re stuck up in your home office, but that’s still agile work because you picked the place, and you’re going to perform at your best.

Q: What is the source for most of your inspiration?
I think I’m a pretty keen observer. That’s my method of getting inspiration. We’re lucky enough to have experimented on some of the most incredibly creative workplaces. I’m basically a pragmatic person, but when I see things out of the norm, that’s when I get triggered. I’m not so much engineering as reverse engineering and trying to apply [my observations] to something I feel the workplace needs. I connect things in a non-linear manner. I think I’m very circular. In fact, I know I am. I’m never quite satisfied-to the point where the deadline is passed and I’m still tinkering.

Q: Where is your favorite place to work?
I’ve thought about this because I’ve been working in so many different places. When I’m sketching, I like to be standing up and leaning on top of something. I try to make any space work to be honest. I don’t think I work better on a plane. I don’t think I work better in a recliner.

It’s all in my head. If I get any sort of stream that I want to continue, I just keep on writing. I have scrolls and scrolls. I actually want to have a show of them after COVID. Because all my notes are on these scrolls, and it’s almost like an art installation. I love it because I don’t have to turn a page. The end of the thought is not the end of the thought. There’s still potential for it to continue. Maybe this is a metaphor for the never-ending thought stream. I haven’t written in a moleskin in months now. There’s too much order in a moleskin for me. I don’t want the order. I want the freedom to continue on this roll.

Q: Of all the awards you’ve received, which one is the most meaningful and why?
I’d have to say the American National Design Awards by Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum because it’s a national thing that’s not related to any particular publication or industry. It’s the repository of all the design in the U.S. They sort of categorize it for that year-who was doing work that meant something? And it’s the Smithsonian! Who doesn’t want to be in the Smithsonian?

Q: What advice do you have for your son about seeking a happy, fulfilling and purposeful life?
Do what you like. You’ll only be passionate about something you enjoy. It’s not what I want; it’s what you want. People who are pigeon-holed or asked to go into a field usually end up not staying in that field.

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