Hollander Design Group's Viveca Bissonnette: Focus on Leadership - Oct 2015

Interview by Kemp Harr

Interior designer Viveca Bissonnette, FIIDA, CID, LEED AP, began her career in Toronto, Canada in the field of anthropology. She developed an interest in design in college, but her parents, an architect and an urban planner, encouraged her to pursue a more academic career. She earned a degree in cultural anthropology, but says that design was in her blood, eventually leading her to the Design Institute of San Diego. 

In 2009, Bissonnette and her business partner Jeff Hollander launched Hollander Design Group in San Diego, and today she is vice president and design principal, specializing in workplace strategy. 

Past president of the IIDA, Bissonnette has participated in numerous boards for an array of organizations, including the San Diego Architectural Foundation and the California Council for Interior Design Certification. In 2011 she was inducted into the prestigious IIDA’s College of Fellows for her design work and contribution to the association. 

Q: How has your background in anthropology helped you in your career as an interior designer? 
 Our workplace strategy practice is greatly influenced by my background. We take an in-depth look and analyze our clients’ business practices and internal culture to help them understand how their workplace could benefit employee productivity, retention and recruiting. 

There is a lot more attention being paid to workplace culture and how organizations function and work together. We use ethnography, one of the basic tools of cultural anthropologists, to observe and interview, resulting in an in-depth understanding of our client’s workplace culture. Traditional anthropologists look at society as a whole. We’re taking those same research principles to study individual organizations.

Q: Five years ago, you left a large firm to start a boutique business. What drove this decision?
 We were in the depth of the worst recession we had yet to experience. Resources were hard to come by and we had to do more with less. Jeff Hollander and I wanted to spend our energy on clients rather than on the bureaucracy often associated with larger organizations. We opened the firm in 2009 and hit the ground running. We have not looked back since and continue to manage the size of our organization to make sure we are personally involved with every phase of the projects we take on—a promise we make to each of our clients.

Q: How has the office environment evolved?
 The culture of the workplace is shifting, in part due to the major differences in values, attitudes and behaviors between Millennials and the generations preceding them. In addition, we are paying more attention to personality types, like introverts versus extroverts. One size does not fit all. Each client and organization we work with has different needs and goals, and the environment we design has to support those. 

Whether the offices are open or enclosed, we are designing a variety of spaces to meet everyone’s needs: spaces to concentrate, connect, recharge, socialize. Organizations are becoming less hierarchical, and the spaces we are designing to support this shift look very different from the ones we designed 25 years ago. 

Q: Do you think that the open office movement is motivated by real estate costs? 
 When organizations started realizing that they could cram more people into smaller footprints for potential real estate savings, I think there was a push for that. But there definitely has been a backlash to that approach. Although individual, private spaces have diminished in size, there’s a trade-off with more amenity and shared spaces. 

Companies are now paying more attention to the culture of the organization, and understanding that office space is a recruiting tool as much as it is a place to work. Today with technology, you can work out of the palm of your hand. If you can work anywhere, why would you drive 45 minutes to an unpleasant office environment? 

We’re finding that clients understand the role that the office plays in the attraction and retention of talent. Obviously all costs are important, and real estate costs are always a consideration. But when you look at the cost of talent, ultimately that ends up being more important, and organizations are realizing how the workspace actually affects productivity and the bottom line. If you cram people into a space like sardines, they’re not going to be productive.

Q: How do you find the right balance between open and private space in a work environment?
 There is no formula for that. We spend a lot of time with each of our clients to really, truly understand what that right solution is for them. Frankly, not one of our projects looks the same as another. We don’t have a style. The design is based on what the clients are looking for. We’re still doing some offices with completely enclosed private spaces because that’s the culture and nature of the company, and what that organization needs to be productive. So we’re not promoting any one particular solution. It’s really so specific to the goals of the company and the existing culture of the organization. 

Q: What parts of the LEED program are on track and in what areas does it fall short? 
 The USGBC has done an amazing job of bringing the implementation of sustainable practices to the forefront in the built environment. Whether our clients are looking to have their spaces LEED certified or not, we as a firm are committed to designing each project to the highest standards set by the USGBC. 

I think this conversation is different in different parts of the country. In California, LEED certification is rarely a discussion with clients any more, unless they’re government clients, because many of the requirements are already mandated by Title 24 and CALGreen, California’s Green Building Code. There is not a perceived desire to have a building certified because every building built in California now is going to meet or exceed those requirements, whether it’s LEED certified or not.

Q: What are the most important environmental considerations in the spaces you design? 
 In California the most important factor we consider in almost every project is a direct connection to the outdoors. More and more clients are asking for outdoor space to be incorporated into the workplace environment. Most recently we commandeered 13 parking spots and cut holes in the side of an existing building to create an outdoor patio directly connected to the clients’ office for an indoor-outdoor dining and gathering space. 

Q: When it comes to floorcoverings, are you getting what you need? 
 The variety of product available today is mind boggling. Companies are spending more money and time hiring designers and focusing on design. Ultimately that results in an incredible variety of products for designers to select from. 

And from a health perspective they’ve made huge strides. The chemical technology has improved over time, and that relates to colors in solution-dyed nylon as well. Ten years ago colors in solution-dyed nylon were so different than they are today. The technology has improved so much, and the manufacturers have taken advantage of it. 

Q: Is there a project that really makes you smile because the work was fun and the client was thrilled? 
 We did the headquarters for a company called Pirch. They describe themselves as a lifestyle retailer. They sell high-end kitchen and bathroom fixtures, and they’ve really changed the model on the retail side. They’re on Forbes’ fastest growing companies list. 

They were such an extraordinary client. They understood the value of design. They understood the value of their staff. And they pushed us to push them. It’s really interesting, but I think we have the most fun when our clients push us and we push them back because we get to places neither of us have been. 

We loosely based the office on the experience they’re creating in the retail stores. For example, there is no reception desk. A coffee bar serves as the welcoming space, and a chef cooks breakfast and lunch for the entire staff. People aren’t required to eat together, but they’re not allowed to eat at their desks.

The space is really quite extraordinary. It is organized with a central core that brings everybody in the organization together at meal times and during meetings. We also built a fitness center within the office space, and they have a full time trainer. They definitely are creating a community. 

Q: Who are some of your mentors? 
 I have had many amazing mentors over the years, both more and less experienced than myself. I think, however, my father has had the biggest impact on my career. He was an architect with his own firm in Toronto until his death in 1996. I grew up in a household where the importance of good design and the impact of the built environment were palpable. His passion for design and his incredible work ethic will always be with me. 

Q: What do you do to relax and recharge? 
 I love to cook. If I weren’t an interior designer, I would be a chef. Cooking allows me to be creative with instant gratification for myself and others. Many of the projects we work on take years to develop. 

Q: What advice do you have for the young interior designers who are entering this field?
 Keep your eyes and ears open. Take advantage of every opportunity you are presented, no matter how challenging. And never forget why you became a designer in the first place. Keep pushing and growing yourself—and your clients.

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus

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