By Jackie Bender
What makes an office cool? We use the term as a catchall for a well-designed workplace that's a good representation of the business and allows employees to work comfortably and efficiently. After that, opinions diverge. Should they be AG亚洲国际游戏homelike, with lounges, table tennis and the like? (No, says judge Richard Wright of Wright Auctions.) Wright, along with interior designer Michael Del Piero and Crain's assistant managing editor Jan Parr (a longtime design magazine editor in a previous life), chose 12 offices out of 78 submissions for this year's crop of Coolest.
Knoll's new three-story space showcases a colorful mix of the company's furniture and accessories against a view of the city skyline. Twenty of Knoll's 3,500 worldwide employees spread out among rich fabrics and diverse textures in the 24,000-square-foot, den-like workspace. Most do not have assigned desks and work alongside decor inspired by their new neighborhood. Knoll collaborated with design firm Gensler to create an aesthetic with midcentury modern, contemporary and bohemian themes. The space also serves as the North American flagship showroom for Scandinavian design brand Muuto, the newest addition to Knoll's portfolio.
A giant hole cut through the center of the fifth through seventh floors allows light to bend into every corner, changing the feel seasonally, daily and hourly. A rotating mix of designers, developers, architects and clients are invited to work from the showroom, infusing it with energy that "gives an enormous amount of vitality to the space," says Design Director Benjamin Pardo.
It's a marked break from tradition for a Chicago furniture and textiles company, where the Merchandise Mart has traditionally been AG亚洲国际游戏home. The change, says Pardo, is a sign of the times, with a new generation of buyers. Pardo says it was vital to be integrated into the city. He particularly loved the gritty, industrial backdrop of Fulton Market, where the average age of workers is conspicuously younger than in neighborhoods farther east.
"It boxed us away from an urban center in some senses," Pardo says of the company's former AG亚洲国际游戏home in the Mart. "To be engaged in the city to me is magical."
Knoll has the unique distinction of being in the business of creating cool offices by incorporating luxurious fabrics, juxtaposed textures and vibrant patterns. Pardo believes workspaces that offer choice, comfort and visual interest play a key role in employee retention.
"If you're happy, have access to light, there's movement because the physical space permits that, you're more efficient in your work, more focused and happier to physically be in the space," he says.
Knoll's goal with its new office was to set an example for clients, demonstrating how an office can embody a company's culture and brand.
"The Knoll office proves that contract furniture is, in actuality, far from dull," says Michael Del Piero, one of the Coolest Offices judges. "The space invites you to explore, engage and expand your thoughts on traditional office furniture."
In high school, if you had dreamed up what your ideal future office might look like, Revolution's new space might have been it. Entering the lobby from the elevator bank, you emerge from a dark tunnel into bright lights—like an athlete stepping onto the field. Emerson Fittipaldi's IndyCar race car greets you, along with stadium bleachers for meetings, a scoreboard and a swanky bar with floor-to-ceiling windows. Details like a sprawling wall mural of Fittipaldi winning the 1972 Austrian Grand Prix are the embodiment of the passion that drives this sports marketing company.
"Those are the moments people really remember about sports, and that's how we connect brands with fans," says Brian Quarles, chief creative officer. At the center of it all, a big-screen TV plays Revolution's Telly-Award-winning commercials—or whatever sporting event the office might be captivated by that day.
The Chicago-based team of 70 moved into the 23,000-square-foot Fulton Market space in December. It is one of the most immersive office experiences you can find—and probably the workspace on this list that most embodies "cool." That was a strategic play; the design team took inspiration from neighborhood hot spots, creating a similar social and collaborative environment to neighbors like SoHo House and the Hoxton hotel lobby. The workspaces themselves are modest compared to the communal areas.
"We're an integrated marketing agency, so in order for us to really think like that, we had to design a space that enables more collaboration," says Quarles.
At 5 p.m., employees gather in the lounge, sticking around after hours to catch up over drinks or a charcuterie board.
This environment goes over well when the company is hosting clients like U.S. Soccer, for whom they coordinated viewing parties for United States Women's National Soccer Team semifinals and finals during the 2019 World Cup. For employees and clients, the surroundings are an everyday reminder of what they love to do.
"This one really stands out, occasionally bordering on hotel design but with many innovative spaces," says judge Richard Wright. "How can you not vote for the bleachers with an actual scoreboard? Go, team!"
Tom Stringer Design Partners
At first glance, Tom Stringer Design Partners' new office in the Palmolive Building could be mistaken for one of the skyscraper's luxury Michigan Avenue penthouses. And that's intentional. Arguably the most classic design on our list, the space seamlessly blends comfortable furniture with antiques and touches of AG亚洲国际游戏home. The result is a tailored workspace that appeals to the designers' own tastes—and those of their high-end residential clients.
On the third floor above Louis Vuitton, employees and guests enter through a grand salon and are welcomed by cozy sofas and a rotating collection of sculptures and art—some of which may be on the way out to a client. The kitchen, with banquette seating, feels like a cafe. It's adjacent to a dining room where the 20 employees sit down for a family-style lunch daily. "It's probably saved us hundreds of staff meetings," says Tom Stringer. The conference room doubles as a library, with an entire wall of art and architecture books, a full-time librarian and a mix of meeting tables at sitting and standing height. Desks are compact, as most of the employees spend their days floating about the ornate rooms with their iPads.
Stringer calls the light, bright and white color palette an "ever-evolving backdrop for interesting things." Right now, accents of blue flow throughout the interior and the nearly 10,000-square-foot terrace, designed by landscape designers Eiserman & Associates.
"I guess I'm just in a blue moment," Stringer says, adding that this could change at any moment: "We're designers, and we get bored!" The quality lighting and neutral background serve important practical functions, too; they allow the team to analyze textiles, fabrics and colors without distortions or distractions.
The 2017 move from River North followed a gut rehab. The new location created room for growth—plus some unexpected shifts in foot traffic. Local clients now drop in just to say hello, thanks to the inviting atmosphere and central location. Most clients, however, are not Chicago locals. Those flying in can conveniently stay at the neighboring Four Seasons Hotel and shop their way to and from consultations in a space that epitomizes their design goals.
"The success of Tom Stringer's office is in how it represents the company's work," says judge Michael Del Piero. "The space, with its sophisticated residential feel, communicates the firm's beautifully elevated aesthetic."
At ActiveCampaign's new office, touches like stadium-style lounge seating and a 4,500-square-foot cafe are examples of the multifunctional spaces meant to bring colleagues together. "Our design (executed by Eastlake Studio in Chicago) emphasizes our open culture," says CEO Jason VandeBoom. "There aren't any boundaries between employees and their leadership, or across departments."
Conference rooms include a grand and colorful mural by Chicago graffiti artist Ruben Aguirre and custom garage doors that open into the office's main workspace. There you'll find motorized, adjustable standing desks and lots of natural light.
A hidden lounge/conference room, accessed by pushing open a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, creates the feeling of an escape without getting out of the office. "Sometimes you just need a different mindset to tackle a challenge, and that room is the perfect place to meet to do it," says Nick Bosch, the firm's director of marketing and communications.
Game rooms also make the space an exciting yet comfortable backdrop for internal and external events. In its application, ActiveCampaign described the office as "anything but boring." Our judges agree.
At BlackEdge Capital's new Fulton Market space, designed by Lamar Johnson Collaborative, the lines between business hours and free time are effectively blurred, with employees enjoying the space for personal use, even on weekends.
With nap rooms and game rooms, the design defies stuffy, corporate stereotypes of the trading world in favor of a refined, restorative atmosphere that features rotating art exhibits on loan from Vertical Gallery in Ukrainian Village.
The aesthetic plays off the industrial feel of the office's Fulton Market surroundings, but with a polished spin. Decor is abstract and artistic, with sharp angles and precision mimicking the intensity of the trading and technology sector.
Showers, a fitness facility and cafe make it a 24/7 usable space. "The unique thing about the space is almost half the square footage is devoted to amenities and quality-of-life features," says Josh Mateffy, BlackEdge CEO. "Employees are often bringing family and friends to the space on the weekends to work out or just socialize. It is an inviting atmosphere! The neighborhood is a big feature of the office, too; we could do all of our outings for the next five years without going more than a block or two."
This furniture brand's new space immerses employees in the company's materials and designs so they can reach out and touch the products they're creating and selling. Chicago architect Mike Shively worked with the firm on the new office.
Judge Michael Del Piero was impressed with the "approachability" of the space and the way the "comfort of their pieces takes center stage."
In this open office in a former industrial space, the team can choose from several seating options to create a different working atmosphere every day. A masonry wall divides the space into two main areas: an office and a cozy cafe. The rooms have different color palettes, but exposed stonework, beams and pipes carry through both aesthetics.
"I liked the balance of warmth and clean, functional design in the space," says judge Richard Wright.
Perhaps the most striking part is the entryway, where diagonal motifs play off the company's logo. A white custom sofa in a glass vestibule welcomes visitors into this chic wonderland.
This redefined Rookery Building space welcomes guests with a Calacatta gold marble entrance.
The design team, led by principal Marc Adelman, took inspiration from the historic building's iconic and ethereal atrium and segued those themes into a hospitality-inspired design: a nod to their global portfolio of design work on hotels, hospitals, universities and workplaces.
A regal 16-foot telescoping door welcomes visitors into the 12,430-square-foot studio. Artifacts—like the building's original pilasters and a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed elevator gate—blend seamlessly into a serene color palette of white, gray and gold. The 12-foot-8-inch exposed ceilings and epoxy floors reflect the natural light streaming through large windows.
For Perkins Eastman, the return to the Rookery Building marked a AG亚洲国际游戏homecoming over a century in the making. Dwight Perkins, grandfather to chairman Bradford Perkins, began his career in 1886 working for the firm that designed the Rookery before eventually starting his own architecture practice.
Res Publica Group
Res Publica Group believes that when you're in the business of storytelling, you need to have a great setting.
After a period of growth, the agency relocated its marketing and communications team smack in the center of town: the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. For Res Publica, working with Chicago architecture and design group Partners By Design, it was important for the bright and minimalist new space to feel like the city it inhabits. Like Chicago's skyline, the office's architecture is a mix of old and new—with refurbished, landmark-protected marble walls juxtaposed with a clean, understated design.
The calming, neutral color palette (judge Jan Parr, assistant managing editor at Crain's Chicago Business, described the space as "serene and pretty") glows in light streaming through large porthole windows. Sculptural light fixtures are visible to onlookers passing by on the streets below.
A large white marble reception desk greets visitors, bringing a fresh take to the historic space.
Simple Mills' headquarters is a visual embodiment of the food company's mission: a fusion between clean and creative. The sleek, white, open-concept office, designed by Chicago's D+K Architects, is dotted with bright yellow pops of color. It has been the River North AG亚洲国际游戏home to its 40 employees since spring 2018.
Work here centers around two kitchens: a research and development kitchen lab, where wholesome, non-GMO foods are created, and a demo kitchen, where recipes are taste-tested and photographed.
The kitchen lab's bright yellow light fixtures, doors and stools shake up the industrial feel, making it clear this is a space for fun and innovation.
In the demo kitchen, architectural gold pendants intermingle with exposed beams and piping. Long wooden tables give the space a rustic but glamorous feel. Potted plants and communal silverware at the center of each table invite collaboration and community.
At Turf's design and sales office, acoustics meet aesthetics in a most unexpected venue: a century-old firehouse that had been abandoned for 60 years. A group of the company's designers live nearby and had a loud and clear vision for the locale's potential.
"The firehouse is an expression of the kind of work we want to participate in," says Dustin Headley, director of product design and development. Working with Vertical Interior Design in Elgin and Chicago interior design and architecture firm Rivetna, they created an office that's custom, adaptive, responsive.
The open office in the former firehouse garage—an "echo chamber"—showcases Turf's sound installations, which aim to "fight the tyrannical disturbance of the open-space echo."
Magnetic strips on the ceilings of the conference room and offices allow different sound products to be swapped out seasonally. Fire-engine red is a visual theme carried throughout the midcentury modern decor.
As judge Richard Wright put it, it's an office space "that expresses the best of the company's products."
Cristo Rey College Prep
Two winning workplaces involved a total reimagining of untraditional spaces.
In the case of Cristo Rey College Prep in Waukegan, Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects converted a former Kmart store into a light and bright office and school space. Completed last spring, Cristo Rey has become a colorful showpiece for the community with new windows, glass walls, skylights and impossibly high ceilings that set a literal "sky's the limit" example for students.
In the depressed economic community of Waukegan, the school sees possibilities where others may see limitations. "Our space defies expectations in the same way students defy society's expectations," says Preston Kendall, the school's president.
Bright blue and green paint infuses the space with youthful energy, and the layout maximizes visibility and communication. Classroom activity can be seen from the hallways through glass walls. Everything is on one floor, which makes inter-classroom communications extra convenient.
All in all, it was "a huge design challenge achieved by light, color and thoughtful space-planning," says judge Richard Wright.
One Zero Charlie
In a similarly ambitious rehab across town, Michael Stanard converted a former Conoco gas station in Woodstock into the new headquarters for his branding, advertising and design firm, One Zero Charlie. What could be a better example of the brand's creative expertise than a space that taps into such outside-the-box ingenuity?
Hydraulic lifts, floor drains and garage doors were replaced with a new HVAC system, a whole lot of power-washing, and glossy white, yellow and red paint. The former gas station attendant's desk now serves as a conference room. Perhaps the most unique design feature is the office's outside light: a 1940s Standard Oil pump topper, hanging upside down to welcome clients into this adventure in time travel.
The design is artistic and fully animates the 1950s gas station as if it were frozen in time—so convincingly that occasionally someone wanders in thinking it's a service station, Stanard says.
Check out photos from every company that completed a submission.