We had the opportunity to sit down with the Founders and Principals of SWATCHROOM to discuss the role of design in company culture. MaggieO’Neill and Warren Weixler founded SWATCHROOM as an interior, furniture, lighting, 3D art and creative design firm focused on experiential design. SWATCHROOM locally sources much of its work from artists in the heart of DC to design authentically custom results.
Aspire: Thanks for meeting with us today! We’re excited to hear about what you’re doing at SWATCHROOM and how your designs impact the companies they’re built for. Tell me a little about your background. Why did you want to work in commercial design?
Maggie: I was in residential design for a while before working with a client on a restaurant design. With the restaurant, I realized I could push boundaries, juxtapose materials, pictures, and artwork in a way I couldn’t where someone lives 24/7. I was able to create true experiential design, and dive into the psychology behind places in a deeper way.
Warren: I completely agree with Maggie. Commercial design allows you to showcase your work in a way you can’t with residential design. It’s so much easier to allow future clients to experience your work by walking through a completed project and actually feeling the room, rather than looking through a portfolio or website.
Aspire: The work on your site truly reflects the passion you both have for creating that experience. Tell me more about how you founded SWATCHROOM. What was your goal when you started the company?
Warren: The concept of SWATCHROOM has evolved a thousand times since we began, but it all started because Maggie and I liked exploring the ‘what if’s’ of everything. What if there was a building where people could get together and do great work? What if there was a shared art studio in DC where people could collaborate to create awesome things? There are so many talented people in DC who could make this happen. There are light makers, furniture builders, artists, cocktail mixologists and they might be your next-door neighbor, but you just don’t know how talented they are.
Maggie and I wondered how we could highlight all of this talent and support the local artists here. We really wanted to optimize creativity in the DC space. Now, we do everything you could need from a creative agency, whether that is a logo, branding, a new website, interior design or architecture. We bring local, talented people together to do that great work.
Aspire: That’s so cool that most of the artists you feature are local! So what’s your typical process for designing a better workplace?
Maggie: That really depends on our client. We have two types of clients here at SWATCHROOM – those that know what they want and those that don’t. For both, we try to break down their desired end result into a concept and build that out.
Warren: It’s a lot like dating. On the first date, you’re figuring out what they like, when they want something, how much they spend…
Maggie: Yeah, but it’s pretty intrusive. We ask some tough questions up front! We’re really trying to vet an idea. For a corporate client, we’re looking to dive deep into the experiential design of a day-to-day workplace. We look at the culture of your firm, and ask the executive team what they see for their employees, clients, and interactions on a day-to-day basis.
Warren: We ask our clients a few important questions to hone in on what we should be building. We ask how they want people to be moving through these spaces. Do you want them to interact with one another? Is your office typically quiet? Do people play music? Will you want people to be able to take private phone calls?
We figure out what the space needs to function on a day-to-day basis and then we create a design to reflect those needs. A space cannot be just beautiful. It needs to function to be useful as a design. The functionality of a space is the number one priority. Then when it functions, we make it beautiful and we add an experiential component to it.
Aspire: Have you found that a redesign can change the culture of a company?
Maggie: Yes. It’s been shown time and time again that your surroundings affect you, so a company’s offices can definitely have an impact on the day-to-day culture. For example, at 1776 we designed two floors for them. On the second floor, we put in spaces for private offices and larger startups. After working in the open floor plan, everyone realized a communal working space isn’t always an ideal set up. Sometimes, you need to have tough conversations, and those can’t happen in front of everyone. The dynamic of the space changed drastically when we added in the more private spaces.
Aspire: How did you build space to reflect your culture in your own offices?
Warren: Everyone on our team has a creative bone for a reason. But they also have another arm, a specific knowledge base. For example, they are great at design and also a videographer or photographer. Those extra skill sets allow us to expand on our products. Our space reflects that. It is collaborative, but specifically divided. Upstairs, we have a traditional office, with desks and computers and meeting spaces. This is where the “real work” gets done.
Downstairs, we’ve broken our space into two parts. The first is a storefront where we could have a gallery, large conference room, or presentation. This is where the creativity, the off-the-cuff stuff happens. In the back, we have a workspace, where our materials, samples and building happen. For us, it was important to connect throwing an event, getting stuff built, and doing work. How we think and how we design informs our layout.
Aspire: Given your background, if you were to offer advice to an HR manager looking to build a better culture, what would it be?
Warren: Focus on the layout and use of space. Pay attention to the scale in your space. Whether you want a small, medium or large meeting room or conference area should depend on the scale you want to create. Differently scaled spaces allow for various things to happen in them. Make sure you consider that first. There is this romantic idea of large open office spaces that doesn’t always work when you try to function in it.
Maggie: Take an inventory of whatever your mission statement is and apply a visual vocabulary to that. Install a piece of artwork, or create a wall, or do something that will affect everyone who passes by it. Inspire people with something they don’t get to see in their homes or in the street.
If you really want to bring people together and have them effectively operate as a team – and isn’t that really what management is for? Then do something that makes everyone feel like they’re a part of it. Ask people their opinion. If you utilize inclusion and inspiration in the idea process, you’ll see the results you want.