Michael McDonough | Architect

Kissed by a Frog

Contract Design, June 1998

By Roger Yee

Frogdesign office
No one escapes the emotional experience of design at frogdesign, Sunnyvale, California, designed by Michael McDonough Architect

Days and nights with frogdesign: By stripping away the suspended ceiling, dry wall and carpet in a Sunnyvale, California industrial building and adding reusable partitions in a nonconforming geometry, architect Michael McDonough reveals the latest U.S. headquarters of frogdesign, a leading industrial design firm. The reception area (left) is typical of the facility in using daylight and views to make the 13,000-sq. ft. floors habitable.

It all happened in the same year: Astronaut Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind” and walked on the moon, musician Jimi Hendrix turned the Star Spangled Banner into an air-raid drill before some 400,000 music lovers at the Woodstock music festival near Bethel, N.Y., former Vice President Richard M. Nixon returned to Washington, D.C. after losing to John E Kennedy over eight years earlier to be inaugurated as 37th President of the United States, Modern architecture pioneer and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius died after successfully transmitting Modern architecture theory from Europe to the United States and industrial designer Hartmut Esslinger proclaimed “Form follows emotion!” in establishing Esslinger Design in Mutlangen-Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany. How distant 1969, a splendid year for doing outrageous things, seems from today. Yet Esslinger, whose declaration of guerilla war on the icy formalism of Modern design sounded so irreverent a quarter-century ago, seems no more compromising today. A look inside the new, 26,000-sq. ft. U.S. headquarters of his firm, frogdesign, in Sunnyvale, California designed by Michael McDonough Architect, indicates that “frogmut” still relishes upsetting apple carts bearing the design community’s preconceived notions.

Of course, frogdesign — the firm Esslinger renamed in 1982 in a gesture to his pet frog Fridolin (“Little Fritz” modeled for frogdesign’s logo) and the ancient German fairy tale about the lovely maiden who frees inner beauty from external ugliness with a kiss — has changed considerably since 1969. What was first an industrial design organization that built its reputation on fresh, innovative work for such clients as Wedge (TV sets), Apple, NeXT and Packard Bell (computers), Polaroid (instant cameras), Villeroy & Boch (bathroom ceramics), Seiko-Epson (computer peripherals), Yamaha (motorcycle prototypes), Matsushita (consumer electronics) and Rosenthal (tableware), opened its American office in 1982 and broadened its scope of services in 1992. Embracing “Integrated Strategic Design” or ISD, Esslinger and his colleagues in California, Germany and Singapore now apply their distinctive, multi-disciplinary approach to clients’ assignments in advertising, communication, graphic design, engineering, marketing, modelmaking, photography and research as well as industrial design.

The bold strategy is pure frogdesign. Veterans of the industrial design community know that the firm has never been solely concerned with the physical form of hardware, but also such software issues as cultural context, behavioral psychology, marketing and communication. user friendliness and customer service. “Our clients find the paradigms are shifting in their businesses and conclude that they need more than a new look to package new technology,” notes Steven Holt, director of strategic design for frogdesign and client representative for the headquarters project. “They want to rethink the meaning and function of what they do, and come to us for design with a point of view.”

Frogdesign office
The lobby (above) creates an air of discovery with only humble building materials.

Strong medicine, perhaps — but Frogdesign willingly swallowed a spoonful itself. Not only did the growing firm decide to vacate its existing office park facility in affluent Menlo Park for more square footage at less rent in a two-story industrial building surrounded by defense contractors in the heart of Silicon Valley. It also chose to create a highly flexible and relatively unstructured environment where employees could

The lobby (above) creates an air of discovery
with only humble building materials.

work face-to-face in teams of varying size and composition, an interesting option in light of its long-established commitment to flextime scheduling, virtual officeing and other progressive management techniques.

Silicon Valley never walks when it can run, however, so Frogdesign gave its architect just 15 weeks to complete the job. The unforgiving timetable made recycling the old interior as attractive as installing the new one. As Michael McDonough, AIA, principal of New York-based Michael McDonough Architect, comments, “Our basic concept was to reduce, simplify and strengthen the existing building and the new construction.”

That the accelerated project never veered off course may have hinged to some degree on Holt and McDonough being good friends who once taught at New York’s Parsons School of Design and jointly wrote a column for Metropolitan Homes magazine. In any event, the two friends interviewed Esslinger, president and CEO, Patricia Roller, vice president for finance and operations, and other managers and staff, and drafted a program that deliberately juxtaposed activities to break down departmental boundaries. “We wanted to strike a dynamic balance between the team and the individual in which the team is like a bubbling caldron that keeps calling you back,” recalls Holt. “Good ideas would then be challenged and made better, enabling the best to rise to the top.”

How would the physical environment serve this decidedly ideological vision? Most frogdesigners, who work on a half dozen projects or so at a time, would occupy a totally open “core area on the second floor in ad hoc clusters defined by the projects and clients being served. Directors, managers and vice presidents would have dedicated spaces on the periphery of the core area that would be at least partly enclosed and lacking doors — with the exception of Esslinger, who argued passionately about the need to play his Bösendorfer piano (he is an accomplished jazz pianist) at high volume — along with a “CAD cave” and “war rooms” where teams could assemble. Others requiring special accommodations would be housed on the first floor in a quasi-public setting that would include a reception area, a frogdesign museum, a conference room. a cafeteria, a day care center, a painting shop and a model making shop adjacent to a loading dock.

Given these circumstances, McDonough’s solution for Frogdesign seems as unexpectedly exciting as it is unavoidably pragmatic. “Among the goals we set were to keep utilities exposed and accessible, to design for disassembly, to give personnel options for reconfiguration and to use environmentally responsible materials,” McDonough describes. ” But we also sought a humane place to work where the plan remembers how people actually inhabit space. “Thus, exposed steel studs, sheet metal screws with finish washers and panels of recycled newspaper, formaldehyde-free MDF and gypsum board. the humble kit of parts used to assemble the rafts” or all-purpose partitions that give three-dimensional form to frogdesign’s floor plans, spring to life in McDonough’s hands. The architect has manipulated the rafts — open or closed at the top and bottom, 8 ft. or 10 ft. high, 90° or skewed to the floor and ceiling (the options are presented in a computerized facility management “pull-down menu” for frogdesigners to choose) — in ways that suit the workers while opposing the building’s mundane grid. At the same time, he has routed a forest of cables from overhead cable trays into an array of non-structural and structural columns as well as various walls to provide connections to such services as telephone, fax, TCP/IP, SLIP/ PPP and ISDN lines. CAD and CNC production facilities. The result is a very usable workplace that also happens to be original, idiosyncratic and visually striking.

Thus, exposed steel studs, sheet metal screws with finish washers and panels of recycled newspaper, formaldehyde-free MDF and gypsum board. the humble kit of parts used to assemble the rafts” or all-purpose partitions that give three-dimensional form to frogdesign’s floor plans, spring to life in McDonough’s hands. The architect has manipulated the rafts — open or closed at the top and bottom, 8 ft. or 10 ft. high, 90° or skewed to the floor and ceiling (the options are presented in a computerized facility management “pull-down menu” for frogdesigners to choose) — in ways that suit the workers while opposing the building’s mundane grid. At the same time, he has routed a forest of cables from overhead cable trays into an array of non-structural and structural columns as well as various walls to provide connections to such services as telephone, fax, TCP/IP, SLIP/ PPP and ISDN lines. CAD and CNC production facilities. The result is a very usable workplace that also happens to be original, idiosyncratic and visually striking.

Ironically the building of frogdesign began the moment workmen started dismantling the previous tenant’s space, exposing the structure and building systems that would be proudly displayed in the new scheme. To ensure that construction crews could carry out the unconventional floor plans, McDonough invited contractors to consider the challenges with him over coffee. “They were very helpful when I asked, “How can we do it best?”’ he admits. “We snapped the lines together.”

Now that frogdesign is ensconced in its new borne, Holt reports, “The office remains active nearly 24 hours a day as individuals and teams come and go on their own schedules.” Any sensible person who finds this nonstop vision of the future somewhat disconcerting will be relieved to know that all frogdesigners still pause for a formal, 15-minute coffee break each day at 4:00 p.m., in which refreshments are served. How scary can a future with regular coffee breaks possibly be?