September 1, 2011

Siren Design’s new office for creative agency Tongue in inner Sydney is an eclectic fitout filled with personality and wit.

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There’s nothing like having a good space ‘pay off’ when you see it take shape and actually work. In the booming Chippendale precinct, Siren Design Group has effectively transformed a derelict inner-city space – once home to nesting pigeons – into a vibrant, creative hub for Sydney’s Tongue. It is the latest boutique agency undertaking by Jonathan Pease.

Embracing original features like internal brick walls and a network of exposed pipes, the four-level fitout oozes personality and wit, and is memorable for a cleverly curated collection of vintage furniture, objects and assorted memorabilia. This is all contributed by the 45 or so Tongue team members, who added personal objects or just ‘stuff they like’, layering the contemporary industrial shell with domestic details that remove the feeling one is actually at work. At just 18 months old, Tongue, a new generation advertising agency, thrives on fresh ideas, and now, its new space. Like the brand, it remains a work in motion, dousing the serious nature of client work with a healthy sense of play in their environment.

From the outset, the project was collaborative. ‘We were given a strong brief, and that made it really easy for us,’ explains Siren principal Mia Feasey. ‘From the minute I met Jonathan [Pease] he began with ‘I’ve got this idea for the headmaster’s office…’ We understood each other immediately, which led to probably one of the quickest design-development phases we’ve ever had. It was like three layers – Jonathan was the cone, we were the ice-cream and then he was the topping.’ She laughs while explaining the hand-in-glove-like client/designer relationship. ‘And it was done sensibly in terms of budget.’

The 1000-square metre complex has the vibe of a New York Meatpacking District warehouse apartment – definitely a place one expects to live rather than work. But it certainly gets the job done for this group. ‘As a communications and advertising business, your biggest asset is your people, and we wanted to create a place that was like a home for them,’ says Pease. ‘From the entrance and reception, every little nook and cranny, you’ll see our individual style coming through. What you see right now is about 80 percent complete and that’s intentional. Our team continues to bring their own stuff and personalise the space, and the result reveals much about many individual personalities.’

Wherever one looks, there are objects, ranging from Star Wars memorabilia to skateboards, randomly placed vinyl records and a growing snow dome collection. ‘The core of our business is ‘big ideas delivered’ and we wanted that reflected in the way we work,’ says Pease. ‘It’s a big space and there’s a lot happening here. It is important our team brings their weekend personas to their work week.’

Feasey adds, ‘there’s an evident sense of humour and fun. They obviously enjoy what they do.’ And even though the folk at Tongue take what they do seriously, they don’t take themselves too seriously, she says, to which both Pease and Feasey break into laughter.

The street level entrance is flagged by a huge red tongue above the door. This opens to an entry modelled on a recreated traditional English phone box that leads into the reception. Pease’s brief of ‘headmaster’s office’ is ironically now the zone of a chirpy female receptionist, perched behind an expansive old library desk floating within the space. It reads like Dead Poets Society with a twist. Old-meets-new is a central design theme throughout, initially evident in wall collages that are tinged with the humour of the internal creatives who made them – old world gentlemen sporting Nike trainers, or a bunch of old guys marching with Hans Solo’s Millennium Falcon visible in the background. The collages sit behind faux window frames, adjacent to a vintage reception lounge and a collection of other second-hand finds, such as a 1960s TV and a stack of old suitcases topped with a battered hatbox.

A red-carpeted stairwell, one of the only structural elements added to the building, and another collage of a candle-bearing night watchman add a theatrical tone. This is further accentuated by a cluster of old birdcages floating from the high ceiling overhead. The shell of the open plan work areas upholds the original warehouse feel with exposed brick walls and timber ceiling joists. Red pipes snake along the ceilings throughout the building, reigning as a distinct feature – marrying with the red painted checker-plate stairs that connect the three work floors. The colour red, like the Star Wars memorabilia, is a repeated theme. Other recurring design elements include door handles and a varied collection of suspended lighting, ranging from French industrial to ‘shabby chic’ crystal chandeliers. Like much of the loose furniture, the lighting was accumulated over time from assorted vintage suppliers and collectable stores.

The main entry foyer opens one way to an open plan office and another way to a ballroom-sized conference room – otherwise known as the ‘White Room’. It’s no surprise that everything is white here, from the expansive boardroom table rimmed with Verner Panton chairs and presided over by a multi-armed vintage light fixture. Like the rest of the fitout, the room is a work-in-progress. The white motorbike in the corner is soon to be joined by a white drum kit and an over-scale white Chinese gong. The growing snow dome collection, collected by staff on their travels, sits on the shelf.

The main work areas on levels one and two are vast, darkened rooms that open to natural light through industrial metal frame windows, bearing cityscape views across neighbouring rooftops. High-gloss custom workstations with turned timber table legs imbue a domestic tone, paring back the more traditional office elements such as filing units and office chairs. Breakout areas are more like living rooms, and the room is lit with feature lighting – in the myriad styles and eras one might find at home.

Our tour continues to the bathrooms, themed ‘boudoir’ for the girls and ‘cardboard box’ for the guys. Feasey shares that the essential connection of the collaboration was anchored by their builder. ‘Many things would not have been achieved without him. We found the pedestal vanity basins for the ladies’ room and insisted they had to be this exact shade of pink. Initially he said it couldn’t be done, but he found it. The final result is so good, it’s hard to believe that isn’t the original colour!’ Similarly, the men’s room has a distinct feel, textured like a cardboard box – evident in the Italian cardboard-looking ceramic wall tiles.

On respective levels, clear panelled walls segregate an office and a meeting room, with glazing featuring applied graphics courtesy of the in-house team. But ultimately, all would agree that the heart of the agency is the bar – a raw concrete 1960s besser brick construction that sits inside a glazed wall leading out to an AstroTurf outdoor area. The bar currently showcases a range of memorabilia, including papier-mâché Mexican funeral masks, a vintage Chinese courier helmet, a collectable Star Wars battleship Millennium Enterprise, and a ship bell (the latter is rung whenever a brilliant idea crops up). The outdoor area will soon have a floating deck, barbecue and umbrellas – the concept being a kitsch 1970s beach vibe, with wi-fi connectivity allowing team members to decamp and work if desired.

The top floor is the main ‘ideas area’, with breakout spaces that feel as though one has walked in on someone’s warehouse apartment. There are assorted vintage sofas and chandeliers fusing many styles and eras, a meeting room, an Eames chair rimmed table visible through a glazed wall, and a row of vintage doors leaning casually on the western perimeter wall. In the main space, the bricks have been taken back to their original, natural form, with opaque acrylic panels affixed and used as ‘whiteboards’.

The agency collaborates with a range of artists including Sydney-based Dion Horstmans, who crafted the massive tongue at the entrance, and also has two other 3D works featured on different levels. And a soon-to-be commissioned artwork will eventually grace the outside wall – most likely the creation of a renowned Sydney-based street artist. And, still, Pease continues to share plans of this grand work-in-progress. ‘We have seven ‘behaviours’ within the firm that will translate within the space,’ says Pease. ‘It may be custom-made neon signs, or it may be graphic representations of the behaviours scribed along the pipes…’ he laughs. ‘Whatever we do, it will have more of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feel.’

After continuing the tour, we find that we may have fallen into the same trap as Tongue clients, who, according to Pease, often come by simply to hang out. Each space is a place where one can almost feel at home. Walking back through the foyer, an enormous montage is being installed – photos of the staff as kids, teenagers and adults amassed in mix-matched frames. Pease oversees the installation and wraps up our tour with the explanation that ideas are about freeing yourself up. ‘We want to create a culture in here that keeps us free,’ he says. ‘I think you have to be a bit immature to come up with good ideas. Like kids – who have the most open-minded ideas!’ Like the tongue above the door, as we depart, the space delivers creativity in spades and is destined to do one thing – make people talk!

  • the design inspector September 1st, 2011 8:27 am

    nice job …. are they real ‘Panton chairs’ ?

  • nat September 23rd, 2011 1:47 am

    amazing job siren! and well written article..

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