Homes and Gardens

AN OFFICE WE LOVE: McMillan ad agency’s impressive renovation is inspired by Mad Men

RENO BOSS: McMillan company president Gordon McMillan talks about how he, his staff, and Fraser went about creating the coolest office on the block. Photography by Marc Fowler

Mod Men (and Women): Inspired by the mid-century modern look and the television show Mad Men, McMillan ad agency undertakes a renovation that makes it even more fun to come to work. By Daniel Drolet. Photography by Peter Fritz and Marc Fowler.

This office was featured in the 2012 Interiors edition. See more photographs and read the full story in the print edition.

Stimulating the flow of creative juices was one of the goals of a major renovation at McMillan, an Ottawa ad agency that occupies 12,000 square feet over two floors of a heritage building at 541 Sussex Drive.

The redesign, which involved one of the two floors the company occupies, was inspired by the mid-century modern look and the television show Mad Men. The result is a space that is open and airy, a space that lends itself to people getting together to bounce ideas off one another.

The concept was developed by Serina Fraser of Clear Interior Designs. Company president Gordon McMillan talks about how he, his staff, and Fraser went about creating the coolest office on the block.

THE PANIC ROOM: The firm’s business cards say, “I’m listening.” The triptych created by senior art director Michael Zavacky is both a play on the company motto and a tip of the hat to artist Roy Lichtenstein, whose comic-strip-like images define mid-century pop art. The Tulip armchairs by Eero Saarinen are mid-century classics, as is the coffee table by Isamu Noguchi. Photography by Peter Fritz.

How did you decide on the theme?

I was at a TED Conference* in Palm Springs, and we went on a tour of mid-century modern homes. I was fascinated. It reminded me of all the cheap and tawdry stuff that was around when I was a kid. Plus there’s a subtle Mad Men theme. In the early 1960s — the Mad Men era — advertising went through a strong transition. So it seemed to us a reasonable theme. We did the Panic Room first, and people went, “Wow! I really like that.” I didn’t really consult the staff about it, but I knew some of them were very interested in mid-century modern. The vast majority of our staff are in their 20s and 30s, so for them, this is totally new. (* TED stands for technology, entertainment, and design, and TED is a non-profit group that sponsors regular conferences that bring together thinkers and practitioners from these three fields. The idea is to share talents, resources and, above all, ideas.)

Where did you splurge?

We had Michael Zavacky, our senior art director, create a triptych inspired by Roy Lichtenstein. Another splurge was the Céline Dion Memorial Ballroom — it has a fireplace and walnut insets and custom furniture. In some ways, it’s all a splurge when you know that when the lease runs out, you can’t take it with you.

Is there anything you are pleasantly surprised with?

The Panic Room. It’s a great space for brainstorming. One wall is a chalkboard. The wall was first painted with a magnetic primer, and over top of that, they painted chalkboard paint, so the chalkboard is magnetic. I didn’t think it would work, but it does — you can put metal clips on the wall and they stick. It’s pretty cool.

 

THE CELINE DION MEMORIAL BALLROOM: The structure in the middle of the room can function either as a coffee table or as seating. The modular blocks can be moved around at will. The kitchen, from Ikea, is proof that it’s possible to integrate affordable elements into an overall design plan. “We weren’t trying to replicate an era,” says McMillan. “We were inspired by an era. The Ikea kitchen works.” Photography by Peter Fritz.

How did you come to name a room after Céline Dion?

We asked people for suggestions. One person suggested the Céline Dion Memorial Ballroom — I have no idea why — and everybody just liked it. In other areas of the office, we have the Wilde Room, named for Oscar Wilde, and the ICU — Intensive Client Unit. The Panic Room is for brainstorming, but people in the 1950s used to say, “Oh, it’s a panic!” when they liked something, so it’s kind of a throwback to the Leave-It-to-Beaver era. We have another room called the Derek Zoolander School for Kids Who Don’t Read Too Good.

 

THE CUBICLE SPACE: The free-floating shelves behind each workspace are not for files and office things; they are meant to be filled with employees’ personal items, tchotchkes, and the like. The design stripped the ceilings to expose the wires and pipes. The white walls maximize light. From left to right: Kelly St. John, account coordinator; Jacob Bryce, associate creative director; Jared Young, associate creative director; Stephanie Dewar, former media planner and buyer; Casey Tourangeau, video editor/senior user experience designer; Leah Goodman, account coordinator; Andrew Bowser, motion designer; Briar Knott, receptionist. Photography by Marc Fowler.


Which aspects of the design bolster creativity?

The most important thing here is for us to work closely together. We almost have to sit in each other’s laps. The people who work together tend to sit together, and they are sharing a lot of the time. The idea of a closed office does not work. The challenge with open space is music. Music here is critical. The place feels like a tomb if there aren’t tunes on. So people are constantly putting tunes on and sharing with everybody else. People who need to concentrate put on earphones.

Do you think there’s a lifespan to this design?

Yes. You can go with something classic and know it’s going to last a long time, or you can choose to move a little bit more with the trends. I think if we continue our lease beyond 2020, we’ll do another redesign. We have to reinvent ourselves.


LIGHT TALK: Gordon McMillan, in his corner office that looks out over Sussex Drive, said the renovation was focused on bringing light into the office. "Everything we create, is seen through either reflected light or emitted light. If you’re working in an environment dominated by bluey fluorescent light, that drains the creative process." Photography by Marc Fowler.


 

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