When Viv Nutt and Micheline Whale took over the reins of an established design and planning firm, they were determined to symbolize the identity shift. The result? A fabulous new office that showcases 4té’s talents and attitude.
By Judy Trinh
Photography by Marc Fowler / Metropolis Studio
This house was featured in the 2011 Interiors edition.
After years of soul-searching, in 2009 local interior design firm 4té found its identity and laid bare its journey in a new home in Hintonburg. Enter the office, and a graphic element immediately captures the eye — Innovative, Exalté, Passionate, Inspiré — dozens of words, in English and French, adorn the stark white wall behind the reception desk. The word wall speaks to both what the 4té designers perceive themselves to be and what they aspire to.
It is a vision that took company partners, Viv Nutt and Micheline Whale, more than four years to articulate. In 2005, the two were working as designers at Gansen Lindsay Design, an established design and planning firm with more than 20 years of history in the city. Despite being colleagues for more than a decade, Nutt and Whale had never worked together on a project. However, company co-founder Helma Gansen saw in the two the makings of a business partnership, and when she decided to retire, she approached Nutt and Whale to buy the firm.
They jumped at the challenge, but they wanted to make sure they were on the same page, so they spent a year researching the industry and separately plotting their long-term goals. The business partners then decided to symbolize the new feel of the company with a change of company name — to 4té — and a change in workspace — a new beginning to reflect the changing of the guard.
When they began searching for a new name, Nutt and Whale asked for input from all 17 of their staff. Finally, after dozens of brainstorming sessions over a year and a half, everyone agreed on 4té. The name speaks to the company’s strengths as well as to the four principles of design: architecture, design, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. But the partners knew that their new identity couldn’t be realized with a simple name change. It required a rebirth. “We wanted an empty canvas, basically a concrete block that we could put our stamp on,” explains Whale. “It also made financial sense.”
As they searched for a new office, she says, the worse a building looked, the more excited they became. And no other space made them feel quite so giddy as 73 Breezehill Avenue. From the outside, it was basically a concrete box with a few windows and a brown brick facade stained with water damage. The interior was both unpainted and poorly lit with fluorescent tube lighting, but Nutt and Whale saw only potential.
In 2009, they invested more than $600,000 to buy and renovate the building. Adhering to their philosophy of design democracy, they separated 4té’s employees into teams, giving each group a different aspect of the building to design. The finished product, completed just last year, makes everyone smile — a minimalist space that’s environmentally friendly, eclectic, and eye-catching.
The new home of 4té is LEED gold-certified, a highly energy-efficient space renovated using many recycled and natural products. All the lights and faucets in the building are connected to motion sensors to save on use. For the dramatic reception area, Nutt and Whale salvaged and gave new life to a Corian countertop and a chain-link curtain from a previous project slated for demolition.
But to the layperson, what’s most striking about 4té’s new office isn’t its sustainability, but its eclectic vibe. The whiteness of the reception area leads the eye toward a fuchsia rectangle that pops out from the wall, showcasing the firm’s projects on a plasma screen. A more conservative atmosphere is conveyed when visitors walk into the presentation room. There, red is the dominant colour, anchoring a banquette that lines one wall. Wooden beams taken from an old hangar at Ottawa airport give the room a touch of rustic modernity.
And as you walk back toward the designers’ workspace, the mood changes again, with the finished quality of the reception and meeting rooms giving way to exposed pipes and studs. “We wanted the building to mimic the design process,” Whale explains. As you walk through the building, you see the various stages of the design process in reverse, from the finished look of the boardroom to the raw look and the raw materials in the designers’ workspace.
“The design of this building encapsulates what we can do,” says Nutt of 4té’s new office. And the process has allowed staff to gel as a team.