Download: In ‘beige’ Washington, bringing color and character to the office

The start-up incubators and accelerators that have cropped up around Washington in recent years offer a workplace dynamic that’s not exactly common in the city of agencies and contractors: Many little businesses working side by side to innovate quickly.

The start-up hub known as 1776, which formally opens today on 15th Street NW, interprets that creative mission literally — its 15,000-square-foot office is in the process of a $300,000 build-out that’s bolder than the staid decor behind most office doors here.

The group of entrepreneurs taking up residence, for example, will be greeted when the elevator doors slide open by three large red stars painted on the office’s concrete floor — one of the art projects completed by about 25 local creatives.

Maggie O’Neill, the creative director at O’Neill Studios, said the painted stars are the most literal manifestation of the office’s “Americana” decor — an aesthetic that infuses the look of an old American farmhouse with modern sensibilities.

O’Neill’s interior designs can be seen at restaurants around the city, including Lincoln, Sei, Oya and Hank’s Oyster Bar, but she said there aren’t as many office managers who are willing to get creative with their space.

The 1776 office prominently features reclaimed items that will be given a second use, including church pews in the workspace, reupholstered furniture in the lounge and doors hung on walls as art.

The design is also an exercise in flexibility, O’Neill said, because 1776 has to serve many purposes. It provides office space — both permanent and temporary — for area start-ups, as well as conference rooms for formal meetings. The venue also hopes to host large gatherings of the D.C. tech community.

O’Neill discussed her designs with Capital Business, as well her thoughts on Washington’s creativity-challenged workplaces and why more people here should care about office design. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

How does commercial design compare to residential design?

Commercial spaces are spaces you’re in for a hot second of your life. Maybe it’s two hours for dinner. Maybe it’s 30 minutes for a cup of coffee. But you kind of want that other-world experience. When you go to a restaurant … it moves you in some way. That’s so much more of a challenge and so much more fun for me to execute as an artist.

Have you mostly done restaurants as opposed to actual offices?

In D.C., I call it the beigest city in the world. I’m one of its biggest cheerleaders right now because I’m a color fanatic, and I think this is a much more colorful city than anybody allows themselves to be. Everyone wants to stay in their lane. If you want your walls to be purple, who [cares] what your neighbor says? Offices don’t lend themselves to that level of creativity, so [1776] was a perfect fit for me.

Is there a market for creative office design here?

“[1776] is just bringing to the forefront all of these small businesses that I don’t think want to work in a conventional, sterile environment, otherwise they would be. They left for a reason or they’re starting their own business for a reason. And I definitely don’t think it’s so they can stay in the lines in a beige office.

Why is Washington so “beige”?

I think it’s because it’s a diplomatic city and you have to toe the line. It’s not a creative hotbed, even though secretly there’s a ton of creative business here. It’s just more secular. In New York or Chicago or any of these other places, there’s a neighborhood or a city block that’s dedicated to creative professionals. There isn’t that in Washington. We’re all over the place. If there was a 1776 for the creative community, that would be revolutionary.

Why should people care about their office decor?

Everybody underestimates the psychology of your environment. From a paint color to how your furniture is oriented, people underestimate it. If you’re sitting in a room, closed in in boxes and you have a fluorescent light over your head, I don’t know if there are studies that show this, but you would probably go nuts. But if you have natural light and you can spread out and there’s something really soothing about your workplace, I bet you’d get more work done.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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