Designs on old money

City firms are throwing out the chesterfields and calling in designers - and all to attract young talent. <i>Hester Lacey </i>reports
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The Independent Online

Imagine a company with a reception area that feels like a café, an attention-grabbing giant inflatable banana just inside the main door, space dividers in the form of elegant tanks full of live pufferfish and eels, and a table football game for staff to play on in their spare moments. Sounds like an ad agency, or some branch of showbusiness: one of those creative professions based in a trendy space in Soho or Clerkenwell where an avant-garde office design is a showcase for the company's talents. In fact, it's a financial news service provider, Bloomberg, the multinational whose expanding offices take up much of one side of Finsbury Square, solidly in the heart of the pinstriped City of London.

Imagine a company with a reception area that feels like a café, an attention-grabbing giant inflatable banana just inside the main door, space dividers in the form of elegant tanks full of live pufferfish and eels, and a table football game for staff to play on in their spare moments. Sounds like an ad agency, or some branch of showbusiness: one of those creative professions based in a trendy space in Soho or Clerkenwell where an avant-garde office design is a showcase for the company's talents. In fact, it's a financial news service provider, Bloomberg, the multinational whose expanding offices take up much of one side of Finsbury Square, solidly in the heart of the pinstriped City of London.

Bloomberg is one of a number of pioneering companies to have realised that corporate businesses that don't make the effort to give their staff a working environment that isn't grey, dull and, well, corporate, may find that attracting bright young graduates and hanging on to them is an uphill task. For a start, jobs in sectors with a glamorous image, such as advertising, PR, television and publishing, have long been seen as highly desirable among graduates, and this trend shows no signs of abating. The latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show a further 17.3 per cent rise in applications for media studies courses this year. But research groups are finding that the demand for less glam positions isn't being met. There is already a Europe-wide shortage of IT staff, and it's predicted that there will be a deficit of 1.7 million IT specialists by 2003.

Even Bloomberg, which has the advantage of being a "media" firm, albeit in the business sector, is having to chase new staff. Recently, it was reduced to paying men in sandwich boards to wander round the City, optimistically advertising vacant positions with the company. Bloomberg, along with law firms and other finance companies, is finding that it is losing staff to dotcom startups, which are seen as more exciting, cutting-edge and sexy than conventional businesses. In the US, the dotcom exodus has reached such proportions that Wall Street firms are falling over themselves to offer perks to young staff, ranging from free in-house laundry, ironing and video-returning services to cash bonuses and share options. Even staid, established firms are extending "dress-down Fridays" to the rest of the week, in an attempt to boost their cachet with youngsters.

So: how do you make your firm more attractive than the rest? Bloomberg, where the average age of the staff is a mere 27, is already well on the way. There's a definite buzz to the place. "We might wear suits but we don't have to act like them," said one enthusiastic young employee, who was heading up the steps straight into the (free) staff café to grab some lunch. "I couldn't work somewhere hushed and dusty and old-fashioned."

According to Sam Jacob at FAT Architects, one of the design companies collaborating on the Bloomberg transformation, television has made a considerable contribution to changing the way we think about office space. "In the Fifties, US sitcoms changed English kitchens by showing modern layouts and appliances - architects had been trying to introduce them, unsuccessfully, since about 1910," he says. "Today programmes like Ally McBeal are showing a quite radical office design. It's when things appear on television that they become popular and accepted, because this demonstrates to the mainstream that there has to be some sort of change."

It's all a question, say Claire Catterall and Sarah Gaventa at Scarlet Projects (the company responsible for coming up with other fresh notions for the building), of "curating the environment" - treating the office as an ongoing project that needs looking after and updating regularly.

Catterall and Gaventa are working on refurbishing a number of meeting rooms, and have commissioned some of London's brightest young designers to come up with ideas. "The managing director said to us that if Bloomberg wants to be really successful it needs to attract the brightest, youngest people," says Claire. "The designers we're working with are in their late twenties and early thirties, just like the clients."

Currently on the drawing board, the Bruce Lee/Enter the Dragon room, with Seventies-style mirror panelling, laser-cut steel covered in flocking, a smoked-glass table and curved white leather seats. Or the traditional English design, evolved from a baronial hunting lodge, with velvet curtains and a lightbox projecting countryside views. For the make-up room, used by staff before going on-screen, Claire and Sarah are toying with the idea of Hollywood-style glamour, and a floor made of lipsticks embedded in Perspex.

Catterall and Gaventa have been pleasantly surprised by the experience of working with a big firm. "We thought a corporate client would be difficult to deal with, but in fact it's wonderful to have a client that's so open," says Sarah. "A lot of the ad agencies who have very flash stuff are just showing off, but this is genuinely for the benefit of the employees."

Linda Morey Smith is an architect who specialises in updating and her company, Morey Smith, has more and more corporate clients on its books. One scheme she's currently working on is for a division of Microsoft, the computer giant, which has acquired new premises in the West End. Linda Morey Smith has put together a design package, which includes a meeting area like a swimming pool (minus the water), for a staff with an average age of just 25. There are portholes with bubbled glass which give an underwater feel, a bar made of a diving board, swimming pool-style steps leading downwards, and, as well as more traditional poolside stools, big rubber rings to lounge on. A barbecue area is a possibility for the top floor, with views over the rooftops; as for the tea-making stations, a dribble-crusted tray with a dilapidated kettle in a cupboard by the loos doesn't cut the mustard. Designs for the tea-points incorporate huge Fifties-style fridges, silver Amtico flooring, and elegant high stools - the kind of thing you'd want in your own kitchen.

"Features" that Linda is happy to tear out include flickering fluorescent lighting, cheap partitioning, anything Eighties-style, chintzy, or black smoked glass. And, she says, it's all about comfort as well as style. "Often the brief is about employers wanting staff to feel good about coming to work. Image is important, but it's also about creating a more domestic feel - people don't necessarily want wacky features."

Another current Morey Smith project is for a pharmaceuticals company, Astra Zeneca. Astra Zeneca is relocating from a Fifties-style traditional building with small offices and an old-fashioned staff canteen. Linda's design includes an airy atrium with suspended walkways, outside decking, and bold use of colour and texture. She has also found that law firms are beating a path to her door. "Lawyers tend to be very traditional but think of the clients out there - media firms, creative firms, dotcom companies. Lawyers are increasingly keen to get ahead in terms of the image they present."

For Rowe & Maw, a City law firm, Linda created a clean, lean, elegant look, with blond wood, lots of glass, and none of the fustiness often associated with lawyers. "We are trying to get away from any stuffy image," says John Rushton, a partner at Rowe & Maw. "Perhaps Rowe & Maw might have been seen as a little old-fashioned before; our new building is part of the statement of what the firm is trying to achieve in terms of image. We are trying to create a youthful environment; we have moved away from Pickwickian desks."

All very exciting. Only consider this. According to Linda Morey Smith, office designs have a 10-year cycle. So in a decade's time it could be the height of retro chic to reinstate functional cubicles, dodgy kettles and ailing yucca plants. Ah, the irony of it all.

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