Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

When talking about workplace design, the buzzword “collaboration” flies around the tech world faster than a speeding foosball. From startups working out of garages to sprawling corporate campuses, everyone is looking to harness the creative energy of people working together. Pinterest is no exception. The design-driven company is using its new 45,000-square-foot headquarters in San Francisco’s SoMA neighborhood as a test site for collaboration.

Employees moved into the space in April, filling a brick warehouse on 7th Street that had been stripped down to basics: large industrial windows, wood beams, steel structure. But into that raw space, concept designers Janette Kim, of All of the Above, and Anna Neimark and Andrew Atwood, from First Office, along with executive architect Neal Schwartz, inserted a grid of four white volumes. Each 20-by-20-foot cube-like “house” functions as a different kind of meeting, working, or gathering area. Almost totemic, these architectural interventions answer the challenge of how to have 150+ people working in an open-floor plan and still have places for quiet, creative intensity–and yes, collaboration.

“The one certain thing about a startup is that the future is highly uncertain, and so like an information system, we wanted the design of the office to be flexible enough that the design would be able to adapt as the company changes over time,” explains Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp. “Like Pinterest (the service), we wanted our space to accommodate the most heterogeneous set of occupations possible. That’s architect speak for, the space should enable you to work in many different ways. Whether you’re comfortable working at a dedicated desk, on your laptop at a communal table, or in a dark corner in the basement, it’s likely that you’ll find a place that works for the way you like to work.”

That doesn’t mean that emphasis is placed solely on efficiency or productivity. Like literal houses, the hubs within the office are meant to foster community. But perhaps, in the spirit of Pinterest, they are more like fun houses, with something a little strange or unique in each one to bond people together. For instance, an oversized circular table is intentionally too big for a single meeting or group lunch. “We wanted to design a table that would be so large it would welcome anyone to work on it,” explains Kim. “If your table holds 20 people and five people are sitting at it, anyone can feel invited.” By contrast, the “war room” is designed for power-working sessions on deadline. Desks allow designers and engineers to work shoulder-to-shoulder on their laptops and then feverishly cover the whiteboard and glass walls with their brainstorming notes.

The conversation of how to work collaboratively began for Kim long before she sketched a plan. Sharp was her student in 2008, when he was a graduate student studying architecture at Columbia University in New York City. Kim and Sharp remained in touch after he founded Pinterest in a garage and would discuss the connections between architecture, startup culture, and information design, contemplating how meaning is generated for spaces, objects, and photographs. “We talked about a square, a circle, a cross–really basic things–but it was also a way to talk about the collaborative culture of the office, of relationships between people,” recalls Kim.

That dynamic culture expresses itself in the architecture and in the ever-changing displays of vintage signage and funky objects brought in by the staff. DIY art projects made by crafty “Pinployees” hang from the rafters, evidence of after-hours creativity.

“The office feels intentionally unfinished,” explains Sharp. “We didn’t want the space to give the impression of success or complacency or decadence, the way a lot of studio and agency spaces feel to me. We wanted it to feel like one stepping stone on a larger journey. This helps remind us how far we are from our ultimate aspirations for what Pinterest will become.”