FiftyThree, the company behind the drawing app Paper and the hardware stylus Pencil, is moving into a new office. We spoke to architect Laura Gonzalez Fierro about the jaw-dropping new digs. We figured we'd also use the opportunity to ask CEO Georg Petschnigg what the company is up to.
It’s been a busy year for the company. How has FiftyThree changed in the last year?
Last year was transformative for FiftyThree. We have a real shot at changing the very nature of how people create and we are doing this through tools, partners, and our community. Our iPad app Paper is about capturing ideas. We then introduced Pencil, our first hardware product, which is about getting people thinking viscerally and intuitively expressing themselves with their hands. Along the way we collaborated with brands to remove barriers. With Moleskine for example, we launched Book, a beautiful way to bring your ideas to life in printed form. We also teamed with the Historic Royal Palaces in London where we worked on our first exhibit.
What are some challenges the company has overcome?
One challenge we had to overcome is the perception that iPads are for content consumption and gaming only. FiftyThree’s Paper and Pencil changed that, and these products are the result of a very unique product development process. We have one designer for every engineer, which lets us prototype aesthetics and functionality rapidly and at great fidelity before we start building.
Any advice for other startups?
While building your first product, keep your costs low. Work out of your own apartment. Once you have a product and revenues, be ready to grow and when it comes to space, go bigger. The cost of outgrowing a space too quickly is significant. Even at the sky-high prices in New York, the cost of 2000-3000 square feet is about the cost of one full-time salary. In bad times, don’t hire that one person. In good times, you’ll be glad to have room for 10 more.
Space shapes thinking. Space envelopes the body. We are products of our environment and spend hours at the office, so invest in it.
How will the new office change how people work?
FiftyThree began in my apartment, and as the team grew, we took over the 5th-floor apartment, and then the 6th. Our initial office being my apartment certainly qualified us as a scrappy startup, but it also introduces a subtle psychological barrier: The team never fully felt comfortable making the place theirs. After all, it’s where I lived. Moving into the new space will change that ownership dynamic in a positive way.
There are some immediate ways how we made the space at 60 Hudson suit our workflow. For example, we included built-in poster ledges and storage for the 4'x8' foam-core boards we use to display and review our work. In true New York fashion, all of the space is multi-functional: Our lounge can be used as an ad-hoc meeting space or a more formal auditorium. You can transform the kitchen into a massive theater by lowering a 16' projection screen in front of it.
Another key aspect was to build a friendly space that puts you in a psychological state of flow. This mean we designed custom height-adjustable desks, the space is flooded with natural light, and a tree is in the middle.
Is there anything specific that having a new office will allow, physically or mentally?
We are lucky to be part of a rich and thriving community of creators. The new office space will let us bring our community together. For example, March 18th we are hosting Austin Kleon, who we’ve long admired. Bringing community and ideas together is also a key theme for our product development, and this year we are working on a collaboration service.
Where does FiftyThree, a company all about design and color, start in decorating and building a new office?
Working with FiftyThree was very nourishing since the beginning when I first met with Georg and he shared a graphic presentation expressing their wishes, needs, color palette, and challenges as a company. From an architectural point of view that was extremely helpful because we also operate in a visual way, so starting with a graphic dialog made us start with a very natural conversation in terms of design.
I also learnt how important good craftsmanship, quality, function, and aesthetics were to them as all their products are created under the same principles.
It was at the very beginning when we realized through one of Georg’s telling quotes what our main concept was: Honest materials and understated confidence. Under this creed—that we never lost sight of—we created a space that involved a very honest and open layout that promoted teamwork and collaboration.
The selection of materials—walnut wood, blackened steel, glass, and concrete complemented by a couple of accents of marble became our palette to start drawing what became an office space that reflects our client’s pillars. In a very simple but organized way we created a variation of spaces that enhanced the everyday working experience, but also developed unknown or new ways of working. For example, the wood platforms in the center of the space consist of an elevated space that has the function to gather people but it also allows you to have a different perspective of the space by the simple fact that they are elevated.
What are the initial challenges of a new office space?
Every interior space in New York City has its own particular challenges and constraints, from the type of building administration and the code regulations to the physical limitations and/or advantages of the space.
Usually the planning and approval phase is longer than the actual construction of the space. This is always a challenge, as we need to make quick decisions and be responsible about them in order to stick to a schedule, budget, and expectations from the client.
Unforeseen conditions can make us take a different route, a raise in the cost of materials can help us explore new possibilities, and dealing with skeptic contractors can create new and novel designs. In the case of 60 Hudson we worked with union labor and we went through one of the most nourishing experiences, dealing with extremely disciplined and organized contractors with lots of experience but above all eager to work along with the architect and open to make new things or things that are not necessarily their regular corporate interior’s project.
How does the new office change how people work?
Human beings have always demonstrated the need for shelter and dwelling. As humans we feel more comfortable if we have a space that protects us and that space many times becomes an extension of our persona.
FiftyThree HQ was conceived as an extension of what FiftyThree is—a group of extremely talented people that are genuine and create the most authentic and perfectly designed products for everyday life.
My main motivation as an architect is that I can make people’s life better by creating a space that talks to them and understand them and inspires them to create.
Feeling connected with a space can certainly enhance the design process by providing an office space that is functional, that echoes their own principles and values, and reflects their own aesthetics.