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The Spectacular Tech-Inspired Art Of Dolby’s New Headquarters

An inventive company with a proud history asked 20 artists to create work based on one surprisingly rich theme: itself.

Dolby Laboratories’ old San Francisco offices had art on the walls. But only a little. Basically, the company had hung posters for a few of the countless movies that have used its technologies over the decades.

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Dolby’s new San Francisco headquarters at 1275 Market Street

Dolby–which is best known for making audio sound more real, though it also does interesting things with imagery–is about to formally unveil its new headquarters, complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by the mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee. Its new digs, a 16-story rust-colored structure with a stair-stepping effect on one side, are in San Francisco’s mid-Market neighborhood, a famously scruffy area that is in the process of becoming a tech haven. (Twitter is one block over; Uber and Square are another block beyond that.) The structure was built in 1977 as the headquarters of California’s State Compensation Insurance Fund, a semi-autonomous worker’s insurance fund. On the outside, it still looks pretty much like you’d expect a building constructed in the 1970s for a worker’s insurance fund to look.

On the inside, though, Dolby–which purchased the building for a reported $110 million in 2012–has made the place its own. And art is a big part of the effort.

From a purely practical standpoint, the move lets Dolby start to consolidate its 700-plus San Francisco employees, who have been divvied up across three buildings, into a workplace it calls a “vertical village.” It’s putting in over 100 labs and–opening in 2016–a 250-seat state-of-the-art Dolby Cinema. In a quest to encourage collaboration, the company knocked down walls to create open spaces, installed central staircases to help workers zip between floors, and built a massive multilevel wooden structure at the rear of its lobby–“The Hill”–which is part steps, part hangout.

“The Hill” at the back of Dolby’s new lobby

The art is all over the place: Dolby commissioned 20 artists to create 36 installations in work areas, communal spaces, and hallways. The project fell into the responsibilities of vice president and executive creative director Vince Voron, a veteran of Apple’s industrial design group and Coca-Cola; he hired director of curation and visual experience Kevin Byrd to spearhead the project.

Filling the new building with art would, of course, jazz up the place a bit. “We’re mostly engineers in this company,” says Voron. “And most of those engineers spend their time in dark labs.” But the company also wanted the art to help tell the story of Dolby–its 50-year history, its portfolio of technologies, and its mission of making entertainment more entertaining by convincing the brain that what it hears and sees is the real deal.

Curator/artist Kevin Byrd, in front of his own work at Dolby HQ

The folks who Byrd commissioned work from didn’t take one consistent approach to producing Dolby-infused works. In some cases, the references to Dolby and technology are as direct as they possibly could be–including typographic treatments of quotes relating to the company. In others, the allusions are so abstract that they remain oblique, even if you know what the artist had in mind. That was the point: Byrd wanted to find artists who would explore the theme in contrasting, surprising ways.

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“Being an artist for a while, you get to know a lot of people by going to all the different art fairs,” he explains. “In some cases, it was existing relationships. In other cases, I did a lot of studio visits with new artists and then asked for Requests for Proposals, basically.” (Before joining Dolby, Byrd was based in Atlanta, which helps explain why Atlantans are well represented among the artists he selected–but others hail from San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Berlin, among other places.)

Once Byrd had lined up his artists, “the process was interesting,” he says. “For me, it was really about educating them about who Dolby is and what we do. There’s still some misconceptions about the things we actually engage in. Then I would ask them to come back with one or two concepts.”

Artist Pablo Gnecco with his creation

“Talking to Kevin about Dolby, learning more about what Dolby does outside of the fact that every movie that I’ve ever enjoyed has been done in Dolby, really trying to get down to where sound and light intersected, became a big focal point,” says Derek Bruno, an Atlanta-based artist. “They both travel in waves, they both move through space and bounce off of objects and form our perceptual understanding. That was really the conceptual ground for me to stand on.”

In some cases, the art itself had a high-tech element. “It was extremely liberating,” says Pablo Gnecco of Brooklyn-based Studio Studio, who filled two walls with hundreds of light-up “pixels” that respond to bypassers. “The way Dolby is talking about their technology now, where it’s at the intersection of science, art, and technology, that’s where we come from, the same intersection.” Though Gnecco began work on his piece off-site, he became an artist-in-residence of sorts, wiring up and programming the grid at Dolby.

The best way to get a sense of where the artists who took part in the project went with the overarching idea is to look at their creations. Herewith, a sampling.

The Ray Dolby Quote

San Francisco design firm MacFadden & Thorpe filled a wall with a cherished quote from Dolby founder Ray Dolby. It references the need of inventors to work in the dark and grope for answers–so the type starts out crisp, veers into different styles and gets jittery, and then settles on something that’s similar (but not identical) to the original font.

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The Three-in-One Image

Derek Bruno‘s piece is rendered on a long panel that folds into vertical slices like an accordion, so you only see part of it from any given perspective. It’s one image when you view it from the left, another from the right, and a third if you stand dead center. His goal was to evoke how two stereo channels of sound add up to audio that’s more than the sum of its parts. Bonus reference: It creates an optical illusion similar to the way a lenticular 3-D images does–3-D being another of Dolby’s technological enterprises.

The Chorus Of TVs

New Orleans-based artist Taylor Lee Shepherd rescues clunky old television sets from secondhand shops and rigs them so they display oscilloscope-like graphics that respond to ambient sound. His Dolby installation sits under a staircase and includes 16 TVs.

The Engineers At Work

Amos Goldbaum, whose work I recognize from T-shirts showing San Francisco scenes, brought his distrinctive linework to a drawing based on vintage photos of Dolby engineers at work from the company’s archives.

The Ears, Ears, And More Ears

In a work whose association to Dolby Laboratories doesn’t really need to be explained, Atlanta’s Nikki Starz cast 600 molds of ears in a variety of colors.

The Spinal Tap Quote

In the pioneering mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, band member David St. Hubbins’s girlfriend Jeanine Pettibone knowingly declares, “You don’t do heavy metal in Dobly.” In this type wall by Icelandic artist Stefán Kjartansson, Dolby has embraced the “Dobly” reference–and already, at least one person who’s seen it has mistook it for an embarrassing typo.

The World War I Throwback

Dolby curator Kevin Byrd contributed this piece–which, like other art he’s created, was inspired by the slightly psychedelic dazzle camouflage used by U.S. and British warships during World War I and II to confuse the enemy about their location, speed, and direction of travel. It was a mind-bending bit of trickery, just as Dolby technologies often do their work by fooling around with human perception.

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The Pretty Prototype

While researching Dolby’s history, Byrd stumbled across one existing piece of art that the company didn’t think of as a piece of art. It was a 2003 prototype for a beam-forming loudspeaker–“an antique,” he says. He found it so aesthetically appealing, and so in tune with the goals of the art project, that he hauled it out of storage and gave it a place of pride in the new headquarters.

The Neon Circuitry

Shawna Peterson of Peterson Neon in Oakland, California, re-created a diagram for Dolby’s noise-reduction circuitry–the company’s original technology–as one of the most intricate neon signs you’ll ever see.

The Walls Of Light

In Pablo Gnecco‘s piece, two walls in one open area near a staircase are covered in hundreds of small rectangular tubes of varying lengths and angles. Inside each one is an LED that lets it pulsate in color, thereby making it a pixel of sorts in a giant grid. Motion sensors will let the pixels react to people as they pass by–with a streak of light following an employee, for instance, or flashing to acknowledge someone who stops.

The Sea Of Knobs

Dolby collected hundreds of knobs from gadgetry relating to its work, then mounted them on a massive wall. (There are so many, they continue around a corner.) There are a few hidden Easter eggs: knobs which, when you turn them, control a strip of lighting near the floor.

And one particular knob is an in-joke for Spinal Tap fans.

The Patent Verbiage Writ Large

Stacy Janik of Atlanta took a boatload of technical language from Dolby patent filings and dressed it up. Appropriately enough, it’s on the floor where the legal department is located.

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The Variations On A Logo

Berlin artist Siggi Eggertsson set out to create a painting that riffed on Dolby’s double-D logo. His original concept was fairly literal, but with feedback from Byrd, he went in a more abstract direction.

The Noise-Induced Abstraction

Dolby is famous for removing noise from audio. Atlanta artist Spencer Sloan takes paparazzi photos and then adds noise to them–using iPhone apps–until they’re unrecognizable.

The Cards Of Inspiration

In 1975, musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt created Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards with suggestions designed to help creative people get past mental blocks. One wall at Dolby is devoted to these cards–all of which are on hooks, so employees can remove them, flip them, and move them around.

Most of Dolby’s new art is meant for the enjoyment of its employees and people–business partners, family, friends–who happen to find themselves on the premises for one reason or another. But the company is taking advantage of its new building’s location on a busy section of Market Street to bring one major slice of the experience to bypassers. It’s installed a massive 60-by-40-foot video wall and sound system using its Atmos technology in the lobby. Guest artists will be invited to create multimedia shows, starting with Reza Ali, who codes software that generates colored lightscapes, influenced by the work of James Turrell. They’ll be visible from outside, and anyone who’s curious can come in and check them out.

“From a street level, it’s almost like that’s our gallery,” says Byrd. “People will be engaging with it as they’re passing by each day. When people walk by at lunchtime, it’s going to be radically different than at 8 p.m. at night.”

“The lobby is more about giving artists access to our tools, from a visual technology perspective and an audio technology perspective with Atmos, and having the visual artists and the audio artists work together to create something that’s just amazing and unique,” adds Voron. “When I first came into Dolby a couple of years ago, all of our buildings were so quiet. I’m like, ‘You’re going to interview at the sound company, and it’s dead quiet?’ We’re going to have sound all day long. We’re going to have vision all day long.”

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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