Silicon Valley is not your typical workplace comedy. The new HBO series, loosely based on creator Mike Judge's experience as test engineer at a tech startup in the '80s, follows protagonist Richard Hendriks—who invents a powerful file-compression technology called Pied Piper—as he starts his own company and fights for a slice of the tech-boom pie. Along the way, we get a fictionalized glimpse of Silicon Valley office spaces—a subject easy to satirize, given how Bay Area tech giants such as Google have become famous for their zany, playground-plush offices spaces.
Silicon Valley is a meticulously researched show—tech advisors help ensure that even scribblings on Post-It notes on set seem as realistic as possible—and the work spaces that appear on screen are no exception. Production designer Richard Toyon, the man responsible for the visual storytelling, called up friends all over Silicon Valley to get a peek inside the offices of Facebook, Google, Zynga, and others. Security often prevented Toyon from taking pictures inside the buildings, so he made due with mental notes.
"There's a certain amount of license" in recreating what he and Judge saw in real-life startup offices, he tells Co.Design, but "for the most part we tried to follow the ideals and those qualities as much as possible."
"The larger tech companies are very campus-oriented," Toyon points out. Unfortunately, that staple of Silicon Valley suburban office complexes doesn't really exist in Southern California, where the show was filmed. You might find the same type of buildings, but where Facebook might have a quad in which a department could hold a bike meeting, most Los Angeles office complexes just feature, well, parking lots. So Judge and his team went to the places that naturally have the atmosphere that tech companies try most to emulate—the college campus—and filmed exterior shots at, for example, the new campus center of Cal State University's Los Angeles.
The interior look of Hooli, the tech company where Richard initially works as an engineer, was inspired by Toyon's trips to Google and Facebook. Toyon wanted to create spaces that that were "very interactive and sort of newer in terms of the corporate culture"—funky meeting spaces and lots of kitchens. (In the first episode, the main thing that stands out about Hooli's office is the insane assortment of snacks available.) Concrete floors give it that stripped-down startup feel.
"The individualized ergonomic quality to each space was really important to Mike," Toyon says. "Google has a department of ergonomics, so every person is comfortable." That translates into a wide variety of desk setups inside Nucleus, the clandestine Hooli project focused on recreating Richard's technology and beating him to market. Engineers are standing and sitting, and staring at multiple computer monitors. As the work gets frenzied, towards the end of the season, the space gets crowded with more employees and more monitors. (It's enough to make you want to retreat into an energy pod.)
Toyon and his team researched the offices of Silicon Valley legends, including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, and Elon Musk. The office designs of Silicon Valley's fictional CEOs had to paint similarly distinct portraits of their characters' personalities.
That's why Hooli's bombastic CEO, Gavin Belson, has an office filled with things he considers spiritual—though he may not entirely understand what that means. He uses an 11-foot-long walnut tree trunk as a desk. Peppered throughout the Hooli offices are photos of Belson doing humanitarian work in South America and Africa. "His furnishings needed to be worldly that way," Toyon explains, and to top it off, "Belson pretends he’s a guitar player—he has these very expensive guitars as a little sight gag."
Contrast that with the digs of Belson's main rival, investor Peter Gregory, who "would kind of take whatever space was given to him," according to Toyon. (You can see his office in the beginning of the clip above.) "We decided that somebody came in with Monica—who is his assistant—and made those choices," Toyon says of Gregory's office design and furniture choices. They reflect "Monica’s ideal of what the perfect office for Peter is."
Look closely enough, though, and elements of Peter Gregory's character begin to emerge. Intended as kind of play on Steve Jobs, the character is always thinking about and investing in something new. "If you look at his shelf behind him, you can see any number of projects" that he's working on, Toyon explains. "He’s working on building an island in the Pacific…he’s got blueprints out for something else that he’s considering. He bankrolls a lot of different projects, so his office reflects that."
"I’ve always kind of thought of the spaces that these guys work in—and these companies—are almost like a character unto themselves," Toyon says. "Silicon Valley itself is like an ongoing, evolving character. It’s just so different from anywhere else."
An earlier version of this story included a photo caption incorrectly identifying the actor who plays Big Head as T.J. Miller. The character is played by Josh Brener.
[Image: Photo: SILICON VALLEY (from left to right): Zach Woods, Thomas Middleditch, Alec Berg, Mike Judge, T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani. Photo by Jaimie Trueblood/HBO]