Before Evan Sharp cofounded Pinterest in 2010, he was an architecture student at Columbia University. So in 2014, when it came time to build a new headquarters for the growing company of about 400 employees, the choice of an architect had a special weight.
After an extensive search, Sharp went with IwamotoScott, a San Francisco-based practice led by Lisa Iwamoto and Craig Scott, who ultimately transformed an old John Deere factory into Pinterest's headquarters with their partner firm Brereton Architects. "They always have something surprising," Sharp says. "Their taste in materials and space is impeccable."
Eschewing clichés like ping-pong tables, themed rooms, and slides, IwamotoScott and Sharp had something else in mind—a sophisticated, thoughtful rethinking of the typical tech office, informed by their shared background in architecture.
Tech has transformed San Francisco over the past decade, rapidly altering the architectural and urban fabric of the city. According to Jen Nguyen, head of workplace at Pinterest, Iwamoto and Scott were chosen because of their roots in San Francisco and their knowledge of the neighborhood Pinterest was building in—the formerly industrial tech hub of SOMA.
Rather than completely redo the century-old John Deere factory where the new headquarters would be located, IwamotoScott decided to work within the existing infrastructure of the building. That meant keeping the industrial facade of the building, but extending the atrium to bring much needed light to the dark ground floor.
"At the time, Pinterest was undergoing a significant redesign of the website itself, moving to a more streamlined, paired-down aesthetic. It was a cultural shift for the company, moving away from what people had been more used to—the content, the DIY, craftsy feel of Pinterest to the platform of Pinterest," says Iwamoto. "That was something that the architecture was also trying to achieve."
Sharp, of course, had many thoughts about the flow of space and the ease of collaboration that the design would encourage. "We feel really lucky," says Iwamoto. "We definitely felt that we could speak the same language, and talk about ideas and concepts in addition to program and function. Evan is really busy, but he was quite involved. In this way, we really benefited from his architecture background."
The design process was a meeting of the minds for three architecture buffs. "There was some geeking out for sure, but it easily could have gotten out of control," Iwamoto adds. "Craig is an architecture encyclopedia, and Pinterest is the 'world’s greatest catalogue of ideas,' so you can imagine we could spend all day just talking about buildings and design if we had the time."
One of the central architectural elements is a dramatic staircase that's meant to forge a connection through the four-story building. Scott explains that the staircase was inspired by an image of fingers and knitting needles crossing, interpreted spatially as a stair that crosses over itself. It's a physical manifestation of one of the company's core values—"knitting"—which refers to the fusing of different disciplines and perspectives to create creative solutions.
Sharp adds that it serves a practical purpose, as well. "Any study you read about space, as soon as you have a staircase or elevator or new floor, self-collaboration drops dramatically," Sharp says. "Drawing attention to staircases themselves encourages people to mix. That’s the reason why the marquis element at Pinterest now is a staircase."
Sharp's roots in architecture informed the flow of the workspaces in the building, which are primarily clustered around the exteriors, while communal spaces are in the center. He recalled the densely packed studios where he'd worked as an architecture student and wanted to replicate the same creative environment at Pinterest. "It makes sure that there's energy in the air," he says. "The density of the space is a really important part of the space."
Pinterest's employees are clustered into tightly arranged pods of 10 to 20 small desks. While Sharp acknowledges it might be harder to focus when you're surrounded by coworkers, the upside is that you're constantly talking to the people you work with, which fuels cross-collaboration. He also deliberately puts teams that frequently work together on separate floors, forcing them to circulate through the office.
Sharp, meanwhile, likes to work in a conference room that he's basically taken over—or in the cafeteria. "It’s a really good place to meet a random cross section of employees and have those informal convos that lead to things that are really valuable that wouldn't have happened if you weren’t sitting down there," he says.
Other elements of the design include glass corners in the meeting rooms, which provide acoustical privacy while maintaining visual connections, and the liberal use of plywood—both as a finishing material and for furniture. A dramatic latticed ceiling in the building's lobby uses plywood—along with a large, backlit "P" logo—to welcome visitors and recruits to the company.
"Plywood is a material that’s easy to misuse. They did a thoughtful job," says Sharp. "They built furniture out of it in a clever way. It feels like home improvement, something in progress. It feels like a creative project. I think it does speak to the fact that the company isn’t built yet. It isn’t finished."
It's a blank canvas of a space that's meant to be personalized. Sharp says he's decorated the conference room where he likes to camp out with a pinboard, posters, and bookshelves; he hopes that his employees will take over the office organically, putting up handmade pieces and bringing their own flair to the space.
While the offices do have plenty of more typical perks—a TV room, a game room, coffee bar—as well as amenities more unique to the company like a maker lab, the focus of the architects, and of Sharp, was on the integrity and flow of the space. The results are sophisticated and thoughtful.
"Design is about making things physical, which are functional," says Iwamoto. "We’re about volume and space more than surface, and that is about function and flow. The emphasis was bringing to life the ethos and the desire of the company through the brick-and-mortar part of the design."
Now that the office has opened, the relationship has continued—IwamotoScott has continued to work on several other Pinterest projects. "They feel such ownership over our company's spaces," Sharp says. "I love having the freedom to let them make decisions."
related video: Pinterest Founder Ben Silbermann On Why The Best Talent Goes After Adventure, Not Success
[All Photos: Bruce Damonte]