January 23, 2014

10 Questions With… Inger Bartlett

Injecting humanity into every square foot of her firm’s diverse corporate and hospitality projects, Inger Bartlett has helmed her award-winning, Toronto-based firm for more than 25 years. Clients such as Saatchi & Saatchi, Edelman PR, FUEL Advertising, and DraftFCB (along with a host of discriminating hospitality and dining outlets) have tapped

Bartlett & Associates

to make soulful sense their spaces and help them to achieve their goals through smart design.

Here, Bartlett offers her take on office-free workspace, the genius of mud huts, and why amenities are non-negotiable for the companies of tomorrow.

Interior Design: Inger, what are the needs currently expressed by your corporate clients, and how are you able to meet these in a soulful way?

Inger Bartlett: The public perception of these corporations is often that they are static entities. In reality, their growth depends on creating a culture in which people want to work together. When we start working with a corporate client, we ask how they work with their people and what they want to achieve in terms of space. They’re looking for amenities—a gym on site, Wi-Fi, kitchen space. Open space pulls people out of offices and into the open, which turns out to be the soulful component.

ID: Is that the corporate design quandary of the day—convincing longstanding employees to forego their offices and move out into the open?


IB: People don’t ordinarily volunteer to give up their 300 square feet of office space. However, the cost of this real estate can be a real financial driver. These are issues that Europe—which is so much more cramped than North America—was facing 50 years ago. In getting rid of offices, companies are forced to recognize issues and, in doing so, allow design to promote people working together. We’ve found that it encourages mentoring as well, when someone new to an organization can see how someone with 25 years of experience responds to a problem.

ID: What are some of the philosophical roots of your firm?

IB: We believe that people are central to all of our projects. We build a framework around amenities that work for the people who will use a space, and do all we can to provide an environment that’s intuitive. If smart design can subtly drive behavior, people are going to feel great. We see this as putting a “human layer” into the design. One of our most important core beliefs is that things have to work. The best design is functional design. It can be artistic and beautiful, but it has to work.

ID: How does one create this “human layer” into spaces for corporations that emphasize the need for high-yield productivity?

IB: We’re dealing with a situation like this now. We have a client who is very numbers-driven. The company has had to pull back on the sheer numbers game and realize they need people to do their work. Everybody works long hours these days. Nobody is a robot, and they need amenities. We are creating a new space for them, including a two-story café with a bar. This client has come to realize that they need engaged people to drive those numbers.

ID: What are the inner workings of your firm like, and how have they changed through the years?

IB: We actually don’t morph a lot. It’s always been about design, curiosity, looking for solutions, and working in a collaborative fashion. At the very beginning of a project, we talk about a concept as a team, focusing on how things have to work, and what a client is trying to achieve. My role is to provoke thought. Because our work is so complicated, we call in a lot of people who are experts in related fields, and recognize that we can’t go it alone. It’s not about ego. We stick to what we are—a nimble firm of about 15 people, like a little speedboat.

ID: And what are the traits you seek out in a staff member?

IB: We are always on the lookout for different things. I’d say above all we look for people who are crossovers—perhaps those with the ability to work with fine art and interiors. We also value how people who hail from different cultures solve things differently, according to their specific brand of resourcefulness.

ID: What are some of the recent projects that have expanded your firm’s reach and skill set?

IB: We’re working on a historical Episcopal military chapel within St. James Cathedral [in downtown Toronto]. We’ve kept it very simple at the front—backlit onyx with an 8-foot by 4-foot bronze cross and a marble altar. These material elements will look amazing next to the stained glass of the gothic windows that are on two sides and the huge, 50-foot window looking into the cathedral. The transformational quality comes from the simplicity of the altar. At the same time, we’re working with an anorexia clinic here in Toronto—which has proven to be a very interesting project.  The driving notion to all of our efforts there, as we speak to those who work for and use the clinic, is that we on board to help people heal.

ID: You’ve done a number of significant projects in the hospitality sector. What are the new design needs of the hospitality industry, and how do you foresee this shifting as we all become more connected?

IB: It’s fascinating, what has happened with the hotel lobby. Lobbies are multipurpose pieces where people meet, use their computers, and spend time in cafes. The Internet has brought everything to everybody, and because of this global connectivity, travelers have greater interest in trying new places. The boutique hotel industry has really pioneered this concept of creating a place where people can escape their hectic, normal lives.

ID: In what ways do you still get inspired, and do these hearken back to the inspiration you took at the start of your career?

IB: Despite the tortures that come with the field, I am always inspired. There are so many ways to look at things, and brilliant people who are introducing new ideas.

It’s more than simply having the ideas, however. It’s a totally different animal getting something built, selling someone on those ideas. I tend to get inspired by very small things. I was in Jamaica once, and there was a wall at the beach. The bricks were laid alternately, allowing a tremendous quality of light to stream through when the sunset. That sticks with me to this day.

ID: What are the great opportunities and responsibilities of working within the design world today?

IB: My mother is Norwegian, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Scandanavia. There, design is part of their environment, not something you buy in a store. What I see are cross-cultural design opportunities, everywhere. There are lots of solutions out there to be identified. We believe in taking old things and reinventing them, applying them in ways that will serve many people. When I was 23, I took a trip around the world with my mother. One day we found ourselves in 130-degree heat in the Indian desert. As were walked through a town, led by a guide, there were mud houses, with mud openings for windows. I asked if we could go inside. It was 70 degrees Fahrenheit inside this house. These people had learned to deal with their environment in the most responsible way. And the people there were really happy. It’s important to learn from examples such as that. If they’re doing that there, what can we do here? In the western world, we have this idea that such design ideas are “lesser,” when in reality it’s quite an amazing way to solve the problem.

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