My Office Is Cooler Than Yours: Part II
Imagine if a day at the office meant dreaming up a new and exciting amusement park, a thrilling rollercoaster ride, a dynamic hall of fame, or a world-class arena for your favorite sports team. This just happens to be the dream-come-true for the 40 employees at Jack Rouse & Associates (JRA) in Cincinnati. For them, a day at the office is just another day in paradise.
Co-founded by Jack Rouse and Amy Merrell in 1987, and now led by President & CEO Keith James, JRA is considered to be one of the world's leading consultancies in the design and development of theme parks and attractions, museums and exhibits, visitor centers, and sports venue entertainment. COO Dan Schultz enthusiastically describes JRA as "a company that creates environments and experiences that are meaningful, entertaining and memorable for the visitor."
If you've stepped inside any of their local undertakings- the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Cincinnati History Museum, the Cincinnati Reds Museum & Hall of Fame, Coney Island, or Kings Island- you have experienced this pledge for yourself. Their design masterpieces can also be enjoyed from Legoland in California to Universal Studios in Orlando, from Dublin to Hong Kong, from London to Sydney and well beyond. If that isn't enough to wet your roller-coaster whistle, they are currently the attraction designer and executive producer for Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, publicized to be the largest indoor theme park in the world.
The creative team of writers, designers, producers and media specialists who make up this globally recognized powerhouse do their daydreaming on the 17th floor of the 600 Vine Center building. Stepping off the elevator, you are instantly swept into their world of fantasy and fun. Shades of creamsicle orange, pistachio green, and lavender coat the walls, light boards and galleries of photographs showcase completed projects, and the open floor plan and floor-to-ceiling windows offer a breathtaking 360░ panorama of downtown Cincinnati. Slanted drawing tables are interspersed with brainstorming "War Rooms", and a large corner room does double duty as both lounge and game room for the occasional Wii competition among the close-knit 40-member staff.
Project Manager Clara Rice, a relative newcomer, admits it doesn't get much better than this when it comes to careers. In her 2.5 year tenure, she has already been involved with several exciting projects, including the National Science Center in Malaysia, the Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas, and the Coca-Cola pavilion at the Shanghai World's Fair.
"We are most proud of the fact that each of our projects has a distinctive feel, unlike anything we have done before." She credits that singular quality to her company's commitment to uncovering and sharing the story that is unique to each client. If past history is any indication, it appears the storytelling has only just begun.
One step inside the doors of Lightborne Studios on 14th Street in Over-the-Rhine and you are transported into the future of the workplace. Formerly the home of Excelsior Steam Laundry, this 1925 building showcases as much innovation in design as those who come here to work and create each day.
The cavernous reception area makes no apologies for her unadorned concrete walls. Framed art would seem unnecessary and out-of-place in this urban dwelling, where art is everywhere but on the walls. The entrance hall's massive steel coffee table (constructed of industrial doors) seems perfectly befitting of the room's largesse. A colorful collection of employee bicycles- the perfect transportation to Fountain Square for lunch- are casually parked along one wall. Clusters of hand-blown light fixtures are artistically suspended from high above, and random splashes of lime green paint lead your eye to yet another unexpected surprise. Sitting Cheshire-like beside a curved and futuristic-looking ramp is a large Humpty-Dumpty-like creature and, just beyond, a staircase whose railings seem to be a study in artistic perspective.
It seems this vestibule to the Lightborne studios is the perfect introduction to the 27-year old video production team whose creative energies reside on the floors above. This is a design-driven company. They specialize in motion design, live action, animation and visual effects, all under one roof. This "one-stop production shop" formula has proven to be a key differentiator for Lightborne in this highly competitive industry. Their clients have included superstars Kenny Chesney , Bon Jovi and P. Diddy (for whom they have produced numerous concert tour visuals) and, not surprisingly, MTV. They have also produced commercial spots for corporations and organizations as notable as Proctor & Gamble, Ecco Shoes, Cincinnati Bell, Puma footwear and the University of Kentucky Women's basketball team.
Lightborne prides itself on recruiting heavily from the University of Cincinnati's School of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning as well as the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and the accomplished team represents some of the best and brightest in the industry. Their staff may number 30, but their collective talent is equivalent to ten times that number. No one appreciates that more than President, COO and Chief Fire Extinguisher Scott Durban, who understands that you can't fence in creative talent if you expect them to deliver their full potential.
"There are no boundaries here. If you rock, you can lead," he says.
Self-described "humanitarians, graffiti artists, dog-lovers, musicians, freaks and dreamers," this group of talented individuals is also extraordinarily close-knit. Typical after-hour get-togethers include rooftop cookouts atop their expansive third floor terrace (overlooking downtown) and early evening outings to the ballpark.
"This building seems to have a positive impact on everyone who works here," notes newly-hired Client Services rep, Melissa Soluski, who bikes to work each day from her home in Northside and admits to already being hooked. Creative Director Ben Nicholson finds that easy to explain.
"It's as simple as this- you have to enjoy what you are doing . . . and we do."
What do the Pope and the National Football League have in common? The surprising answer lies within the walls of an unassuming red brick building located on Central Parkway in the heart of Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine arts district. It is here, since 1999, that the employees of Studio Vertu- makers of marble coasters and lightweight fresco tile- have enjoyed the long history of success that has come to be associated with this building and its tenants.
Originally built as home to Paramount Pictures studio, the Vertu building has also sheltered such triumphs as the Cincinnati Ballet, Putnam Candies, Precision Lens, and Brand Photography. Current owner, founder, and visionary Mark Schmidt, doesn't discount the historic track record of his environs and, in fact, gives much credit for his company's success to history repeating itself.
"There is inspiration in these walls," says Schmidt.
Inspiration is clearly on them as well. Paint and wallpaper are passÚ, as every room and every surface within the two-story building is adorned with a generous sampling of the image-imprinted tiles and frescoes made here at Studio Vertu. Only the tall banks of windows and exterior walls of exposed brick remain unembellished.
It was in 1995 that Schmidt found himself at a "Vertu-al" crossroads. An art dealer for 17 years, he had just closed down his Hyde Park gallery and was looking for inspiration in another direction.
"I began working with two artists from the gallery to create a fresco look by printing images on plaster."
After some initial success, a yet-unexplained glitch in the production process resulted in continual breakage of the plaster tiles. In what can best be described as an act of desperation, Schmidt decided to experiment with two cans of urethane he just happened to have sitting around. The rest, as they say, is history. The urethane product was not only lightweight, but also reasonable in cost and accepted the print images without fail. Schmidt set out to promote his new product as an inexpensive and more practical alternative to large marble or hand painted tiles. One of the first to bite was the National Football League Headquarters in New York City, who quickly commissioned the studio to create a 400 square foot, two-story mural of player Red Grange.
Though their frescoed creations are legendary, Studio Vertu's greatest success, and 90% of their business today, has been in the Botticino marble coasters they design, imprint and distribute throughout the world. Their portfolio of images is massive and includes the licensed work of several prominent artists. They were, in fact, the first in the United States to license images from the Vatican Library. Today, their extensive product line is popularly sold through Ballard Designs, Frontgate, and Wine Enthusiast catalogues, as well as at high-end boutiques, well-known wineries, and through their popular website.
The Vertu building seems wildly content with her current residents and them with her. Every square inch has been cleverly utilized and inspiration abounds. The creative team of Studio Vertu has made this their home and it shows. Old film storage vaults now serve as supply and storage cabinets, former movie screening rooms have become offices or house eclectic collections of reliquaries, antiques, and monastery memorabilia. Sketches for new product ideas are tacked on walls along with photos of employee get-togethers. "It's a bit messy," apologizes Schmidt, though his smile admits he wouldn't have it any other way.
Employees, half of whom can walk to work, seem to thrive in this chaos of creativity. Printer Larry Williams explains, "This is a great place to come every day. We work hard but we enjoy what we do." Despite the volume of product they turn out (they have sold over 11 million coasters), co-owner Rob Dorgan is most proud of "the working culture we have established here that allows things to be relaxed and loose."
Like the tiled walls surrounding them each day, it is that very philosophy which seems to explain why there isn't a face at Studio Vertu not plastered with a smile.
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