Designing for When Startups Grow Up: Interview with Thomas Juncher Jensen

  • 4 min read

Photo: Jakob N. Layman/TimeOut

It’s one thing to want to create designs with buzz, but it’s quite another thing to be working with BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti. Thomas Juncher Jensen, founder of the New York City-based design studio JIDK, is a creative force that does both. Jensen, who hails from Denmark and got his start in the high-end hospitality business, shares with Heartwork the challenges of helping former startups like BuzzFeed and Paperless Post move into grown-up offices without losing that special energy that got them where they are today. He also gave us some great design tips and strategies you can use to create your own cool office. Hammocks, anyone?

1. Denmark is famous for its modern design. Do you feel that you incorporate any aspects of Danish design sensibilities into the workplaces you’ve designed? 

Sunlight is really important to me, so I try to fill every office with natural light and give as many employees as possible direct access to windows. I also try to focus the interiors on what's essential for the office by eliminating most superficial decoration. It may resemble Scandinavian austerity, but for me it's mostly about preparing the space for the life and excitement that will fill it when my client moves in. 

Photos: Joel Zimmer  

2. How has your background in high-end hospitality impacted the way you approach office design?

There are a lot of similarities between the two. The boutique projects I was involved with were all about hitting the balance between feasibility and the visions of the hoteliers. My office clients care just as much about the experiences and comforts of their employees as the hoteliers did for their guests. The budgets are different but the overall goals are actually very similar: maximum impact with the available resources if you will.


Photo: Joel Zimmer

3. You’ve been working with BuzzFeed since it was just a six-person office in Chinatown. Now that they’re moving into a 60,000-sq.-ft. space, how have the design challenges changed? How will you use design to help retain the start-up energy and avoid the feeling of a large, corporate office?

It's a very different task to design for 6 people vs 300 people, but with a client like BuzzFeed, I feel we are figuring it out together. We still focus on the same things as in the previous offices: complete openness and any employee convenience we can afford. The mantra has always been to spend the money on employees, and I think we are still true to that. What does become more difficult is maintaining the comfort and proximity of the smaller offices. I think we have a good plan for the new office that relies on furniture groupings over traditional walls and offices. We are planning a very flexible and free-flowing layout  that we hope can accommodate the multitude of activities that takes place any given day at BuzzFeed.


Photos: Joel Zimmer


4. What’s it like to work with a visionary like BuzzFeed's founder, Jonah Peretti? How has he influenced the office design?


Jonah and the rest of the BuzzFeed team are tremendously exciting clients.  From the very beginning it's been an inspiring dialog between us trying to make not just great and welcoming offices, but offices that are specifically BuzzFeed. Jonah is very knowledgeable when it comes to design and architecture, so it's a three way ping-pong with him, the space and the staff – and it doesn't stop when they move in. A lot of fine-tuning happens when the office is running at full speed and we need to facilitate the new and changing needs. It's hectic but fantastically rewarding when everything comes together.


5. Now you’re working on a new office for Paperless Post. Can you tell us a little bit about that project? How will their aesthetic translate to their workplace?


The Paperless Post office is just starting construction – so I don't want to reveal too much – but we are trying to build a space that has old world charm and quality with a clean modern edge. Think turn-of-the-century skyscraper cleaned up and stylized for a new millennium. Lots of open space, with James and Alexa Hirschfeld providing the magic in patterns and textures. I am very exited about this project and think it will merge traditional luxury and startup technology in a fresh new way.


6. What are your tips for creating a cool office – whether it’s a home office, a small business or a bigger company?


Every company is different in some way, and if you can define that difference you can use it to your advantage.  I generally recommend being more brave than when you’re doing residential work. Offices are constantly changing organisms, so you can and should try out things that may be too much in a home. I do not need three different work areas in my own home, but in an office that's barely enough. Everyone needs a place to sit, one to stand and ideally one where they can put their feet up . If I had the room, I would put daybeds and hammocks in the offices too, but NYC square feet are very, very expensive. 


For your home office, do the same thing. Consider every square ft valuable and appraise every item in the office area individually. If something is required for you to work your best, it stays. If bobble heads or marker sets are inspiring put them on the desk, but try and hide away the distractions or barely used items. Sit by a window and change positions or seats often. Try taking all phone calls while standing or read long emails on your phone while lying down - it will force you to utilize more of your space and your body will feel so much better at the end of the day. It's still work even if you are having a good time doing it!   

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