FORGET LAVISH EXECUTIVE SUITES; TODAY'S CEOS ARE LOOKING FOR MORE EGALITARIAN WORKSPACES

It used to be the ultimate corporate ambition: Rise through the ranks, toil like a dog, and finally win the keys to that fancy corner office with an executive washroom and original art on the walls. Ambitions change. While the days of the lavish corporate office aren't quite dead particularly among Old Economy companies where gray-templed execs roam such exclusive quarters are on the wane in Los Angeles.

Captains of the New Economy prefer starker, smaller digs, with offices much like the rank and file. Today, more of a premium is placed on high-capacity wiring than on marbled sanctuaries."The word that comes to mind is collaborative whether you're talking about an open office or individuals' private offices. They want space that connects with other people," said Janice Stevenor Dale, president of JSDA, an L.A.-based interiors firm. The offices of Windward Capital Management Co., an asset management firm in Westwood, exemplify that non-hierarchical sensibility. Visitors step into Suite 500 of 10880 Wilshire Blvd. and see the chairman and the president at work in a space reminiscent of a glass fishbowl. The two executives share "the bowl," which is situated adjacent to the reception area. Three TV monitors hang from the ceiling, tuned to CNBC or other financial programming, adding to an airport control-tower feel. The marketing and operations people sit in offices facing that space, but their walls are largely glass so light filters in from the windows, through their office walls, all the way to the CEO's office in the middle. The ultimate goal of all this is to enhance communication.

"We can see everything and they can see everything going on in here. What we're doing is an important function for the company, so it's important everyone know what that is," said President Bennett Gross. "We have the most casual of offices. It is more egalitarian and not pomp and circumstance." If personal office space is more casual and less imposing than ever before, that doesn't necessarily mean it's boring. Top managers are finding ways to express their personalities in the spaces where they spend countless hours of their time.

Take Nova, a software development firm, whose Calabasas offices sport a ceiling surface made to look like waves, back-lit fiberglass walls and an "oasis area" in the center of the floor plan for employees to hang out. The CEO and president, Roger Bloxberg and Todd Helfstein, have private offices separated by a drywall partition, with modular furniture inside. At 10-by-12 feet apiece, the offices are fairly small and situated in the middle of the office space. "They wanted to be part of the action," said Stevenor Dale, who designed the space.

It's a whole different aesthetic than the 1980s and even into the '90s, reflecting changes in the economy. When Los Angeles was more of a corporate headquarters town, top executives went for big statements. The corporate office emphasized its occupant's stature by its size and location within the overall office space. "The office would have been in a remote, quiet, clandestine part of the plan," Stevenor Dale said. "Some would have been 500 square feet, which is extravagantly large compared to today." Those were the days of the prime corner office, filled with butternut or black leather chairs, marble and granite finishes, millwork and heavy desks. Old Economy, pre-recessionary office interior budgets ran $100 per square foot for construction and $70 per square foot for furnishings more than double what is typically spent today. "Black leather and chrome were somewhere in the picture," said Rick Shlemmer, a partner at the design firm Shlemmer+Kamus+Algaze. "It was, 'Get me some wild, flashy geometric forms and get it on the wall.'" As the '90s progressed, square footage shrank and personal offices became more varied. "At the turn of the century, there's a new energy out there with new technology firms fueling the market, and because the personalities are different and the funding sources are different, it's creating more variety of office types for personal office space," Stevenor Dale said. Opulent inner sanctums would today be seen as a sign of a dead company, she said. Personal offices today are softer, more casual and less severe, an extension of the entire office. Wood paneling is likely to be supplanted by a basketball hoop. And the sofa is as much the focal point as the desk. "In most of the office layouts, 90 percent of executives at a certain level have a table desk floating in the room. It has a phone and a couple of books not a hardcore working desk, but a place to sign checks and meet people and take them to a casual seating area," Shlemmer said. "There's more of a blend of soft materials, warmer colors and art. It's more of a subtle power play." Style at the dot-coms Technology firms are particularly fond of non-hierarchical structures. The open work environment applies to everyone up and down the food chain. GoTo.com has no private offices, Idealab founder Bill Gross works behind Plexiglas walls in the midst of the general office space and Sky Dayton's office at eCompanies measures a mere 10-by-12 feet. Toby Lenk, founder and chief executive of eToys Inc., is selecting furniture from the company's standard product line for his new office, now under construction in West Los Angeles. With competition fierce to attract skilled workers, start-up companies are placing more emphasis than ever on making the general office space interesting and inspiring. "They want to create interesting work spaces so people want to be there," said Jeff Wirt, president of Wirt Design Group and designer for the offices of EarthLink Network Inc., eToys, Idealab and Homestore.com. At the same time, these companies don't want it to appear to investors that they're spending too much of their venture capital on office d & #233;cor. This means improvising in creative ways, using garage doors for room dividers, a dining-room table for an executive desk, or spandex walls. (Yes, spandex, the same material that disco pants were made of in the 1980s, is now being stretched from ceiling hooks to floor anchors and serving as floating walls.) "We're using different materials and products in ways we never used them before. We're challenged by schedules and budgets, rather than by getting the latest marble from Italy," Wirt said. No matter what the industry, when it comes to knick-knacks and personal touches, those depend on the office's occupant and his or her age. Artwork is popular across the board, ranging from oils and bronzes of cowboys and Indians to more abstract pieces by local artists. Family photos cut across industries. Hollywood executives also favor photos of themselves with other power players from the political and entertainment realms. Music moguls array their gold records. Trophies and plaques are big in the insurance industry. Lawyers still hang their diplomas. Tech executives (who may not even have diplomas) like to exhibit press clippings about their firms, or their first stock certificate. These people often work in more austere offices and save the flash for their private realm, where they drive Ferraris and live in beautiful homes, Wirt said. Shlemmer said he finds that executives for whom money is no object often take their decorating cues from their homes, including soft chenille fabrics. "I think it has to do with being comfortable," he said. "It instills a sense of calm. They're going to be negotiating hard-core things." But bizarre d & #233;cor can even occasionally be found in that most buttoned-down of industries accounting. War room. A few years ago, a partner at a well-respected L.A. accounting firm outfitted his office with a chair from the cockpit of a B52 bomber, a desk fashioned from a lacquered sheet of steel, and walls painted to resemble concrete and rebar, with an effect looking somewhat "like the Apocalypse," Shlemmer said. (He declined to name the firm, saying that particular partner has since left.) Good or bad, an executive's personal office projects a certain image. And it's the savvy exec that takes pains to control that image, even hiring consultants to give input on everything from memorabilia to art. "(High-level) executives are no longer asking their wives to do it for them," Stevenor Dale said. There also remain quite a few opulent executive offices around Los Angeles. The buzz has it that some of the most spectacular offices in town include the spacious digs of movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer in Santa Monica and Global Crossing Ltd. founder Gary Winnick's future office now under construction in Beverly Hills, which will feature several fireplaces. None of these executives would comment on their offices or allow a reporter inside. "The people who are doing it are doing it just as lavish as before, but there's fewer of them," Shlemmer said. "(Companies) are still doing corner offices. But instead of silk wall covering, I'll paint it a wild color."

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