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Creativity cubed for US$300

Letting employees personalize their space helps inspire everyone

Tina Widner chose a blue and silver color scheme.
Art director Trey Sprinkle went for an African theme.

Tina Widner chose a blue and silver color scheme.

Art director Trey Sprinkle went for an African theme.

Give an art director a US$300 budget and chances are it won't be enough to really pimp a pod - but it's a start.
When the Balcom Agency's principals, Stuart Balcom and Bruce McLain, decided they needed new decor for their offices in Fort Worth, Texas, they gave the same thing to everyone on their staff of 25: a customized desk modeled on the ad agency's signature "B" logo, US$300, and free rein.
What they got in return could fuel an HGTV show for half a season - wildly individualistic office spaces that reflect the creativity and personality of the inhabitants. From the colors to placement of the furniture, art, decorative accessories, even their choice of shelves, nothing is the same.
Balcom, 48, says the benefit from such a small investment helps the Fort Worth-based company's bottom line: "If you let people express their creativity, that helps us help our clients. The change inspires everyone."
Several years ago, the firm began allowing employees to customize the company business cards, choosing their own combination of ink colors and card stock, and adding monikers under their names. (Balcom is known as Stuart "Boss Hog" Balcom; the company's CFO is "Daddy Warbucks.") This break from corporate lock-step was an early indication that the Balcom agency is not a typical cube farm.
When the firm offered each employee the US$300 per pod, was there any vetting involved, any permission slips that had to be signed?
"No," Balcom says.
What happens when someone leaves? Does the new hire get to redecorate?
"We don't lose people," says Balcom, whose clients include Harris Methodist hospitals, Alcon Laboratories, Justin Boots, Motorola and RadioShack.
"If you're not losing, are you hiring?"
"We're looking for a public relations person, an art director, an account manager and a production artist."
Will they get US$300 to decorate their cubes?
"Yes," he says.
Considering the sense of ownership and communal pride that the employees feel in the spectacular results, Balcom should break his arm patting himself on the back. This was brilliant management. It hasn't moved him to change his ways, though. His office is retro-ad-exec with white walls, funky toys, stacks of paperwork and, inexplicably, a monstrous split-leaf philodendron that looks like it feeds on human sacrifice. The good news: Should he ever decide to bring his office up to the standards of his employees, the talent to do the makeover is obviously close at hand.
What follows is a sampling.
Masculine living room
Heagan "Analog Style" Bayles, 31, systems administrator:
The look: Masculine living room. Bayles declined the signature desk. He likes to work from a sofa, and if leaning over the coffee table for hours at a time takes a toll on his back, he moves over to the cowhide chaise and stretches out. He is an I.T. anomaly, preferring to hide all the company's electronic servers and miles of wire in an armoire that keeps the visual hardware to an absolute minimum. "I wanted a home-style environment. A place where I feel relaxed. It helps keep the stress level down," he says.
The cost: "$1,500. They offered an inch, and I spent a mile."
Best effect: The perforated floor-to-cube-top brown drapes from Pier 1, over a leaf-green wall.
Shopping haunts: Dark brown etagere, couch and side tables from IKEA. The chaise was from home, and he found the antique armoire in Stuart's office.
Payoff for the company: "I get here earlier and stay later."
Personal payoff: "Everyone likes their own space the best."
Royal splendor
Cassie "Princess" Kruemcke, 33, senior art director
The look: Royal splendor. The most dramatic pod is the work of the agency's self-proclaimed princess. The combination is spectacular: silver and white horizontal striped walls, magenta silk drapes and black chandelier. Kruemcke (pronounced CRUMB-key) says that even though many of the great finds came from her parents, she still went over budget. The wicker chair is an old family possession; the Eames wire chair was from her grandfather's dental office; the chandelier, originally brass with crystal drops, was from her mother's stash in the garage.
Best effect: Kruemcke's mother made the magenta drapes that are fixed to the walls with curtain rod finials painted black. She also made the gray velvet table runner with a large monogrammed "C." Kruemcke made the silhouette art of her daughter Merrill that anchors the back wall.
Shopping haunts: Kruemcke says her best buy was the zebra-print rug she found online at Wal-Mart for US$40. The shelf tower was also found online at (a Crate & Barrel site.)
Out of Africa
Trey "Design Monkey" Sprinkle, 31, art director
The look: Out of Africa. Sprinkle and his fiancee were married in a Masai ceremony in Tanzania in May. The trip, which was also their honeymoon, is the leitmotif of his office. His photographs and souvenirs, such as spears, a club and a machete, make for a dramatic and uniform decorative theme.
Best effect: The heavily textured back wall, painted a mossy green, and the wicker blinds that were used as a wall covering, like wainscoting, below the red walls, give the space a rich depth of field. Sprinkle has many plants in his office, not something you see much anymore. "Plants bring life to where there is none," he says, a lesson learned when he was single, lonely and had no one at home.
Shopping haunts: World Market got most of Sprinkle's budget. "Stein Mart is good for this sort of ethnic look, too," he says. The large basket came from Pier 1, and the credenza is a do-over, he says, that was part of the original old office furniture.
Personal payoff: "If I'm going to be spending time here, I should enjoy it."
Sea of tranquility
Tina "Copy Cat" Widner, 43, senior copy writer
The look: Sea of Tranquility. The shimmering blue walls and white puffy curtains exude calm. The silver tape that lines the bottom of the wall is a contemporary touch of glitz that masks a messy paint job.
Best effect: When Widner closes her white curtains, visitors are expected to ring the electronic doorbell located on the outside wall.
Shopping haunts: The contemporary black bookcase and shelving unit are from Pier 1; so was the silver branch sculpture and the large horizontally striped vase. The mosaic mirror and club chair came from IKEA; the rug from Lowe's.
Personal payoff: "You want to be here; the environment does influence your work."