News | Houston design firm uses office spaces to tell stories

July 11, 2014

By David Kaplan | Houston Chronicle 

Designing an office is storytelling, Kelie Mayfield said.

She and her partner, Erick Ragni, aim to create office spaces - often lobbies in particular - that visually express a client's brand.

For a local law firm they designed a reception desk made out of old law school books. For a Houston offshore exploration company they installed a massive work of art that replicates a seismic map.

They call themselves MaRS, standing for Mayfield and Ragni Studios.

Certain spaces, like a corporate lobby or website, can serve as "touch points" for a company, offering an opportunity to tell a story or share a message, said Cleve Tuttle, principal at Houston-based Woreman Brand Agency. It is not enough for a space to look nice - it should have "purposeful beauty," he said. His firm and MaRS have collaborated on a few projects.

A companies should tell its story in every interaction it has, including how its presents its office, lobby and conference room, said Allen Adamson, chairman of the North American region of the global branding firm Landor Associates, In business-to-business dealings, the visual impression made by an office is crucial, he said.

The 4-year-old MaRS designs more than office spaces. It is doing interior design work for two Midway Cos. projects and for a Hines residential tower. The firm did work for the W Hotel in Dallas and has designed high-end homes.

But the majority of its work has been office space.

When telling a client's story by way of office design, "you don't want to hit people over the head with it," Mayfield said. "It's how you say it in a sophisticated and tailored way."

For their first client four years ago, Houston-based law firm Shipley Snell Montgomery, Mayfield designed a reception desk made of old law books and a small table made of University of Texas Law Reviews. Mayfield added a literal message to the law firm's lobby wall, a line from The Texas Lawyers Creed: "A lawyer owes to a client allegiance, learning, skill and industry."

Law firm partner George Shipley likes how the lobby pays tribute to law history and is modern at the same time, he said. "It's different, and we like to think we're different."

For PanAtlantic Exploration Co., a Houston-based offshore exploration company focused mostly in western Africa, MaRS took a seismic map of subsurface western Africa and hired artist Paul Fleming to turn it into wall art in the two-story downtown lobby. The design firm also installed in its lobby a ceiling fixture made of metal fins and programmable lighting designed to convey the play of ocean water and sunlight.

'Wow, this is different'

"I wanted people to walk in and say, 'Wow, this is different. You want to catch people's attention and have an edge,'" said Bill Drennen, president and CEO of Pan-Atlantic.

Mayfield, Ragni and their team members design their own furniture, carpet, fixtures and wallcoverings.

The studio then hires contractors to build the designs. They have a small staff in a River Oaks-area studio, including senior designer Becky Harrison, and work with a 20-person design/production team in Vietnam called 2050AP.

Local artists

MaRS also often works with local artists and craftsmen, including Brian Dumaine of Impressions Architectural Millwork.

The firm's fees depend on project size, complexity, construction costs and other factors, said Mayfield, who declined to share numbers. MaRS has experienced more than a 200 percent growth in revenue each of the past three years, she said.

Mayfield and Ragni compete for work with similarly small boutique firms as well as big players such as Gensler and Kirksey Architecture, she said.

Mayfield is a licensed interior designer, with a master's in architecture, and Ragni is a licensed architect.

Public relations

MaRS recently completed the downtown office space of Dancie Perugini Ware Public Relations. The space is meant to express how public relations has become more multimedia, Mayfield said.

The lobby's point of entry has a glass tile floor with a superimposed collage of print publications from around the world, and throughout the office are wood-framed flat- panel TVs and computer systems.

The DPWPR office also reflects Ware's personality, Mayfield said.

For example, she replicated the texture and pattern of an Oscar de la Renta jacket she saw Ware wearing one day and turned it into a vinyl wall cover.