Pinterest is a website that enables people to share their love of design:Everyone can be a tastemaker or style guru of their particular passion. Given the diversity of visions represented on the website, it is fitting that Pinterest’s own San Francisco headquarters would begin with a backdrop created by three separate architects from New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—and then be quickly transformed by employee “hacks,” i.e. DIY customizations and modifications. The final result is a joyous jumble of ideas that matches the site’s identity as a freewheeling place to explore whatever catches one’s eye.
Evan Sharp, co-founder of Pinterest, was studying architecture at Columbia when he began collaborating with two friends to build a tool for curating photo collections. After this side project took off, Sharp asked his former studio professor Janette Kim, who also has her own practice named All of the Above, to design Pinterest’s first office, a 7,000-square-foot space in Palo Alto, California. Kim asked another former student, Anna Neimark, who teaches at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles and also has her own practice, First Office, to collaborate with her. They came up with initial ideas, but the design brief changed dramatically after Pinterest leased a 42,000-square-foot warehouse in San Francisco to hold an anticipated staff of 300.
Establishing scale within an open shell
Located near the city’s Design District, the circa-1930 brick building had plenty of industrial charm, with a large central atrium with an exposed elevator shaft at one end. The first level had a small mezzanine on two sides, and the second level was similarly open to the atrium. But the building interior was essentially all open space. Realizing that the company needed private meeting spaces, Kim and Neimark came up with a concept: They would insert four “houses” within the warehouse, each of which would have dramatic pitched ceilings to heighten the
sense of being inside a constructed interior.
“Pinterest is a beautiful infrastructure for sharing photos, and similarly the architecture here is very abstract and white, and can take on very personal content,” Neimark says. “The walls function as a giant pinboard.”
To help them execute their schematic design, Kim turned to local architect Neal Schwartz, principal of Schwartz and Architecture. Schwartz, who is known for his residential work, was well-equipped to handle the demands of the project. He refined the initial design and added details, such as a display wall behind the reception desk, kitchen islands, and a partially enclosed meeting room on the third floor. He also designed an adjoining 15,000-square-foot space for the company,with industrial details like OSB-finished walls and steel-and-glass garage doors, when it became apparent that they needed more
A framework that encourages personalization
The building entrance has a casual lobby furnished with colorful sofas and a funky reception desk that was built by employees from old furniture. As a backdrop to the reception desk, Schwartz designed a glass partition with a grid pattern—a nod to Pinterest’s website design. Shelves on the other side of the glass display vintage cameras, typewriters, and other collections of Pinterest employees.
Beyond the glass wall, the scale of the voluminous space
becomes apparent. The “houses” are elegant white sculptures within the massive industrial structure of heavy timber and steel. Three are enclosed by glass, and the fourth defines the kitchen area. The open atrium is the company’s dining area and doubles as its all-hands meeting space. The exposed elevator shaft has been covered by an employee-produced mural of tiny photos of Pinterest users. The rest of the floor space is largely devoted to open desks, with signs hanging from the ceiling to designate departments.
With the basic structure in place, the Pinterest employees
(or, as the company calls them, “pinployees”) participated in weekend “hackathons” to make it their own. In addition to the reception desk and elevator mural, other notable DIY decor includes a structural steel beam in the lobby that is covered by knitting, an intricate wall installation of giant paper quilling, a retro speakeasy tucked behind one of the “houses,” and a 4-foot-by-6-foot Lego board that displays various employee sculptures next to the entrance.
“It was an interesting project, because the traditional role of the architect is to provide a top-down aesthetic vision to help define the brand,” Schwartz says. “But in this case, they wanted a raw space that they could hack and capture the spirit of the employees. So our role was to foster this curatorial spirit and allow room for change and evolution.”