Rebranding is all very well, but for a sexy image to be convincing there's nothing like relocating to a funky new office building. We discovered a company that gave dullness the sack and employed neon colours, supergraphics and thousands of red tubes …
Millions of UK office workers would love Gavin Harris to come in and cheer them up a bit. As senior designer for Harper Mackay Architects he is waging war on the dull spaces workers have to endure day after day. "In this kind of environment you need to fight against grey, particularly because the weather is so grey here," he says. "You need to brighten things up."

He has just been "brightening things up" at management consultant Braxton's new headquarters on Shoe Lane, in the City of London. And it seems to have worked, for visitors and employees walking into the cavernous reception area are greeted by a bright, sophisticated interior that seems light years away from the conventional drab office space. A 22 m-long illuminated glass wall curves around the reception perimeter, adding a dramatic sweep of constantly changing hues. Opposite the entrance a forest of red metal tubes provides another beacon of colour and is a prelude to other visual treats in the offices above. The strong impression is that you have entered a boutique hotel rather than an office block.

This is no accident as Braxton is keen on "hotelling" – a concept beloved of management consultants as it enables companies to house employees in much smaller offices and save on rent. Because between 30% and 50% of employees are out of the office at any time, it doesn't make sense to give them all individual desks. Much better to get employees to check in to a free desk on arrival. Braxton has taken this a step further by making its office actually look like a hotel, and Harper Mackay was an obvious choice as the practice worked with designer Philippe Starck on the groundbreaking St Martin's Lane and Sanderson hotels.

"The client wanted it to look very natural, but modern and clean too," says Harris. Most of Braxton's consultants are in their early 30s and they wanted an interior that used natural materials and had an environmental theme. They also wanted it to be young and bright.

"We started with a very clean palette; the interest comes from the colour," says Harris. White terrazzo was used for the floor and polished white plaster for the walls, and the structural columns are clad in limestone. Harris says this approach reflects the trend for neutral backgrounds with splashes of pure bright colours, often introduced by using artificial light rather than fabric or paint.

In the reception area, the tapering glass wall is a band of colour that incorporates internet-enabled screens. It is called the "branding blade" because any colour can be used to illuminate it. The idea is to delight potential clients by greeting them with their own corporate colours.

Harris was inspired to use changeable coloured light rather than permanent colours because half way through the design process the original company, Deloitte Consulting, changed its name and corporate brand to Braxton. The advantages of a flexible branding image became all too apparent to him.

The lighting program is set to run through a range of different colours for decorative effect. "It influences the whole area because of the neutral palette," say Harris. "Its effect is limited on bright days but when it's dull or later on in the day, the space comes alive."

Beyond the branding blade are the red metal tubes. These act as a screening device between the reception area and three informal meeting areas. Even though they are painted vivid red, the colour is broken up and softened by the spaces between the 3500 tubes. "A guy was there for a very long time drilling holes in the floor for the tubes; it didn't make me very popular," laughs Harris.

Above the reception are seven floors of offices where the most exciting graphics are reserved for communal areas. For example, supergraphics – photo-realistic wallpaper (see picture) – has been used to depict a forest sprouting up through the lift lobbies. "The client wanted a perception of nature," says Harris, who commissioned a photographer to shoot pictures of trees and forests that were used to create the wallpaper. The images begin at the bottom of the building where the forest floor is visible in the lift lobby; further up, the visitor encounters tree trunks and branches, and the journey culminates in a sweeping vista of sky and treetops.

Harris has even thought of the pedestrians outside in the street. Two curved floor-to-ceiling "pods" house tea-making and photocopying facilities on each floor. These pods are stacked on top of each other up the building's height and are visible from outside. Supergraphics have been used to cover each pod with two bands of colour, one for the top of the pod, another for the bottom. Because the colour on the ceiling end is the same as the colour on the floor end of the pod above, pedestrians see a continuous tube of alternating colour.

There are a host of other visual treats dotted around the building. Two office floors feature touchdown areas around the building's perimeter. These are small spaces with a telephone and power connection for nomadic workers to plug into when they hit base. The backs of these feature a vivid blue supergraphic also visible from outside.

The toilets have glass cubicles coloured yellow for women and green for men. More supergraphics with nature-inspired images are used in the toilets too; each image is frosted except for one small rectangle that highlights an interesting section of the image, such as a butterfly or some berries.

The top floor, containing meeting suites, is a subtle reversal of the reception area. Downstairs, the reception is mainly stone and plaster dotted with tiny areas of wood; at the top, timber predominates. So whereas the floor of the downstairs reception used terrazzo, for example, upstairs uses wood. A pale green, used sparingly downstairs, has been used to paint the walls.

"We began a story, and finished a story," explains Harris. "The entrance and top floor use quieter colours, the middle floors are brighter, like the front and back of a book." Most British workers would be grateful just for the dustcover.

Groovy, baby: How Harper Mackay funked up the new Braxton HQ

  • The curved glass wall in the reception area at Braxton’s new office is illuminated using cold cathode lighting.

    The lamps are tubular, like fluorescent lamps, but can be bent like neon tubes. They are dimmable without the need for complicated electronics and have a life of up to 50,000 hours, making them ideal for inaccessible areas. More than 20 different colours are available – the colours are created using different phosphor coatings on the inside of the tube. The electrode is inserted into each end of the tube at right angles so the tubes can be installed end to end, giving a continuous band of light without shadow gaps.

  • Red, blue and green lamps run along the whole length of the glass wall in a trough at its base. Electronics control the output of each lamp – these three primary colours mix to produce a huge number of different hues and they can be programmed to cycle through a range of colours throughout the day. Harris says the intensity of each hue varies – green, for example, will light up the whole wall but the red illuminates only the lower part of the glass.

  • The technology behind supergraphics is very similar to manipulating and printing out photographs using a PC.

    A photograph is scanned into a computer and can be easily manipulated using Photoshop – for example, the photographs in the toilets have sections with enhanced colour for dramatic effect. The image is printed out on a giant inkjet printer onto self-adhesive paper that is simply stuck onto the wall like ordinary wallpaper. The variegated colours used on the pods were also created in Photoshop and printed onto a transparent film stuck onto a white background.

  • Another neat trick was used to disguise the lift buttons, which are in the middle of the supergraphic images of trees in the lift lobbies. A square of special film was stuck around the buttons instead of a standard steel plate. When viewed from an angle the film is transparent, revealing the picture behind. However when viewed head on the film appears milky white, making the location of the lift buttons obvious.

  • Harris is taking this idea one step further on his next project by using the same technology used for cereal packet freebies such as the little plastic card images that appear to move when viewed from two different angles. The subject is photographed in two different positions and the images are cut up into thin strips, with strips of each image alternated and stuck onto a backing material. A ribbed plastic is stuck over the top so each image is only visible from either right or left. The technique can be used either with two images or just with two different colours. Harris’ plan is to cover the front of a reception desk so it changes colour when you walk past it.