Culture by Design

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Chicago lawyers Robert Muriel and Edward Renner have worked hard to create a reputation for their law firm as not just a successful litigation shop, but also as a business adept at serving the city’s Hispanic community.

Muriel has a Hispanic background–his family comes from Bolivia–and his goal is to get more work from affluent Hispanic business owners and large companies looking for minority-owned firms. “We want to be known as a Hispanic-owned litigation boutique for commercial and employment disputes,” Muriel says.

While Muriel and Renner have solid professional backgrounds, they know their legal skills are only part of the equation that will help them accomplish their goals. Anoth­er part is image–and more specifically, the image they’re presenting with their office space.

The firm, Muriel Renner, is housed in a generic loft office building just outside the Loop, Chicago’s central business zone. When the two lawyers signed the lease, they felt the 1,750-square-foot office was the right size, the right location and the right feel for their clients. It’s clean, open and bright with its high ceilings and its exposed brick walls, timber beams and ductwork creating an air of cutting-edge informality. But there’s a fine line between informality and indifference, and they do not want to let their office space fall to the wrong side of it.

Muriel and Renner have done nothing to decorate or personalize the office space since moving in. It is sparsely furnished with secondhand pieces that the previous tenant left behind. A smattering of framed black-and-white photographs remain on the walls, but the space is largely empty and devoid of decoration. It is hardly the image that Muriel and Renner want to project.

Life Audit interior design expert Paul Tanis envisions a space heavily influenced by colors, textures and images drawn from Muriel’s Hispanic heritage. And he says such a space is possible, even on the lawyers’ limited budget.

To do it, Tanis wants the firm to focus its initial decorating efforts–and budget–on the reception area. The current layout of the room is undefined, disorganized and provides no identity. Visitors now enter through double glass doors that open into a large but virtually empty reception area. The firm’s receptionist sits in the middle of the room behind an old metal desk. Two weary side chairs provide the only seating, and behind the reception desk are a hodgepodge of books, boxes and office supplies sitting out in the open. To get to the conference room, visitors are led past an open kitchen and office supply area.

The conference room, while well-outfitted with a large wooden table and ample seating, is cluttered with storage and filing cabinets. Files and supplies have spilled out onto the tops of the cabinets and onto the floors. The two lawyers often find themselves interrupting meetings to retrieve files or supplies from the conference room.

Shifting Spaces, Defining Priorities

Tanis first suggests reorienting the reception area. He’d like to see the receptionist station moved closer to the actual point of entry. He also wants the lawyers to invest in a custom-built reception station that evokes some of the Hispanic culture that they want to project. Tanis suggests building the station out of materials that combine a Hispanic feeling with a feeling of solidity. He suggests constructing it out of stucco, with rough hewn wooden countertops. The actual workspace behind the station could be customized however the lawyers see fit.

In addition to moving the receptionist station closer to the front door, Tanis also wants the firm to build a wall out of complementary materials behind the station. The wall would fulfill two key objectives: It would hide storage behind it, and it would also serve as an impact wall for the firm’s signage.

Tanis says that adding a wall behind the receptionist also would also provide a clearer path to the private attorney offices and the conference room. To further define the reception area, he wants to create a new entryway leading into the reception area with a terra-cotta floor tile, which would further the Hispanic decorating theme.

Tanis says the reception area seating also needs to be replaced. He suggests clustering four chairs around a coffee table immediately to the left of the new reception station. He envisions the seating area composed of chairs framed in wicker or another woven material with upholstered cushions. The coffee table would be made from a wood like the one topping the receptionist station.

Tanis also wants the firm to add color to its office space and suggests using a palette of earth tones like moss green, teal, terra-cotta and gold to bolster the cultural imagery.

Tanis notes that the soaring ceilings allow the firm to use bold colors in key places. He envisions painting one large blank wall in the reception area one of these colors and using a contrasting color on the long hallway wall that leads from the reception area into the conference room. A wall in that room could be painted the same color as the reception area wall.

The chair cushions in the waiting area and in the conference room could be upholstered in coordinating fabrics with these colors; the carpeting should be replaced with one that picks up on the desired color scheme.

Because visitors must pass through an open kitchen area on their way to the conference room, Tanis wants to screen it off. The hallway is too narrow to build a wall, so Tanis suggests hanging a track from the ceiling with lightweight drapery to hide the area.

From there, Tanis recommends moving file cabinets, papers and boxes into storage spaces. This would free up more room to display artwork, awards and other information, giving this firm’s owners even more opportunities to show what they’re all about.

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Vital Statistics

Firm: Muriel Renner


GOAL Designing an office space that not only functions better and looks better but also reflects the heritage of the Hispanic-owned firm

BUDGET About $10,000

Our Expert

Paul Tanis

Interior designer Paul Tanis is the principal designer of Tanis Design in Chicago. The firm has designed a wide variety of commercial and residential spaces throughout the Midwest.

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