Picking the drapes

Planning the design or upgrade of your office requires the right blend of consensus and outside expertise to avoid eyesores and miffed partners.

Debates over the look of a firm's office space can quickly veer from the abstract to the petty. When the topic is initially broached, partners who otherwise focus on deals may find themselves nodding that a “modern, yet rustic” look is perfect. But months later, one partner may be muttering about how the baseboards cheapen his choice of carpet. Translating lofty concepts into actual decor choices is rarely smooth, but there are a few guidelines to achieve a look that satisfies the whole team.

Many private equity firms are fortunate to have at least one partner with a particular interest in design, broadly defined. “I've been an avid collector of fossils for years and thought they'd be a perfect choice to decorate our office,” says Pascal Levensohn of San Francisco-based Levensohn Venture Partners.

In some cases, well heeled partners will contribute pieces from their private art collections to the office, which can set a tone for the overall design to follow. Most private equity firms are populated by GPs who hope to someday hang a Picasso, but in the meantime are troubled by the high price of carpeting.

The designers can also help smooth out differences of opinion between the partners by offering ideas that bridge the gap between varying tastes.

It is important, therefore, that the design of an office be done in a way that everyone agrees to up front. The designated design partner should drive the process, from setting up the meetings to discussing the various stages of development, coordinating with outside experts and keeping an eye on the budget. One GP warns that the office manager may not be the best choice for the role. Office design issues can easily be shrugged off in the frenzy of deal activity, so a partner may be in a better position to gauge and enforce priorities.

If the firm is looking to move into a new office space, location should be the first concern addressed. Most explained that selecting a location helped winnow down the dizzying array of options for designing a look. Beringea LLC, a Farmington Hills, Michigan-based firm chose a farmhouse from the 1880s ass its office. “It had been renovated up to a point back in the 1970s, with aluminum siding and an interior that was dated in the worst in possible way,” says Charles Rothstein, founder and a senior managing director at the firm. “We saw its potential to create the feel of a time machine, where we'd restore the original look of the exterior while simultaneously modernizing the interior.”

Levensohn made location a priority as well. “We had been in the financial district in San Francisco and decided we wanted to be in a non-institutional setting, strategically located to be accessible to our entrepreneurs – 30 minutes from both Palo Alto and Sand Hill so we could serve both communities,” he says.

After the location is established, it's time to discuss facets of a firm's brand that should inform the design. “We wanted to balance the fact that we wanted to appear polished for our entrepreneurs while avoiding the flash that may send the wrong messages to our investors,” says Koleman Karleski, a managing director at Louisville, Kentucky-based Chrysalis Ventures.

Of course, “polished” can be articulated countless ways, so at this point, outside architects or interior designers should be employed to offer concrete suggestions. “The fact of the matter is that our day-to-day lives are booked, so we outsourced the project with a segment of the management team reviewing the process on a regular basis,” says Karleski.

The designers can also help smooth out differences of opinion between the partners by offering ideas that bridge the gap between varying tastes. “One of the partners eyed the farmhouse warily, and I didn't blame him, says Rothstein. “But once the architect began to offer his more modern take on the interior, the partner could appreciate our concept.” Rothstein added that the architect spent time with each partner to tailor the design to each of their preferences.

Fellow partners may sometimes scoff at breaking their busy schedule to weigh in on shades of white for the walls. But once that meeting is underway, strong opinions often emerge. Interior design may not be any of the partners' strength, but rare is the executive that completely disregards his or her surroundings, which means that securing frequent approvals and tapping experts can ensure that the office is to everyone's liking, or at least that no one feels those baseboards clash with the carpet.