“Nature, technology and human spirit.” These are the three values — according to Maja Bernvill, creative director at Stockholm design firm Specific Generic — that together formed a sort of “mantra” in creating the headquarters of Swiss company On. From its inception as an athletic apparel start-up in 2010 to its present-day status as a global brand with over 600 employees – and a favourite of Roger Federer, who is also an investor in the brand – On has epitomized healthy lifestyle and movement. So for its HQ and flagship retail space in Zurich, Specific Generic, along with Spillmann Echsle Architects and the athletic brand itself, conceived an environment to encourage activity throughout the day; most impressively, the multi-level interior features a circulation-route-as-hiking-trail through various triple-storey “neighbourhoods,” each symbolizing a different aspect of the natural world.
From “Earth,” you can ascend via spiral staircases, which get narrower and steeper the higher up you go, to “Forest,” “Lake” and “Mountain.” The colour and material palette evolves along the journey, as subdued tones and heavy forms — mediated by metal accents that evoke the high-tech — give way to cooler greens and watery blues the closer you get to the heavens.
On the ground floor, vegan cafeteria Roots and the flagship retail store — with its stainless-steel moveable displays and invisible foot scanners — form the public interface of the building. This level establishes the “Lab,” where design and development take place, as well as the aesthetic motif of Earth. The Lab is public-facing, with co-working areas open to outsiders. Employees of On, meanwhile, are allocated to specific neighbourhoods — but they are free to choose where they set up for the day, and are also encouraged to mingle along the “trail.” As David Allemann, a co-founder of On, has said, “No one comes back to the office just for a desk.” Social interaction is the main attraction.
Take the zigzag concrete steps to the second floor and you’ll discover a stainless-steel laundromat (more on that later) and a waiting area with a pebble garden strewn with large, rugged Alpine rocks, a serene ambience balanced by a silver curtain and a mirror wall that reflects and extends the space visually. There is also a lounge furnished with a sofa, an accent chair and a carpet inscribed with a topographical contour map of the Engadin.
Each neighbourhood clusters its meeting and conference rooms at its centre, arranging its open-plan working and informal social spaces along the periphery of the floor plan for maximum levels of daylight. They also all boast a communal dining area. On the Earth level, the stainless-steel kitchenette and bar counter (accented with a melting disco ball) are situated under a neon lighting installation that traces a 3D jogging route. “It also resembles the idea of the cloud, which is the name of the unique technology of On,” says Bernvill, referring to the cushioning CloudTec of the brand’s sneaker soles.
It’s a good fit: Employees often jog together in groups during their lunch break, then freshen up in the shower and change rooms stocked with clean towels and scented soap, or mellow out in the yoga gyms. The water stations on every level are equipped with stackable cannisters and glasses that do away with the need for a tray — another On invention. On the second-floor landing, the designers have prominently situated a block of stainless-steel washing machines as both a utility (for all those sweaty towels) and a statement piece.
Their circular fronts are evoked over and over again, most prominently in the floor slab cut-outs accommodating the spiral staircases, and might remind one of the film Everything Everywhere All at Once. But the circles aren’t derived from the laundromat, Bernvill says: “It’s more of an emotional choice.”
The most impressive of these affective moments is the circular cut-out from which a petrified tree is suspended — roots and all — over a double-volume space and its dark green sculptural sofa to announce the Forest theme. The expansive room, like many capacious spaces in the HQ, can be subdivided into more intimate zones with dark green floor-to-ceiling curtains.
The interior scheme’s colour-coding completes the full spectrum in the Lake neighbourhood, on the higher levels, where a monochromatic cobalt-blue library conjures a calm, aquatic environment. The bookshelves that line the space can be pivoted to open it up to the surrounding work areas, which include meeting rooms with, again, large circular windows in their rotating wood-finish doors.
The choice of furniture throughout the HQ was essential to the overall success of the project. To this end, Specific Generic, Spillmann Echsle and On joined forces with renowned Swiss brand Vitra, which provided soft seating and desking systems for the entire space, including office tables from the Joyn series and desks from the Hack series. Their collaboration also produced a quirky invention: a stackable stool designed by On and made with wood and recycled trainers.
It epitomizes the goal of Thilo Alex Brunner, another On co-founder, to outfit the entire building with pieces that “functioned in a similar way to a running shoe.” Ergonomic and fun, On’s headquarters is a concrete manifestation of its ethos and core values. The new HQ showcases how workplaces can encourage health and well-being and attract and retain employees who share these principles.
The Swiss tennis icon is just one of the athletic brand’s many fans – and On’s Zurich HQ, by Specific Generic, will no doubt garner it more.