Consumer review website Yelp wanted a vibrant urban location for its growing Midwest offices and chose Chicago's historic Merchandise Mart, now a hub for tech companies. The company asked Valerio Dewalt Train for an office space that would reflect the sometimes raw, sometimes polished honesty of the site's reviewers.
Yelp's new Chicago office occupies a significant corner of the majestic Merchandise Mart, overlooking the junction of the Chicago River's branches. Originally built as a vast showroom for goods, theMart itself functions as a small city with a daily population of 15,000. But today, the building is a hub for tech companies looking for an authentic urban environment with floors large enough to accommodate future expansion.
At its core, Yelp's business is fueled by the candid, varied opinions of the masses. These consumer reviews expose and reveal their unvarnished personal experiences of commerce. Yelp's offices embrace a similarly exposed honesty in the design of the workspace. Layers of past finishes were stripped from the columns and ceilings to reveal the bare structure. Mechanical systems are purposefully left uncovered to feature their messy vitality. New finishes were selected to complement this raw and vibrant expression of the urban condition: rough clay tile, hefty timber planks, and bolted steel beams evoke an urban aesthetic. It is as if portions of the space were built with materials found beneath the 'L' tracks or in some back-of-the-house service area.
In contrast with that "below-ground" aesthetic, new room enclosures are simple, bold, and utilitarian, like the refined structures that line Chicago's streets. Community spaces are detailed to recall bridges and transit framework. A central corridor, connecting auxiliary paths through the office, features pops of red accent color recalling Yelp's iconic burst logo. This exposed and raw environment is the perfect stage for Yelp's workforce to inhabit and make their own - just as the users of their website express themselves to whomever is interested in listening.
This first phase of offices occupies 50,000 square feet of space for 375 employees of Yelp's growing presence in Chicago. In addition to conferencing and teaming areas and 100-seat training room, the offices feature a 180-seat break area with full-time barista staffed coffee bar, post-work beer bar, and game room.
The second phase of design, features an expansion into the fifth floor of theMart, adding an extra 15,000 square feet to their offices. As Yelp expands into multiple floors, this presented the unique opportunity to break through theMart's floor plates. The stair is encased within a steel frame, another feature reminiscent of city transit. On its adjacent wall, a grid of wooden panels- custom routed to abstractly express the Chicago map. Its diagonal lines are subtle cues toward North Lincoln and North Clybourn Avenues.
The completed project presents a unique experience for Yelp's Chicago-based employees. The vibrance of the city is reflected in the design of the office space, ensuring a welcoming environment reflective of the growing company.
Photography: Tom Harris