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Meet Denise Cherry: Tech Giants' Go-To and Curbed Young Gun

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When Denise Cherry, 32, started at San Francisco-based interiors firm Studio O+A in 2005, it was a six-to-eight-person shop. She was the intern. Fast-forward 10 years: Cherry has risen to become the studio's principal interior designer and director of design, driving a project portfolio that now encompasses a parade of innovative, one-of-a-kind office spaces for some of most successful tech companies in the Bay Area, including Facebook, Yelp, Evernote, and Uber, to name a few.

Daughter to an architect father, Cherry used to leave office visits insisting, "I am never going to become an architect." Designing spaces, it seems, was a fate she couldn't escape. Though Cherry started off as an anthropology major at New York University, she soon craved more creative expression, and quickly transferred to an art school in San Francisco. She originally intended to study graphic design, but a single interior design class became her homecoming; she embraced her gift for seeing and understanding the world in 3D. After an internship at the design magazine Surface, she interned at O+A and has stayed there ever since, putting in her "10,000 hours" (a "rule of success" popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell) several times over.

↑ Cherry describes Facebook's Palo Alto office, which O+A completed in 2009, as a "watershed moment" for the company. Facebook, she says, was the first project that reflected her vision of creating spaces that are so completely tailored for the client that they essentially "can't be subleased." Facebook necessitated a completely new approach, one that required digging deep into company culture. After regularly convening with Facebook advisory committees and directly polling Facebook employees on design decisions, Cherry's team came up with what you see above. It's marked by walls where workers can write and draw on freely, a lab with prototyping equipment, and flexible furniture arrangements.

While the spaces are tailored, the design approach, which usually starts with a slew of meetings with the company's founders and executives, is the same. It's in fact how the firm is able to work on several brands at the same time and deliver distinct results. Take, for example, the new offices of Yelp, Cisco, and Uber (below), which were completed simultaneously within the last two years.

↑ In designing the headquarters for taxi/ride-sharing company Uber, Cherry distilled the brand's "populist luxury" into the design. Here, high-end walnut and copper finishes rub up against raw steel and plastic. The resulting space highlights Uber's ethos: bon vivant service from a company that's not afraid to—ahemplay dirty to succeed.

↑ For prolific review site Yelp, O+A created an interconnected vertical "neighborhood" in a historic Art Deco building. In addition to the general huggable-lumberjack decor—that is, interiors marked by cozy-industrial stuff like reclaimed wood and heavy brick—each level of the office features a "magnet destination" intended to draw in the other floors. An example: a lobby in the style of a vintage general store or a coffee bar proffering (what else?) artisanal hot beverages.


↑ And for information-technology giant Cisco's headquarters, Cherry's team focused on turning mundane objects like cables into "things of beauty," especially in light of the company's recent acquisition of Meraki, a startup that manufactures elegant wireless routers.

Besides, there are bigger workplace design concerns that won't be solved by any number of slides (or rope swings, for that matter, now in operation at Google's new Mexico headquarters). For one, Cherry and O+A are now challenging the very starting point for so many modern offices: the idea that an open-plan space will work best.

"You really are seeing the pendulum swing against open office a bit," says Cherry. A lot of O+A clients, who currently occupy very open, very efficient trading room-style spaces, are now realizing that "collaboration for collaboration's sake" just doesn't make sense—that although people want to work with their team and be a part of a larger whole, they don't want it at the expense of having their every little move on full view.

Cherry says the workplaces O+A is designing are evolving. Yes, employees can still have open, small work stations, but there's definitely a need for spaces where people can "tuck away and focus." She explains that whereas a year to two ago, design schemes typically involved just desks, conference rooms, a media/lounge area, and maybe some enclosed offices, now they're a more varied landscape with 10 to 15 types of spaces.

And for all the cutting-edge work transpiring in these tech companies, the efficient integration of technology itself is still a widespread challenge for office design. "I personally have never seen an office space done very well with technology," she says. She believes that the minute employees start fumbling for the right cables, screens, or other equipment is the minute they're distracted from the task at hand. So in the next few years, Cherry also hopes to complete a project that gets closer to the "office of the future," where technology use is truly seamless.

· All Young Guns 2014 coverage [Curbed National]