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Shades of Dark, Ironic Humor Seen in Eye-Wear Maker’s Headquarters

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Visitors might well expect something out of the ordinary from a corporate headquarters that flies the skull and crossbones.

Even the jaded, however, might not be prepared for the powerful images that adorn both the exterior and interior of the headquarters of Oakley Inc., the eye-wear manufacturer based in Foothill Ranch.

The first view, from the parking lot, is of metal cones protruding horizontally from the walls. The front door of this 425,000-square-foot building is an extravagant stainless steel doorway that looks like the entrance to a giant bank vault.

The tour de force, however, is the main lobby. The 45-foot-tall space, crowned in round arches, looks like a Romanesque church encased in iron. Or a scene from Fritz Lang’s movie “Metropolis.” Or one of H.R. Giger’s sensual science-fiction drawings. Or it could be one of the “dark satanic mills” mentioned by poet William Blake.

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Architect Rob Braun of the Newport Beach office of Langdon Wilson, which served as executive architect for the project, said the style could be called “Mannerist,” in the vein of Renaissance architects who relied on exaggerated shapes and size to achieve spectacular effects.

But Colin Baden, Oakley vice president of design who also served as design architect, has a simpler name for the style.

“We call it Mad Science,” he said. “ ‘Mad Science’ is a phrase we use a lot around here.”

Scale apparently plays a big part. Everything is oversized to heighten the sense of awe. The arches that support the barrel-vaulted ceiling rest on iron pilasters that measure 5 feet across and stand 38 feet tall.

The dominant material is iron. The metal, which is costly, heavy and difficult to manipulate, is rarely used in contemporary construction. Here there’s more iron than visitors are likely to see anywhere outside a 19th century railroad station. It’s all the more remarkable because the iron is entirely decorative--the world’s heaviest wallpaper, as it were.

The metal is covered in a gray-black patina to make it appear newly milled, according to Braun.

The lobby is also remarkable for its level of structural detail. This architectural fantasy has been thoroughly imagined and thought through; visitors could easily believe that the iron framework is holding up a large building.

The architects seem to have a fetish for fasteners: Walls and pilasters are studded with big bolts, medium-sized bolts and small bolts.

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The emphasis on joints and connections illustrates the corporate design philosophy: “The ends know where they are going,” according to Baden.

The attention to detail is also part of the corporate ethos, Baden said. “We will invest a lot of resources into whatever we make, whether it is eye wear, clothing, a building or even a business card. No detail is left untouched by design.”

Beyond the lobby is a 400-seat auditorium where rock bands occasionally play. (A regulation-sized basketball court can be found elsewhere in the building.) On one side of the lobby is a conventional sales office, where visitors can view displays of Oakley eye wear and buy caps and other sports apparel items.

Another adjoining room is a “performance lab” where tour guides use exhibits involving the heads of crash dummies to demonstrate the shatterproof qualities of the company’s products, as well as the resistance of the frames to distortion under stress.

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The power of the building’s design also hints at something defiant in the corporate culture. After all, a sunglass maker might be expected to showcase its products by having them modeled by attractive young people at the beach or on the ski slopes, or by stylish tourists strolling the Piazza San Marco. Not Oakley.

“ ‘Contrarian’ is a word we use around here a lot,” Baden said.

The skull and crossbones is not a reference to pirates. Instead, it’s meant to symbolize that the company’s eye wear protects users against harmful ultraviolet rays.

The flag is just one sign of the dark, teasing wit that pervades Oakley headquarters.

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On a recent tour, visitors passed by a pair of doors, painted in cautionary yellow and black stripes and emblazoned with the message “Caution: Contents Under Extreme Pressure.”

Nobody in the group could guess what was behind the doors. Finally Baden revealed the answer.

“It’s the design department,” he said.


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