As much a process as a place: Inside Werner Design Werks

[Sharon Werner] It’s been 20 years and three studio spaces since the start of Werner Design Werks, but oddly the description of our office hasn’t really changed: A scuffed-up brick building with no real style, in a decidedly not posh neighborhood, with little clue from the exterior that this is a design studio.

After 16 years in the heart of the Minneapolis warehouse district with many designers and friends as our neighbors, we decided we wanted a change of scenery, a change in our commute and mostly a change of perspective. So we crossed the great divide — the Mississippi River — that separates Minneapolis from St. Paul. We do miss chatting with our friends in the street and catching up on design gossip, but we definitely appreciate the less than 10-minute commute from our homes to the office.

We opted for an average hardworking street in the middle of a practical, hardworking (hopefully up-and-coming) neighborhood in the middle of downtown St. Paul … in the heart of the Midwest. The Midwest is full of sturdy things that show off their practical sides as much as their colors, and we fit right in. This is not only the backdrop but part of the guiding philosophy for the work of Werner Design Werks.

Our office space is very much a working studio. There is no facade or false front, no reception area that hides the work being done. There are no frills, and there’s a always a general sense of what we like to call “inspiring clutter.” We often dream of the lovely pristine white studio where everything is in its perfectly assigned place, but the reality is that our inspiration often comes from the random assignment of relationships between disparate objects. The space is conducive to making those relationships in natural order.

Each of the three studios we’ve had in the last 20 years featured wonderful natural light streaming in and operable windows for fresh air. This is critical for us; we want to enjoy every moment of the seasons. In our current studio, the light is provided by a large overhead garage door that we often open a foot or two for fresh air. It’s really the focal point of the space. Not only does it allow the light in, it often invites in curious people off the street — providing an interesting diversion to the day.

With 1700 square feet plus a full basement for storage, we have a luxurious amount of space for a two-person studio and room to spare for the occasional freelancer or intern. Despite all the space, we still have our desks within 10 feet of each other. The close proximity allows us to comment and share ideas on projects by merely looking around our monitors. The large basement is great for storing old project samples as well as all of the random things we pick up at auctions or on eBay — because we might be able to use them for a client project … someday. Such as the recent hot tip that a bookbindery was going out of business. Sure! We’ll take a few rolls of bookbinding cloth. It will come in handy. For something. Sometime.

The walls of the studio are stark white, a blank canvas. The floors show the age and use of the building, once a produce exchange where large trucks would pull in the front, drop off locally grown produce and drive out the back. The history underfoot is now sealed by a thick coat of polyurethane. We added a steel mezzanine to house our library at the front of the space, and we were very conscious of making it feel original to the building. In fact, most people assume it was a functional part of the produce exchange. The bookshelves and cabinets underneath were added to keep things a bit tidier.

The wooden cabinets have been with us from the beginning of our business. They were scrounged more than 20 years ago from a warehouse in northeast Minneapolis. The cabinets once housed small envelopes with thousands of seed samples. Now they’re home to project samples, office supplies, bits of ephemera and random things we like. In fact, they’re so hardworking we can’t imagine life without them.

Our studio is an ongoing process, ever evolving, ever changing. Maybe someday it won’t be so raw and utilitarian, but for now that works for us.

Sharon Werner is the founder of Werner Design Werks, a design firm nearly 20 years strong. Werner Design Werks is committed to simplicity, honesty and practicality in design, a strategy that has attracted clients including Moët Hennessy, 3M, Target, Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day, Mohawk Fine Papers, MTV Networks, Chronicle Books and Melcher Media. Werner Design Werks is also the creator and author of Alphabeasties and Other Amazing Types, a children’s book published in 2009 by Blue Apple Books.

The editor would like to add that Sharon Werner might have been too modest in describing the studio’s distinctive exterior … and that the studio’s packaging solutions for Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day products are some of the most striking and successful he has ever seen.

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by Mohawk Fine Papers on 07.16.10 at 9:37 am

    Makes me want to roll up my sleeves and get to work! Nice to see you here on Felt and Wire!

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