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Large law firms with large budgets can afford to hire high-end architects and designers to bring a polished air to their offices, but a coherent design may be even more important for a small firm, designers say. Paradoxically, designing a smaller office may require more planning to achieve a professional look. “A small law firm has a lot more design leeway than a large firm,” said Carolyn Brooks, a senior associate at Mancini Duffy and a member of the American Institute of Architects. Brooks, who has worked with large and small law firms, said the individual tastes of founding partners can be reflected in every design element from build-outs to finishes. Cecilia Andres Gregg, of CAG Design Group in New York City and North Carolina, uses semiotics — or symbolism — to design law offices reflecting a firm’s identity. Gregg, who studied semiotics at New School University and is also a member of the American Institute of Architects, focuses on how a firm wants to be perceived and uses specific materials to create the desired impression. A small firm that wants to project an established, old-school image should focus on materials that depict antiquity, she said. Solid woods and rich fabrics symbolize permanence. Leather upholstery and dense, plush carpet instill confidence, she said. Appealing to high-tech markets and younger, progressive clients calls for the opposite approach. Contemporary colors and bright materials like chrome and metal make an office shine. Glass and daylight represent transparency and openness. “Private offices may have glass walls to show a new-think, that you’re breaking down some of the barriers of the old law firm,” Gregg said. Even fine points such as office doors and doorknobs should be of high quality. “With law firms more than any firm, you want to convey that you pay attention, that you are on top of the details,” Gregg said. At the same time, layering a common area with several functions gives a small firm “big-boy amenities,” she said. A conference room with a coffee maker, for example, can double as a break room. But cheap furniture is not a wise way to cut corners, designers warned. Better to get a few good chairs than several that will need replacing. It might be tempting to skimp on a desk chair that clients never see, Gregg acknowledged, but that one piece “will either make or break your back.” LAW OFFICE FENG SHUI Julie Anna Alvarez, a feng shui consultant, is the founder of Happy Chi Solutions. She said she believes a healthy energy flow enhances professional success. Alvarez graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as an associate in a large New York firm before beginning her second career. Her clients include law firms, businesses and individuals. Working under feng shui principles, Alvarez first clears the clutter from an office and then suggests “cures” based on the Chinese bagua. The bagua (pronounced Ba-gwa) is a “map” of nine divisions in a room or floor plan that correspond to nine areas of life: prosperity; fame and reputation; relationships; family; health; creativity and children; skills and knowledge; career; and helpful people. Plants bring in fresh energy and can soften a sharp angle, said Alvarez. Mirrors can be placed in a way to draw in missing areas of a floor plan or expand a small space, she said. Alvarez said family heirlooms or photos with positive energy on the left wall adjacent to the door provide a sense of history, while a brightly colored painting or desk lamp in the far right corner enhances relationships. Items that create negative associations or bad memories should be discarded, she said. Color is meaningful in feng shui but need not be visible. For example, Alvarez said she might tuck a square of purple construction paper discreetly behind a file in the wealth bagua, the far left corner from the door, to draw new money and clients. She recently evaluated the offices of Fischer & Burstein, a four-attorney firm in the Empire State Building. Partner Harold Burstein is not convinced feng shui will improve business, but he is pleased Alvarez gave his office a good evaluation. “For example, the way the light shines on our firm’s name as you enter the office, she said is phenomenal,” Burstein said. ELEVATING ARTWORK The attorneys at Kobre & Kim, a securities litigation boutique, turned to a designer they know — even though she had never before designed an office. Independent designer Nicole Smith has created retail stores for Donna Karan, Georgio Armani and jeweller David Yurman. Kobre & Kim first hired her to decorate the walls of its pre-built 2,500-square-foot offices. “They had a budget and quite a bit of space to fill,” Smith said. They also had to meet the white-shoe expectations of a well-heeled clientele. To accommodate high-end tastes on a small-firm budget, Smith turned to photography and sketches by a little-known New York City artist, Alexander Befelin. “The look is very unique, very original, yet in a price range that’s reasonable,” Smith said. She mixed artwork with vintage black-and-white photographs of the city, even in the partners’ offices. (Mr. Kim’s Befelin is of Naples.) “In such a small space, I think it’s important to keep it unified,” Smith said. Kobre & Kim is looking for a new office with 10,000 square feet that the firm can build out to its own specifications. The design for that office will incorporate the indigo blue of the firm logo, she said. Artwork is more than mere decoration, Smith said. “It can elevate your office. It really gives an air of importance.” DESIGN TRENDS While small firm offices tend to be more individualized, some design trends affect firms large and small. “There is a definite trend to spend more in the front of the house: the lobby, the conference room,” Brooks said. Firms are spending more on technology and less on custom furniture, millwork and libraries. Even small firms are beginning to outfit conference space with technology like cable television, video support and flat-paneled monitors, Brooks said. The trend toward standardized, modern furniture offers economy and flexibility. A flexible floor plan allows a firm to expand or contract, and perimeter offices with equal depth allow easy reorganization for the next office makeover. “Flexibility is the key word for the small law firm as well as the large,” Brooks said.

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