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The red brick façade and antique gas light-style fixtures at the entrance to ZEBRADOG look much the same as they did when the building, constructed in 1913, served as Madison’s first public library branch a century ago.
And the people behind ZEBRADOG, a design firm located at 1249 Williamson St. on Madison’s east side, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mark Schmitz, who founded the company more than 20 years ago, cherishes the building’s rich history. That’s what drew him to the space when ZEBRADOG chose to relocate from Madison’s Capitol Square in 2012.
“It couldn’t have been just any building,” Schmitz said. “It’s so Madison. My whole goal was to buy an authentic building that was a city landmark.”
The building was designed by the same architecture firm, Claude and Starck, behind downtown’s Majestic Theatre and many of Wisconsin’s other Carnegie libraries.
A blend of historic and contemporary aesthetics presents an office ambiance the ZEBRADOG team calls “eclectic authenticity.”
Case in point: walking in the front door of ZEBRADOG, guests pass through the building’s original wooden door, stand on the original, 103-year-old tile floor and can gaze up a distressed wooden sign that bears a quote from Dr. Seuss.
“Think and wonder, wonder and think,” it says.
“As soon as I read that, I thought, ‘That’s going on the front door,’” Schmitz said.
Underneath the sign, a directory lays out the company’s infrastucture: In “The Loft,” Schmitz works on “visual therapy,” the “Design Level” is home to “environmental design,” “media magic,” “spatial thinking” and “color corrections” and the “Garden Level” is for the “reception lounge,” “mayhem management,” “conceptual estimating” and “financial counseling.”
A rickety staircase (Schmitz calls it their “burglar alarm”) leads up to a worn bookshelf filled with ZEBRADOG knick-knacks: antique textbooks that nod to the building’s heritage, souvenirs from client trips abroad, a pink fur framed clock with a likeness of Jesus on it.
Past the bookshelf is the most expansive workspace in the office, with a barrel vaulted ceiling (painted lime green) and exposed brick walls. Designers and developers work side-by-side at long tables, most wearing headphones. Situated at the end of the room is a 100-year-old wooden table that’s been there since the building was a library.
On the wall leading into the “café” (“we can’t call it a ‘kitchen,’” Schmitz said, implying the word was a bit too commonplace for the space, which boasts a custom-made table and tin ceilings) is a collection ZEBRADOG’s design work, transferred onto wood panels and gone over with a wire brush to make them look artfully distressed.
“We wanted to make the wall our work, but we didn’t want to frame and hang our stuff,” Schmitz said.
Schmitz’s office, “The Loft,” is above the café. He calls it an “eclectic and off the wall” space. There are two chairs salvaged from the Wisconsin Union Theater renovations, a cluster of candles that, having recently burned out, smell a bit like incense, and a bookshelf with more business and personal knickknacks. There’s a Genna’s Lounge bumper sticker, a jar of sand from Saudi Arabia, books and family photos.
The careful hodgepodge of “The Loft” is echoed in the office’s “Garden Level” space (actually a few steps underground – windows show feet of passersby on the street). There’s a conference room built to look like a dog house, complete with a custom bent steel dog collar as a door handle (“You go to the Dog House if you’re good,” Schmitz said) and a conference room with dry erase walls and a ceiling made from wood from an old barn in Stoughton.
ZEBRADOG’s space may be eclectic and jumbled, but it is a decidedly calculated jumble. It feels like a curated exhibit and, in a way, it is: it’s a curation of the 20 full-time employees’ favorite things, and their tastes.
“That’s our job – to find these weird things and put them to use,” Schmitz said.
“We had to feel it was ‘of us.’”
“It’s always fun for new clients to come here and see how we live our culture, because that’s what we help people do,” he said. ￼