Mark Schmitz recently moved his Zebradog design firm from a prestigious perch on the Capitol Square to the heart of the Near East Side, where his close neighbors include the Willy Street Co-op, Jolly Bob's and the Crystal Corner Bar.
A different vibe, to be sure, but in other ways, the old and new locations — at 111 S. Hamilton St. and 1249 Williamson St., respectively — are not dissimilar at all, Schmitz says.
Both spaces, he notes, are 4,000 square feet over two floors. Both were built in 1913, making them 100 years old, and both were designed by the same architectural firm, Claude & Starck, in the same year.
"There is that deeper connection," Schmitz said. "All the masons that built (the old location, known as the Jackman building), built this building. All the carpenters that did the woodwork there, did the woodwork here. It was just beautiful, a historic building and gorgeous, and this building is the same thing."
Zebradog moved into the company's new offices on Oct. 1, exactly 20 years after Schmitz started the business in the Jackman Building with a partner, who left two years later.
The new office space has a rich history of its own, as the former Sixth Ward Carnegie Library, one of 1,681 public libraries built across the country around the turn of the century by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
That history is showcased around the renovated offices, where a newly painted high ceiling and gleaming hardwood floors give the space an airy, modern feel, even as old photographs and artifacts ground it, including an original reading table from the former library and its sole remaining bookshelf.
As a firm focused on exhibit architecture, Zebradog uses a client's physical space to express its mission and values — a concept known as facility branding that is often tied to the company's history.
"We are in the business of historical storytelling," Schmitz said. "My job is to take the building that people are in and use the stories of those buildings to advance the brand. If I can't do it in my own space, then I'm in the wrong business."
Zebradog's past and current clients include corporations, nonprofit organizations, health facilities and sports franchises, including Duke University, global oil company Saudi Aramco, Aurora Healthcare, UW-Madison and Neenah-based Miron Construction, one of the state's largest contractors.
Zebradog designers practice exhibit architecture, creating interactive walls, hallway-length storyboards and mini-museums that serve as self-guided tours of facilities for fans, customers or employees.
Smartphone software, video, lasers and LED lights are among the company's expanding arsenal of tools, but colorful history and compelling storytelling are what really draws people in, Schmitz said.
"What matters is your heart and your purpose as an organization," he said. "The relevance of an authentic story is what matters, and everybody has one. They just get lost in the technology."
Q: Zebradog is an unusual name, suggesting something offbeat. Does that describe your company?
A: Yes, because we're a hybrid, which is what a zebradog would be, of architects, media designers, graphic designers and writers. We're not an ad agency, or an architectural firm, or a design firm — we're all of that.
We've really grown into a design consortium that recognizes a company's success within its facilities.
Q: Why focus on branding inside a building?
A: The only place that a company can really stage an experience for their clients is in a place. They need to do it within their office space or within their stadium or their hall of fame or their museum.
We do a lot of tour design within large organizations — that welcome/entrance experience and then what I call the stations of the cross, where we create a lot of vignettes, or little stop-and-tell story stations, all the way through an entire tour of a million-square-foot building.
Q: Can you explain what your company did for UW-Madison's Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery?
A: We did the Town Center space there, so three restaurants and the interactive media walls. We helped to design and name the restaurants, and brand all of them as well.
So in that environment, we have a sense of scientific magic taking place, this incredibly high-end work, in a very Wisconsin and environmentally conscious manner.
Steenbock's on Orchard restaurant is based in sustainable food that is within a very close geographical node. And then there's Aldo's Cafe, so they're (both) named after great university scientists and researchers.
Q: How do you create interactive walls?
A: It used to be touch screens, and now it's more what we call gestural motion design. They use laser cameras, where they recognize where you are in space, and you're able to navigate through the information by just gesturing toward it.
It's a really have-to-be-there-to-experience-it kind of thing. It's not like just looking at a TV on a wall. It's a very dynamic interactivity, real magical. You can make water move.
Q: How did your company do through the recession? It seems like branding projects might be first on the chopping block.
A: We have not reduced staff because of the economy. It's just been sort of level for us. We were very lucky to have Duke University win the national championship in 2010.
As soon as that happened, we went to work to design a Duke basketball museum and hall of fame.
Many colleagues, small creative service businesses, whether ad agencies or video production houses, went through an enormous drop, and a lot of them disappeared. There are more architects bartending now than being architects.
But we're beginning to see (a recovery). The first quarter of this year has seen a very large change. Construction is up a lot. All the contractors are booked. They've got two-year backlogs. That's good for us, because when buildings are built, that means stories need to be told, and we're going to be a part of that.