Redesigning History - Design Bureau

Partners by Design

Partners by Design

Partners by Design

Partners by Design

Redesigning History

Monday, January 17th, 2011

In an age of countless microbreweries and boutique brews saturating the marketplace, it seems counterintuitive that a near centuries-old ale would experience a dramatic resurgence amongst a hip crowd of beer drinkers. That beer is, of course, Pabst Blue Ribbon.

But the classic brew hadn’t always evoked such an emotional response from its drinkers. Originally started in 1848 under the name Best Select, PBR was most popular amongst a blue-collar audience, particularly for its strong taste and affordability. In the ’50s, the tagline “The Premium Beer and a Popular Price” was befittingly coined to describe PBR. But as more lauded beers like Budweiser and Coors hit the market, PBR took a backseat and a nosedive in sales for nearly two decades—until it experienced a rebirth, thanks in part to the hipster counterculture that appreciated it for the exact same reasons that had originally made PBR a hit.

Pabst noticed a particularly strong affinity for the brand was occurring in the Midwest, so MillerCoors, who had taken over the actual brewing for Pabst (now a “virtual brewer”), decided to relocate the Pabst headquarters from San Antonio, TX, to Woodridge, IL in order to gain the maximum value from the upturn in its appeal. Pabst CEO and president at the time Kevin Kotecki mandated that the move happen fast, so as not to lose momentum. He enlisted Chicago-area architect Tom Rowland of Partners by Design for the project, and gave him a short four-month time frame to complete the project. “To do a project of this speed with the level of design that was required, we needed a great champion of the project, which Kevin Kotecki was,” says Rowland. “Having him share our vision of where the project would go allowed us to move quickly.”

Part of the bottle washer became a display wall in the lunchroom, and the conveyor belts were built into the reception desk, and an old beer vat was placed in the reception area and hooked up to the desk.
- Tom Rowland, Partners By Design

The enthusiastic CEO had his sights set on constructing a new 12,000-square-foot headquarters in Woodridge—not a small task, and one that was especially difficult given the short window for completion. The space was to be used for the company’s business meetings and tours, alike. Within three business days of the firm’s initial meeting with Pabst, Rowland assembled a senior team of designers and architects to begin work on the fast-tracked project, with a particular emphasis on how to pair the nostalgia factor Kotecki wanted with the new facility’s framework of contemporary design. The architects began by looking into Pabst’s past.

“My team and I ended up touring a non-heated former brewing facility of Pabst’s in Wisconsin in January,” recalls Rowland. The mothballed facility was like a museum for obsolete brewing technology and antiquated equipment, but he notes that a two-story bottle cleaner and mutiple conveyor belts inside the plant caught the team’s collective design eye. The pieces were dismantled and sent to Woodridge to be integrated into the design as physical reminders of Pabst’s active brewing past. “Part of the bottle washer became a display wall in the lunchroom, and the conveyor belts were built into the reception desk, and an old beer vat was placed in the reception area and hooked up to the desk,” says Rowland.

Kotecki also provided another unique relic for the space: a historic wagon that had once transported beer kegs before trucks were used. “After we had started design, Kevin said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m having the wagon shipped up from San Antonio, can you fit it into the space?’” recalls Rowland. The wagon became part of a layering effect that Partners by Design repeated throughout the entire space, with the wagon itself placed behind the reception desk in front of a supergraphic of factory workers. The large-scale decorative design gave the illusion of extra space.

Although Kotecki wanted the overall space to reflect the brewery’s long history, he mandated that the PBR lunchroom (where the company usually held team meetings) have a modern loft-space and factory feel to it. He’d had the idea while enjoying the ambiance of the loft style conference room in the Partners By Design office. To accomplish this, Rowland brought in warm Chicago common brick to the new Pabst HQ, which the architects used to create a layering effect.

“By placing a supergraphic of a factory floor next to a broken brick wall, we created an effect akin to getting a sneak peek inside the old Pabst brewery,” explains Rowland. “The layering of the elements helped tie the old and the new together.” The new boardroom also incorporated pieces of Pabst’s history into its design, including a wall showcasing the original certificates of Pabst stock and sharebills that had been digitally scanned and reproduced. The completed layout featured a visual icon of Pabst’s past at either end of the corridor, ensuring the brand’s heritage was always within view.

Although the tight time frame called for serious work, Rowland and his team did manage to find some time for fun along the way, particularly when it came to installing working beer taps in the lunchroom. “We had to have a lot of ‘meetings’ to ensure they worked,” Rowland jokes. The PBD team also had some fun at the expense of Kotecki’s unbridled enthusiasm. “We would tease Kevin that he was going to get divorced because of this project,” he says. “At one point, he bought 400 historical plates on eBay, at four in the morning, and stored [them] in his living room. But all the historical paraphernalia that he acquired helped surround the visitors with the history and passion of this company. Working with a client like that is a pleasure.”

Text by Chris Allsop
Chris Allsop is a freelance writer who enjoys Pabst Blue Ribbon with takeout pizza or a selection of European cheeses.


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