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Real Estate / Houses

Houston’s Dream Office

Powerhouse PR Firm’s Historic Downtown Digs Create Buzz

BY Rebecca Sherman // 07.20.15
photography Max Burkhalter, Eric Laignel

Dancie Perugini Ware grew up around historic architecture in Galveston, where her family has been for five generations. She still has a house there, where she and her attorney husband, Jim Ware, and their college-age twin boys spend weekends and holidays. She’s a trustee of Texas’ oldest continuously operating library, Galveston’s Rosenberg Library, and is collaborating with Ace Theatrical on the historic restoration of New Orleans’ 1927 Saenger Theater, which suffered damage in Katrina, and Kings Theatre in Brooklyn. She is also active in preservation efforts in both Houston and Galveston. Classic architecture of bygone eras may be in Ware’s heart, but it beats with the lifeblood of modernism.

After graduating from the University of Texas, she started her public relations career at Goodwin Dannebaum Littman & Wingfield — one of the largest ad agencies in Houston in the heady ’70s and ’80s. The firm was a big influence, she says. Mentored by legendary adwoman Anna Wingfield, Ware not only learned the PR and advertising ropes, but was inspired by Wingfield’s chic style and approach to marketing. Their offices were designed by the late Houston interior designer Sally Walsh, who had been Hans Knoll’s assistant in the early 1950s at Knoll headquarters in Chicago.

“Our offices were award-winning, filled with Knoll International and Florence Knoll-designed furniture sourced from local designer Bruce Monical,” Ware says. “The look left an imprint on me. I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do one day.”

Dancie Perugini Ware, seated in front of Natalia Cacchiarelli’s Vertigo turquoise, 2014, an acrylic-on-canvas work from The Mission.
Dancie Perugini Ware, seated in front of Natalia Cacchiarelli’s Vertigo turquoise, 2014, an acrylic-on-canvas work from The Mission.

When Ware left to open her own firm, she decorated her offices inside the sleek I.M. Pei-designed JPMorgan Chase Tower with gently used Knoll pieces from a local dealer. Her offices later relocated to another bastion of modernism, Pennzoil Place, Philip Johnson’s 36-floor International-style skyscraper. The classic Knoll furniture came with her, of course. Ware began searching for new offices last year when her lease expired. Through her leasing agent, she enlisted the help of award-winning Houston architecture and design firm Mayfield and Ragni Studio (MaRS), known for its highly creative and cutting-edge designs for corporate offices, hotels, retail and residential worldwide.

We took Dancie to look at many buildings, to help her find the right image for her company,” says interior designer Kelie Mayfield, a principal at MaRS with architect Erick Ragni. Nothing seemed right until they came across an empty space inside the Niels Esperson building. The 88-year old Italian Renaissance structure downtown seemed an unlikely fit. Designed by theater architect John Eberson, the Esperson’s ornate flourishes, including a Roman tempietto on top, were a far cry from the sleek, modern spaces Ware was used to. “Dancie was reluctant at first to consider the Esperson building, but we felt it would be a good move for her,” Mayfield says. “And, we knew we could completely transform the space into the right look.”

It didn’t take long for Ware to be convinced. “When I walked in the building’s magnificent lobby with its dome and marble floors, I knew it was right,” she says. Built before the advent of air-conditioning, the corner unit’s narrow profile, low ceilings and comparatively small windows were designed to help it stay cool in the heat. “It’s an interesting project to fit a modern tenant into,” Ragni says. “That was the beauty of the challenge.” Ware, who had admired previous spaces that MaRS had designed, gave them carte blanche to carry out their vision. “She said, ‘I want to see what you bring to this,’” says Mayfield. She did have one request, however. “She wanted it to have energy, because there’s so much energy going on in her firm,” Ragni says.

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DPWPR’s 21 employees handle a plethora of high-powered national and global brands such as Landry’s, Inc., and Fertitta Hospitality, the country’s largest privately held dining and hospitality company; Simon Property Group, a worldwide retail organization; luxury brands including Louis Vuitton; The Texas Medical Center; and H-E-B, which owns Central Market. The firm has always maintained a strong representation in the arts, including Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Alley Theatre; Houston Symphony; and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at University of Houston. DPWPR is currently working with Memorial Park Conservancy and renowned landscape architect Thomas Woltz on its $200 million visionary transformation plan.

To help the DPWPR team work efficiently and cohesively in such a linear space, Ragni and Mayfield created a continuous open-office environment, with a wall of glass that separates the reception space from the elevator lobby. “It opens up the area quite a bit and gives it the energy it needs,” Ragni says. With a bank of windows facing east, and white, high-gloss floors, walls and ceiling, the unconventionally shaped area feels at once vast and intimate.

“I’ve never worked in an open office space before,” says Ware. “We all love it. There’s no hierarchy here; we work as a team. My workspace is the only closed office, but I prefer to work at a conference table out in the open. I love being in the mix, with all the young ideas.”

One of the team’s favorite gathering spots is a custom marble island, “where we gather for cappuccinos in the morning, for lunch and, in the late afternoon, for Champagne with clients,” Ware says. (A sliding panel hides a fully functioning kitchen.) Contemporary chandeliers, multiple seating groups and thick, soundproofing curtains that create privacy when needed are the kind of residential details that welcome people in, Ragni says. “The space speaks to what her company is about. When you walk in, there’s a hospitality feel. There’s style and personality.”

Design ideas were sparked by Ware’s dynamism and bold spirit, Mayfield says. “Dancie is very strong and vivacious. So, we went with very big and bold ideas — over-exaggerated forms, such as the custom-milled legs for the coffee bar and the reception table. Everything has a big and bold scale.” Working with Ware’s existing collection of fine vintage mid-century Saarinen tables and Platner, Bertoia and Jacobsen chairs, MaRS layered modernism with texture from one of Ware’s Chanel suits, which was translated digitally onto a wall covering for workstations. In the entry, tiles made to resemble newsprint reinforce their brand as a communicator. “You always want the materials to be part of the storytelling of the space,” Ragni says.

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Nothing reveals more about Ware’s own story than the Arches for Galveston project. In 1986, she commissioned some of the leading architects in the country to design arches — gratis — for Galveston’s Mardi Gras celebration. Inspired by the city’s rich architectural history, which dates from the 1880s, and the chance to create without restraint for a civic event, seven architects participated, including the late Michael Graves. When the massive arches were built, they spanned the town’s streets. The Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York mounted a show afterwards of the beautiful wood scale-models and architectural drawings the architects created, with the story behind it. If the country hadn’t previously thought of Galveston as a place that fostered the arts, they did now. As they say in the biz, you can’t buy that kind of publicity.

The firm has launched other high-profile arts and cultural events during the decades, including Jean-Michel Jarre’s Rendezvous Houston lightscape on the downtown skyline; the opening of the George R. Brown Convention Center; Space Center Houston’s national launch; the artistic unveiling of the MFAH’s Audrey Jones Beck Building; and WaterFire Houston in commemoration of Buffalo Bayou’s Sesquicentennial Park.

For Ware, the new office space represents what DPWPR is all about. “We revolve around design and creativity and brand building,” she says. “I love the tension of clean lines with an historic space, and being in the Esperson building combines the firm’s interest in preservation with our modern ethos and forward thinking. It’s a space that’s conducive to cultivating any and all new ideas.”

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