In his latest column on life as an independent designer, Paul Pensom debates the pros and cons of allowing your furry friends into your studio.
Once upon a time it was all so simple: if you were a professional you worked in the humdrum world of offices, typing pools and tea trolleys. If you were a creative you entered each day into a Saturnalia of play, a frolicsome place which distinguished you from the ‘suits’, with their stuffy conventions, and which the inevitable arms race of idiosyncrasy eventually begat astroturf break out zones, meeting room slides and table football.
Then in the mid 1990s something peculiar started to happen. The dotcom bubble democratised wealth creation, and even if many of these footsoldiers of the new elite quickly fell in the melee (Boo.com anyone?), no matter, the die was cast; success no longer wore pinstripes and resided in the square mile, it sported an asymmetric fin cut and rode an unfathomably small bicycle.
A side effect of this phenomenon was that for the first time, the conventional business world – in an attempt to syphon off some of this success – began to ape the creative one. Thus it was that throughout the western world bosses came creeping out of their glass boxes, dress codes relaxed, and it became unremarkable to find a Ping Pong table in say, a bank’s HQ, or a Scalextric in an auditor’s office.
There’s one addition however that the wannabee Bohemian office simply cannot be without though, and that is a dog. Quite simply, nothing pins your avant garde credentials to the door like your attitude to canines.
I think there is a rich subtext to be unearthed here. It used to be noted that there were more similarities between the working and upper classes than either had with those in the middle. Working people shared with the aristocracy an ease and familiarity with swearing which made the Pooters of this world uncomfortable. Likewise they were more relaxed about cleanliness, more comfortable in old clothes, and more tolerant of pets indoors than their suburban counterparts. You can still find echoes of these attitudes in London, where dogs are welcome in shops of the richest areas, but shunned in more middling districts.
As the first Bohemians were, after all, aristocrats, this welcoming embrace of our furry brothers and sisters transferred itself to the workplace – first the garret and eventually the studio. And centuries later straitlaced property owners are still declaring their creative credentials using the subtext of the humble hound. A dog friendly policy says ‘come and work here! We’re unorthodox. We’re rule breakers. We’re fun!’. Conversely, a dog prohibition says ‘we’re inflexible, we’re fussy, and to be honest we’re rather concerned about scratches to the lino.’
So what does Canis lupus familiaris bring to the workplace, besides an unvanquishable appetite for biscuits, a predisposition for shouting and an assertive body odour? Could dogs be creative muses? Perhaps, though if so, I think Prudence – our studio dog – is working in deep, deep cover.
It would seem indisputable though that dogs improve the commitment and motivation of employees. A recent study from the University of Göttingen concluded that the German economy saves on average two billion Euros a year thanks to dogs, because pet owners have an average of 7% fewer sick days.
In another study from 2012, blood samples were taken from workers to measure the concentration of stress hormones accumulated during the day. Those who took a dog to work exhibited the lowest results, but interestingly, even the stress levels of their co-workers dropped. It would seem you don’t have to own the dog to feel the benefit – just proximity can be beneficial.
The magic ingredient is Oxytocin – that’s the hormone that encourages bonding behaviour and also lowers stress. Babies stimulate Oxytocin production, and so do dogs. Stroking them improves not only our physical but also our mental health.
In this age of corporate sponsored wellbeing and mindfulness programmes, this is worth bearing in mind. Dogs cause minor disruptions during the day. They take you away from your screen – as we all know we’re supposed to but so often fail to do. As a result we suffer less eye strain, and return refreshed, with renewed creative inspiration. Occupational therapists have found that concentration dwindles after about 20 minutes of physical inactivity, so it is actually beneficial to get up every hour or so for a few minutes’ interruption. A studio dog is thus fulfilling a useful role when they tactfully remind you it’s way past teatime.
Even so, not all dogs are cut out for studio life. Prudence divides her time between snoring gently on her cushion and guilt tripping anyone foolhardy enough to use the kitchen on her watch. Constant barkers are tiresome of course, and it goes without saying that the unhouse-trained should never be inflicted on your unfortunate colleagues. I once worked in a studio where a very large and rather aggressive Alsatian was given free rein – an excellent incentive to stay sat at your desk.
Some dogs of course, find themselves right at home in a creative environment. Bodhi, a Shiba Inu from New York, was reborn in 2013 as Menswear Dog, the most stylish canine in the world, and now has 360 thousand Instagram followers, as well as gracing the pages of The New York Times, GQ and Time Magazine.
So if I’ve finally sold you, and you’re all set to poochify your studio, just one small word of warning: don’t let it get out of hand. Last week I spoke to a studio owner who was rather regretting his own canine policy. He now plays host to a pack of nine, and the place is beginning to smell and sound rather like Battersea Dog’s Home.