Like a number of employees who joined the company in recent years, I was stunned when I entered Johnson Publishing for the first time. Stepping into the building on Chicago's Michigan Avenue was like being transported back to my Aunt Edna's basement, circa 1975. Red leather sofas, foil wallpaper in the bathrooms, electric green carpets. All it needed was plastic carpet runners, wooden spoons on the wall and a drunken uncle pouring from a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red to complete the throwback.
But also like everyone else, I soon came to love it. The midcentury modern furniture that would cost a fortune in vintage stores; color-themed floors — orange plaid on four, pink and mauve on three, cheetah print on seven; credenzas with built-in eight-track players; "Neckbone Day" in the cafeteria; and my living room-size office that overlooked Lake Michigan and the world's finest architecture. It was Mad Men, if Mad Men had actual black people in it.
Built in 1972, just four years after the riots, the building was its own loud protest — a visual pronouncement that black America had arrived in all its striving, outrageous, hip and fashionable glory. Older staffers regaled us newbies with stories of payday poker parties in Mr. Johnson's office and impromptu cocktail bashes when Sammy Davis Jr. stopped by for a visit. Once you let all that sink in, it felt like an honor to be connected to that legacy and to be doing something to keep it alive.
And as a marketing tool, few things compared to having a tuxedoed waiter serve fried chicken and champagne to a prospective advertiser and having this conversation:
Client: This building is amazing. What other companies are in here?
Me: Nobody else. Just us.
Client: So Ebony leases the whole building?
Me: No, we own the whole building.
But pride and nostalgia aside, the cold business reality is that Johnson Publishing was long overdue to move on, for several reasons.
In fact, well before the company's public distress, executives were asked to float ideas on how to creatively generate revenue from the overabundance of space. Concepts ran the gamut: turning the lobby into a branded-merchandise store, using several floors for a black photography museum based on the Ebony archives, and even closing the company's legendary $1-a-day cafeteria and converting it into a soul food restaurant open to the public.
Second, the Johnson building is too specific. It is not standard office space. It was built to serve the operational needs of Johnson Publishing. From its physical plant to security, it was built for one company alone, and sharing the space for lease was simply impractical.
But more significant, from the perspective of smart industrial design, the layout was designed for the way American companies operated in the 1970s, not 2010. Its layout is a monument to the kind of top-down hierarchy that smart companies rejected a decade ago — closed doors, high-walled cubicles, executive offices. There are none of the modern design tricks that foster the things well-managed companies hold dear in the 21st century: collaboration, communication, wellness, flexibility, nimbleness.
In many ways, the flaws that developed in the building's design over time reflect the flaws that developed in the company's culture, and perhaps even exacerbated them. So whether the deal to sell was an emergency move or a shrewd one is immaterial. It was, quite simply, necessary.
For anyone decrying some great loss of history, I would argue that the history is secure. More important than Johnson Publishing owning the building or residing in it is that the building even existed for its time. It stands as a major achievement. Historians and preservationists should be more concerned that the landmark does not get torn down and that its story be told prominently and correctly.
As for the company itself, I would advise my former colleagues not to wait to move. Get out as soon as possible and begin anew. Scrap the "world's largest black publishing company" hype and start acting like a startup. Find a funky warehouse with creaky floors, drafty windows and exposed beams, and a great view of an alley — some space that reeks of innovation, creativity and growth. Then crank the music loud and start having fun again. Less Mad Men, more Facebook.
Eric Easter is the former vice president of digital and entertainment for Johnson Publishing Co. He can be reached at email@example.com.