On Mondrian Cake

Cake as office culture. Though not in the way you’d think.


In 2009, the pastry chefs at specialty coffee roaster Blue Bottle Coffee debuted the Mondrian Cake at their SFMOMA cafe. As an homage to the Dutch avant-garde artist, Piet Mondrian, they assembled precision-cut velvet cakes of white and primary colors into the geometric shapes of his late De Stijl designs, using chocolate ganache for his bold square lines.

When presented to a crowd, there’s an exquisite tension as the knife hovers over the cake, seamless ganache cloaking the promise of incredible flavors and carefully constructed layers within. The ultimate reveal inspires awe in the audience, even if they have no idea about the incredibly intricate set of steps that made it possible.

After recipe-testing this cake for their cookbook, I can attest that a cake doesn’t bake itself. The same is certainly true for company culture.

When people see a great team in action, everyone working together seemingly effortlessly, it takes tremendous dedication to forge those bonds. Many think good office culture just happens. Gather a team of interesting people, create an environment with collaborative and comforting aesthetics, throw in some perks, and you have a recipe for success. In practice, compelling office culture takes commitment to identifying and living your core values.

As culture and experience designers, we help companies engage with their core values in tangible ways, from employee onboarding to aesthetics to company milestones. It helps members of your team live your culture and values from the moment they set foot in the door.

One client we have consulted for has been acutely intent on shaping company culture from the onset. Together we created a new program for engaging newly hired employees in the traditional dead time between accepted offers and start dates. By designing for this gap we were able to integrate new hires into the culture before they even set foot in the door.

Build a strong culture, and your team will want to be there. Most importantly, they’ll evangelize your brand — the pinnacle of a healthy workplace culture. While the goal of culture is not uniformity, the aim is to have a shared sense of cultural values and purpose, consistent no matter who you talk with in the organization.

Building that shared set of values requires a serious and sustained commitment to your employees, much like every step of making the Mondrian Cake requires diligence, finesse, and patience. Few know what it takes to get there, but when others see the results, it leaves a lasting impression. As Airbnb CEO and Co-founder, Brian Chesky, relays, “The thing that will endure for 100 years is the culture. The culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation. If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products.”

Have you identified the ingredients to create your unique cake? Are you in the careful process of constructing it? Or have you sliced into it already — are you savoring your labors? Realizing the promise of the cultural values of your company is like making that first slice into the cake; you should have confidence that regardless of where you slice it, you’ll reveal a magical piece of a greater whole. Throughout the process, we’re here to help you make the right cultural investments for your company that will pay dividends far into the future.

For more tips on Mondrian [and company culture] success, visit whisksf.com.

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