Bean bags, bike tracks, and balloon pits: Space design at the Hive

Collage by Olivia Hewitt

Have you ever wondered who lived in your room before you? What dinner parties were hosted around your kitchen table before you moved in? Or why there’s a weird patch of paint above your dresser? What are the past lives of the spaces we love, where we lounge, laugh, cry, and sleep, and how did these spaces evolve to become the way they are today?

Today, we take a deep dive into the past lives of the Hive building, and how it came to be the design center it is today.

When I walked into the Hive this morning, I was greeted with warmth — glowing lamps line the hallway, while colorful sticky notes form a faux wallpaper covering the very bones of the building in ideas and dreams and dumb jokes.

But when I asked Linda Shimoda, Creative Platforms Designer and Hive Historian, about the first time she walked into the Hive, she told me, “It was scary.”

“The only lights that were on were by the kitchen, and what’s now Fred’s office. I didn’t even know where the light switches were. I remember the first time I walked in thinking, “Well, I hope we’re not in this building for very long.”

This was back in 2015, when the Hive was just barely more than an idea, and the space was much smaller — consisting of just a few rooms.

“My first impression, to be honest, was that it was too small to be the robust 7C creativity center that I was interested in coming here to create,” Fred Leichter, Director of the Hive, told me. “But then I poked around and discovered there was a hallway and a whole loft up above and all this space that you couldn’t see at first glance. That excited me. I felt that if the Hive could have more of the space that’s in this building, we could do something amazing with it.”

Where did this good-bones building with empty lofts and promising yet deserted hallways come from?

The original Seeley G. Mudd Science library. Image source: The Claremont Colleges Digital Library

The building that is now home to the Hive was originally constructed in 1983 to be the Seeley G. Mudd Science Library. Back then, its soaring arches and gently humming lights were home to stacks and stacks of scientific books. Students studied in the main rooms, while Special Collections books were locked up in a vault and kept cold to preserve their fragile, precious pages. The science library closed about twenty years ago, when Honnold Mudd Library took over most of its books, and the building sat empty for a while.

In 2010, Samuel Starr, a Pomona student at the time, saw the empty building as the perfect place to construct an indoor circular bike track known as a velodrome. He rode his bike around and around the indoor track he created for his senior thesis, a project he called Circulus. “He created an active sculpture in the middle of this open space,” Linda tells me. “It was really cool.”

Samuel Starr riding his bike on the circular track he constructed in the building. Photo by Lisa Anne Auerbach via Pomona College Magazine

In 2012, a couple of years after the Hive’s bike track days came to a close, the Physics, Math, and Astronomy departments moved into the Hive temporarily while Estella Laboratory was being renovated. Old library rooms were converted into lab spaces, and drywall was installed to create offices. A few years later, the physicists, astronomers, and mathematicians packed up and moved out, leaving behind only the big heavy lab tables and the outlets on the ceiling of the special collections vault. The building fell back into a slumber, the rooms dark and dormant for a little while.

That’s how the building was when Linda walked in in 2016 – dark, dormant, and empty. As you might remember, Linda was hoping they would move to a different building.

But, “When Fred came in, he said, ‘Oh, no, we’re not moving. We’re just going to take over more space,’” Linda tells me. “And that’s when everything got lit up, and we could actually see what those arches look like. I thought, oh, wow. It felt like a place that we could grow into.”

“I spent a lot of time with the building plans in SketchUp and Photoshop rearranging possible layouts for the space,” Fred recalls. “What could be classrooms? What walls did we want to keep? How about the doors? At one point, I was literally on the phone with David Oxtoby, the president of Pomona College, discussing and negotiating where we could put walls.”

“Revision by David and Fred” floor plan idea for the Hive. Other iterations of the original floor plan were titled “Slimmed down” and “Another possible future where the Hive is lockable”

Fred then called up his friends Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, authors of , and invited them to help design the spaces for the first iteration of the Hive, an offer they quickly accepted. While the Scotts helped set the design foundations of the Hive, Linda, Fred, the post bacs, and the student staff got busy dreaming up ways to bring the space to life.

“It was summer, and the walls were all white,” Linda told me. “We had a big piece of foam core, and we all either drew or brought pictures of spaces that we thought were cool and creative, and we put them on there.” The board filled with magazine cut outs and sketches and printed photos — lots of color, plants, playground elements, and mega-organized tool walls.

Fred recalls that foam core dreaming session too. “I brought an image from a place I visited in Colombia where they had umbrellas hanging above an outdoor seating area. That seeded the idea that maybe we could use umbrellas to divide space and use them as a kind of ceiling.”

Left: The photo Fred brought to the brainstorming session. Right: The umbrella ceiling that was created at the Hive

“One of the next things we did is we went to IKEA with all the student staff, and I gave everybody a $200 budget to buy whatever they wanted,” Fred laughs. “And we spent the day running around with shopping carts at IKEA. We wanted the students to get their handprints on this place. Some of the stuff we bought at IKEA that day is still in the Hive now.”

From there, the energy around the Hive only grew. The team made more and more design decisions, they bought couches and put wheels on the old lab tables left over from the Physics, Astronomy, and Math days. Fred ordered a bunch of Yogibo bean bags from the Natick Mall in Massachusetts (the Hive’s education discount has never been better used). Linda started to create the Hive’s many whimsical and cozy corners. “People like to congregate in little areas, like in the nooks underneath the staircase. So I just tried to create those little pockets. Putting a lamp in and shining a light on a small area makes it feel like it’s this cozy place where you can be vulnerable and talk and be open and work together. I tried to create either pockets of comfort or work areas.”

One of the Hive’s many cozy nooks

The empty hallways and offices that once felt so ominous and uninviting got makeovers, starting with their names. The 2016 Hive team named the various rooms of the Hive things like Outer Meadows, Inner Meadows, Honeystacks, and The Cave. What is now a screen printing studio was once Scandinavia, named for its large quantity of IKEA furniture. That playful energy extended to the decorations — students and faculty worked together to cover the walls in colorful sticky notes, big pieces of paper directing people into the heart of the Hive, and sewing machines were set up right in the middle of the action.

Some of the Hive spaces in 2016

Looking back at photos and videos of the space from 2016, it feels like the Hive started as a blanket fort that a group of friends built and loved so much that they never wanted to leave. Over the years, the sticky note wallpapers turned to painted walls, the handwritten signs became linocut printed signs, and the blanket fort turned into a house. But I can look back at that old footage and recognize this place, and feel that it’s still just a bunch of friends crouched under a makeshift sky, dreaming of what this place could do next.

Left: Human-Centered Design students build a blanket fort inside one of the Hive’s classrooms. Right: A faculty workshop takes place in the main hallway

In a lot of fancy design spaces, everything matches, everything fits, and things feel almost too perfect to be true. While these spaces are inspiring and beautiful, “It doesn’t look like a friendly space that might be your dorm room or a lounge somewhere. We wanted to achieve something that felt lived in and used,” Fred tells me. His marker of success in this arena was whether or not you feel like you can sit down on the furniture in a wet raincoat. “If you feel comfortable doing that, we’ve done our job.”

“We wanted to avoid the place becoming so precious that you couldn’t touch it. Instead, we wanted it to be so malleable that you’re supposed to touch it. You’re supposed to put your own mark on it, and feel comfortable there,” Fred adds.

Left: The main hallway of the building in 2016. Right: The main hallway in fall 2022, as students create the Hive’s annual Tape Mural

“Wine is like furniture,” Fred says. “There’s a huge variation in what you can spend for something that’s functionally the same. A $12 wine kind of goes as well with most food as a $200 bottle of wine does. So we wanted to have the $10 bottle of wine, Trader Joe’s wine, for our first round of furniture. That way, we could buy inexpensive furniture that was perfectly comfortable and functional, and if we didn’t like it, we could just give it away. We wouldn’t need to put plaques on it of who the donor was who had given it to us. So we were price conscious. Not just to save money, but to create something that we could change without having to apologize.”

Sometimes the furniture leaves the room entirely: Final presentations for the Human-Centered Design class took place on our outdoor patio last fall

Back then the Hive didn’t have a patio, just a patch of unused outdoor space between the building and the street. “We had thought about putting some actual beehives in that space,” Fred laughed. “We ultimately decided that bees, as wonderful as they are for the environment, might be off-putting to people coming in the door. They’re a great logo, but not a welcoming ambassador to visitors hoping to enter our space.”

The offices for Hive directors were built with glass walls, and located in common areas, where students were often milling about throughout the day. “We intentionally designed the offices to be the opposite of what most academic spaces are like, with their closed, very private offices,” Fred told me. “We were trying to reduce hierarchy and have a lot of open space.”

One of the Hive directors’ offices had a temporary stint as a balloon pit

If the Hive was a dollhouse, and you picked it up and tipped it slightly to the side, all of the furniture would roll to one side — almost all of our furniture is on wheels. “At the beginning we wouldn’t buy anything that you couldn’t put wheels on,” Linda laughs. So I had to ask: what’s the deal with all the wheels?

“The whole reason for that is so that we could move stuff around and repurpose a room at the drop of a hat,” Linda says.

And move stuff around they did. “I had the idea that in our Human-Centered Design class, we should challenge ourselves not just to set the room up kind of differently every time, but to set it up distinctly differently, as much as we could, every single class all semester,” Fred told me. “If we had a lecture, we would set up an arc curve where everybody had a front row seat. If we were doing a class on synthesis, we’d set the whole class up as a two by two matrix. If we were doing a class on ambiguity, we’d set the room up such that some of the spaces weren’t necessarily accessible.”

Sample room layouts, where the squares represent tables, and dots represent chairs

Setting up the room differently every day is more than just space design, it’s a teaching philosophy. “By making the space change, you accomplish a few things,” Fred shares. “You make it more memorable, and the students learn more. You also create an environment where students sit next to new people every day, and can’t cling to one familiar spot in the room. Even though the natural instinct is to create a nest in one spot, students end up feeling more comfortable in a classroom that changes because they feel more comfortable with the other people in the class. And, there’s a little added fun and excitement when you come to class each day, because you don’t know how the room is gonna be.”

The beginning stages of the Hive were filled with excitement, glitz, and intrigue — dreaming up what the space could be, pasting magazine cut-outs on big white boards, and racing around IKEA filling shopping carts with anything that sparked joy. But how do you keep a space feeling magical, even after years of use?

For Linda, it’s about caring for the space, day in and day out, to intentionally create a blank slate, blue-sky experience for every Hive user. “If we want people to come into the Hive and feel creative, everyone who walks through the door needs to get the same nice experience. I want the space to look just as great for the one hundredth person that comes in at 9 p.m. as it did for the first person that came in at 9 a.m.”

Space resetting guides are hung on the walls of Hive classrooms

To pull this off at the Hive, Linda implemented a system of “space resets.” At the end of every class session, teachers and students move the tables and chairs back to the sides of the room where they found them. Throughout the day, student staffers help re-stock materials in our making areas. Everything in the Hive has a home, and Linda and post-bac Zoë Kelly created maps that hang on the walls of the Hive to make it easy to help reset and care for the space — whether it’s your first time in the Hive or your millionth. “I want people to feel like somebody organized the space for their use, instead of walking in and thinking, ‘This is a mess.’ I want them to feel that we did take a little bit of care to make sure that they feel comfortable.”

Through space resets, Linda is teaching us the behind-the-scenes work that helps create a magical experience. Resetting spaces is a practice she brought to the Hive from her own art studio at home, where resetting her space and materials at the end of a session helps her feel prepared to come back and be creative again next time.

Sideways furniture shows up throughout the space, playing with the idea of perspective and shaking up our expectations

In the first few years of the Hive, former student staffer Akotowaa Ofori mentioned her passion for recording spoken word poetry to Fred. So Fred put a sign on the door of a small room, tucked off to the side of Studio 1, that said “Akotowaa’s Soundbox,” and drew a sketch of a microphone on a whiteboard in the room with a marker. “I said, ‘Here’s your prototype!’ and she was like, ‘Oh my god, can we ever really have something like this?’ So we left the sign up for a while. And then Akotowaa’s Soundbox became The Soundbox.” The room slowly evolved to have better soundproofing, software and equipment, and is now a fully functional sound recording studio that is booked most hours of the day.

The Soundbox in its current era

Those shabby solutions and whiteboard-sketch first tries aren’t something we avoid; we embrace them here, and some of us, like Linda, even prefer those approaches.

“Starting with perfection feels boring to me. I’d rather start with imperfection and make things better from there.”

Left: Linda prototyping an early version of our tool wall. Right: Our tool wall today!

That process — of starting with the bare minimum for an experiment, and seeing if people get excited enough to continue — is really what Linda and Fred have been doing with the Hive spaces this entire time. And through that journey they’ve become experts in starting with something less than perfect and turning it into something spectacular and long-lasting. There were years of trial and error put into creating that feeling you get when you walk into the Hive — that this is a communal living room, a place to create, try new things, to be vulnerable — and yes, a place where you could sit down on the couch in a wet raincoat. Linda and Fred’s work in space design shows us how to build simple routines that foster big magic, design a space that doesn’t feel highly designed, and create a place that can grow and change with each person that enters its doors. That story is lived out every day at the Hive.



Dedicated to unlocking collaborative creativity everywhere! Creative confidence x collaboration x liberal arts x human-centered design;

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The Hive at the Claremont Colleges

Dedicated to unlocking collaborative creativity everywhere! Creative confidence x collaboration x liberal arts x human-centered design;