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Workplace wonderment

| Sunday, Oct. 7, 2007

Combine the mass-production practicality of Henry Ford, the creative inventiveness of Thomas Edison and the magic of Walt Disney as he tells a story, and the result is InventionLand.

The unique and creative workplace in RIDC Park, O'Hara, has been the subject of news articles, business tours and community events. Most recently, it was tapped to be included in the book "The Remarkable... Revealed," by Ripley's Believe It or Not, which features unique places, people and events from around the world. In the book's "Unusual Tales" section, the company is featured in four photos and a story with a headline: "Tree-Mendous Office."

George M. Davison, founder and CEO of Davison Development and Design, is the motivating force behind InventionLand, the 60,000-square-foot space designed to "help keep creative people creative."

The multi-million-dollar project, which opened in fall 2006, took about 18 months to complete, from conception to construction.

"This mention in Ripley's is a true honor," Davison says. "I have always admired Ripley's, because they are a company that celebrates unique individuals and out-of-the box thinking and creativity."

Deceptively hidden from the world, InventionLand cannot be seen from the outside of the brick office building in which it is housed. Employees and visitors enter through a contemporary business lobby that includes a 4-foot glass Italian floor lamp resembling a quartet of stacked, translucent marshmallows -- the first sign this is no ordinary place.

After a maze of office-type cubicles, the Edison Lab, named after the inventor, materializes. One side of the large room showcases the company's many products -- merchandise that has been developed and/or designed on site. The other half is furnished and decorated to replicate a turn-of-the-20th century laboratory and home library. Dominating the back wall is a ceiling-to-floor bookcase. This is where the fun begins. With the push of a hidden button, the bookcase slides back into the wall to reveal: InventionLand.

What greets the eyes is remarkable and might even require a blink or two. A sort of Land of Oz looms on the horizon. Where to look first• Is that a pirate ship at sea• A castle on the other side of that footbridge• The air smells different; it is pleasant, with a hint of floral. Birds can be heard chirping, and there is the sound of falling water. Is this a place of business or a theme park?

Indeed, the fortunate folks who work here are engineers, designers and artists. Creating new products requires an ensemble of people. Idea people. Davison Design provides research, industrial design, virtual reality, video, animation, product sample, packaging, presentation and royalty management services to its clientele of entrepreneurs, individuals and corporations.

Packed into InventionLand are 16 departments housed in special sections or "sets" as Davison calls them, each of which focuses on a certain type of product or service. The pirate ship, Discovery, comes complete with smoking cannons, Jolly Roger and a packed treasure chest . Every inch of the three levels reflects the pirate ship's theme. Oak barrels provide the bases for desks. Lighting comes in the form of brass lanterns and pirate figure lamps. Ragged sails hang from the ship's masts. This seafaring department is responsible for toys and games.

The shining metal front of Inventron 54 resembles the face of a huge robot, with flashing and blinking lights for its eyes and mouth. "We like gadgets and gizmos," says Clay Carlino, who is senior director of "Inventegration." The department is a marriage of mechanics and electronics, where employees have knowledge in a variety of areas, including engineering. Responsible for consumer electronics, this department covers things audio and visual.

A two-towered castle nearby is entered via a drawbridge over a moat. Dubbed "Inventalot," the castle has a round table for "working knights." Attention to detail can be found everywhere. Armored knights stand guard in the spacious meeting room where gargoyles are perched high above. Flags hanging from masts bear the real coat of arms of Davison's mother's family. This department, responsible for miscellaneous projects such as holiday and novelty items, also is where senior invention-men meet daily.

The whimsy continues at Motor Speedway, which features a six-track raceway for miniature cars on the ceiling. Decked out in red, white and black, the set reflects action and energy, from its black-and-white checkered floor to its large, red metal Craftsman toolboxes, which serve as desks and filing cabinets. Attached to the speedway is a two-car garage where current projects also are in the works. The folks who work here are involved with automotive products, garage tools and accessories, maintenance and repair kits and car-protection products.

Follow the sound of falling water to Creation Cavern, a large, cavelike space hidden behind giant boulders and waterfalls. Mountain greenery and wildlife are visible against the blue skies overhead. Employees are surrounded by nature in the form of tree-trunk bases with freeform slab desktops. Hunting, fishing, camping and hiking are spoken here. A 4-foot fish lure hangs from the ceiling. A "spent gun shell" actually is an industrial-size garbage can. Outdoor apparel and goods, safety and survival tools, and firearm and archery accessories are among products developed here.

Outdoor adventure continues at Brainpower Ballpark, where a larger-than-life baseball and basketball support columns gracing the gates of the imposing, grillwork metal doorway. An overhead electronic scoreboard proclaims "Davison vs the Competition, 54 to 0." Inside the ballpark, employees working on sports products are cheered on by their bleacher "fans" -- nearly life-size caricature cutouts modeled after people who work there and the likes of Albert Einstein, Superman and Charlie Tuna.

Employees walk to their respective departments on diverse, but inspiring paths. They can saunter on down Possibility Pathway, take a left onto Inventive Trail, or cross over onto Eureka Boulevard.

Davison, 43, says he has a "bunch of go-to people," who contributed to the design and furnishing of all the departments. "What they couldn't find, they made themselves." Wastebaskets, lamps, end tables, coat racks and other items were selected to reflect the department's decorating theme. Desk chairs used throughout the complex won industrial-design awards. Winning awards is nothing new to this group, which received two Industrial Design Excellence Awards from the Industrial Designers Society of America and Business Week magazine in 2006.

Davison understandably is proud of his company's accomplishments, successes and growth since 1989. He hopes that InventionLand will continue to stimulate and inspire his employees, especially when they're not feeling creative.

"It's really a multi-million-dollar experiment," Davison says. "Creative people are unique. How do we protect them• How do we get people to be creative everyday?" Employees say they love what they do. Only time will tell whether working in a relaxed, stress-free environment with a playful, fun-like atmosphere promotes and increases creativity.

Azizan Aziz, a senior researcher and teacher at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, Center for Building and Performance Diagnostics, called InventionLand a "spectacular concept" and a wonderful idea after an online tour via the company's Web site.

"I have not seen anything like this before. ... It's fun, almost Disneyland in a sense," he says.

Aziz, whose department studies the changing nature of work, environmental influences and the impact of design and function in the workplace, says the only drawback is it's inside in a controlled environment.

"Research has shown that humans have an affinity with nature and that daylight and fresh air have a positive impact on productivity," he says.

Aziz would like to see InventionLand out in the open, complete with wind, rain, sun and seasonal changes, not climatically controlled. "I'd like to be able to drive around this place. See it in a natural setting, one not hidden in a warehouse, not encapsulated. It would create more of a buzz," he adds.

Aziz marvels at the impressive number of product lines developed. "They must be doing something right. They are very productive. They are creative. They are cranking it out."

The environment is fine with David Busija Jr., who works in quality control and has been with the company for three years. He reports daily to the Pet Shack, where animals and their needs are top priority. "I like working in a relaxed atmosphere. This is not a business setting. It's different. It's InventionLand."

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