Party Animal

Connecting co-workers at an annual office party

By Christina Ianzito
Sunday, January 14, 2007; Page W10

Derek Mason's hands are shaking a bit as the 39-year-old stands before a microphone in front of his co-workers and recites his poetry: "I slowly sip and daydream of her smile . . . I could feel her smile, the softness of her eyes . . . "

As Mason reads, Brent Kruse, 27, who works with him at OPX, a Washington interior and architectural design firm, whispers: "I've never seen him like this. He's a very serious guy."

Partygoers browse photos by OPX designer Sasha Lieven.
(Veronika Lukasova)

It's Thursday evening at the company's seventh OPXibition, a low-key, intimate annual staff party meant to reveal the personal sides of the 47 mostly young, artistic types who toil among the cubicles here in Dupont Circle. Past OPXibitions have featured a G.I. Joe collection ("You didn't really know if it was ironic or not," one co-worker remembers), photos of someone's tattoos and a video of one guy's parachute jump played on a perpetual loop. The most memorable might have been the silk suit one woman made to celebrate her divorce. It was displayed along with wedding pictures that demonstrated how nicely the suit matched her old bridesmaids' dresses.

But OPX partner Barbara Mullenex says she can't remember anyone ever crossing the line between being revealing and too revealing. "Nobody has ever brought in nude pictures of themselves or pornography that they made," she notes.

For this OPXibition, principal Ed Corr -- 47, with longish hair, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans -- has brought his band, City Farm. They play what he calls "new grass" music, a folky sort of rock heavy on covers of the Beatles, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. "I'm not quitting my day job," he jokes.

Corr's band performs in a tight space surrounded by cubicles, where a small audience gathers to listen, drinking Red Stripe and red wine and balancing plates of roast beef and fruit salad. Spouses and kids are invited, so a few toddlers run through the crowd. Nearby are two large X-rays strung up at eye level, depicting the shoulder that Jen Veilleux, 30, dislocated on a kayaking trip and its post-surgery progress. Recovering, Veilleux explains, "was my project this year."

In another room, a conference table is spread with photos of vegetable markets, mounds of lush tomatoes and the Eiffel Tower -- pictures taken by Mullenex, who just came back from a week-long cooking class in Paris -- along with a homemade fruit tart that's gobbled up in short order. It's next to a stack of textbooks set up by OPX's financial manager, Julia Altizer, 53, who's studying to be a CPA.

The event feels like an art exhibition crossed with a show-and-tell. "It's not about bringing something beautiful or fantastic," explains 28-year-old Josh Moores. "It's about bringing something that lets other people here know about who you are."

Moores, who has set up a slide show of photos from his honeymoon and first-anniversary trip to Italy and Mexico, points to a colorful abstract painting of swirling figures. "This over here is Dorothy's," he says of a fellow designer. "I've done two projects with her, and I never knew she did artwork like this!"

Steve Polo, a 52-year-old partner at OPX, says the personal connections people make at the party tend to linger. "People become REAL people," he explains. "They have a lot of substance." He mentions Mason's poetry reading as an example of how hidden talents and personalities can emerge and surprise: "[Derek] is sort of a quiet guy, you know? Really cool. That's what's so great about this event. It gives people license to tell you who they really are."

If you have an upcoming party you'd like to share, e-mail us at partyanimal@washpost.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company