The lobby of Des Moines, Iowa–based architecture firm ASK Studio features a plate-steel floor that folds upward to form a reception desk. It’s a cool, practical detail. But principal Brent Schipper, AIA, says its real purpose is to start conversations about what he calls “moments”—small but significant opportunities to inject surprise and meaning into architecture. “When people come in, they step on that steel and ask, ‘What’s this?’ ” Schipper says. “Every time that happens, I make a mental check mark. It’s working.”

Located in a two-story brick commercial building, ASK’s headquarters are rich in such moments: partitions with enigmatic vertical gaps, an interior window set at shin height, glowing LED light strips that slice into walls and ceilings (shown above). “We tried for a bit of ‘wow’ factor,” Schipper admits, but the underlying purpose is “to show clients possibilities. A wall doesn’t have to be continuous; it can have a moment in it. Light fixtures don’t have to be picked out of a catalog.”

Many of these gestures, including a field of gray felt strips that hangs from the ceiling, evoke the geometric regularity of the Midwest’s agrarian landscape. Their effect reinforces the firm’s regional character and its deft, incisive design. It also earns Schipper and principal Michael Kastner, AIA, extra leverage with their clients, who are often envoys from large institutions. “It’s amazing how many more small opportunities they have given us, just because they see these things in our office,” Schipper says.