Torr Kaelan

/ office

Life is filled with fleeting moments. If you don't pay close attention to opportunity tucked into the seams, you may miss the minute when the window is open.

Luckily for the team at Border, we discovered a unique and architecturally outspoken building in San Diego at just the right time. Torr Kaelan is the home and studio of renowned architect Rob Quigley; suite two-hundred of this mixed use building is Border's new headquarters. Over the first few months of occupancy, we've transformed the spartan space with the help of craftspeople, designers and architects to respect the building and establish a creative and inspiring environment.

Matt enjoying the sun while relaxing in the ramp chair

The Canvas

It's possible you've sauntered by the unassuming building on a run-of-the-mill urban street in the burgeoning neighborhood of East Village. The Central Library looms large over the area–itself one of Quigley's signature buildings. But this cinder block structure, with mortar smooching out between the joints, might be taken as an industrial has-been sitting steady as it is engulfed by new apartment buildings and eateries.

Torr Kaelan < Take a step back. From across the street glancing up toward the spiky horns of the roofline, one can start to realize this building is far from ordinary. Swept behind the sidewalk is a soaring courtyard of rich wood, sleek aluminum and glimmering glass stacked on slabs of poured concrete. Arrive in the evening with a crystal clear sky and the building comes alive with twinkles of its own.

Step through a hidden door and emerge from the pyramidal antechamber. March up the delicate, white porous bent metal and arrive at the second floor's two office suites. During the day, indirect sunlight echos from the glowing windows while prismatic refractions dance across the concrete belying the solid exterior of the building as one without windows. Leafy stalactites stretch from rooftop planters and the gray-water collection tank ticks away on rainy days as drips and drabs escape the building's crown. For such an uncompromisingly contemporary space, the ambiance glows softly.

Raw Beginnings

The previous tenant utilized the space as simply a place to work. Standard office chairs flanking simple A-frame desks, a frosted glass conference table and minimal comfort furnishings filled the space. A lack of textiles and partitions permitted sound to bounce and the fluorescent warehouse lighting failed to illuminate inspiration. This makes sense, however, as the space wasn't originally intended for use as an office, but rather building storage.

The office had two features that would stay in place through the renovations. The lighting over the old conference table, while fluorescent, has fixtures that are quite elegant and matched the space well. Also staying were the floor-to-ceiling wood columns. They acted as lazy turnstiles along the entrance and as supports for a retaining wall by the HVAC system. These columns, with their pressed wood composition and warm color, would form the foundation for the dividing walls and offices. Bolted to the concrete with industrial "L" brackets, the splintery supports offered the only respite from gray and glass.

A walkthrough of the space prior to renovations

While the ample glass and glowing windows created a welcome invitation, the cold cinder blocks, harsh lighting and cheap furnishings left a lot to be desired. It felt damp. It felt abandoned. The previous office workers must have been miserable. The space, however, had all the potential in the world.

From Start to Finish

The previous tenant's glass conference table

Studs were bolted to the ceiling

At one point a wall was contemplated, but only the studs arrived

The "wall" studs were simply obstacles

Originally a file cabinet was used to separate the space

A smaller meeting space with some plastic furniture

Kathleen Hallahan, ideator and architect supreme

The lower portion of the office walls is in place with tape marking the glass bolt location on the studs

The front wall now has a lower portion to support the glass

The framing for the dividing wall between the two offices

The two offices are starting to come together with the framing and lower walls in place

The front wall from the kitchnette perspective

The plan for the front office wall with glass and a lower wall

The plan for the front wall from inside the office

The office wall locations taped out on the floor

The conference table being fabricated in Bill's shop

The office wall studs are in place

The steel is in place to support the office doors and dividing glass

The office wall steel plate installed on the small walls

The office wall steel plate installed on the small walls

Making progress on both assembly and construction

Designs for mounting the glass in various places

Jezreel is painting the office dividing wall

A few lonely A-frame desks

The glass divider between the two offices is in place

The primary office gets some furniture

The standing desks offer a lot of flexibility

Carpet and glass installed in the second office

The moss wall installed above the bar top

The moss wall installed above the bar top

The pendant lights installed above where the bar top will go

The "fin" lights in the offices

The pendant lights installed

The electricians installing the office lights

Bill Murphy, wood worker master craftsman

The "halo" light over the conference table

The cord for the pendant lights

A close-up of the pendant light showing the sphere within a sphere

The outside glass wall is installed

The glass wall installed with Kathleen and Brian chatting in the kitchenette

The office nearing completion with the furniture in place and glass installed

The glass is installed for the offices

Glass walls for the second office

Bill and Jaco install the glass for the front wall

Glass walls for the first office

Comparing glass thickness against the studs

The front door to the building

The electrical work required removal of an existing flood light and relocation of the switch

Jaco, the glass installation master

The metal doors fabricated and installed, but no glass

The empty corner of the space between the office and bar top

The conference room complete with the white boards and acoustic tiles installed

The conference room walls are complete

The carpet installed in the conference room space

Taping out the corner of the carpet for the conference room

The conference room carpet corner piece

The front bar door being installed by Bill, Fernando and Aaron

The guys unloading the 10-foot barn door from Bill's truck

The bar top installed with 90-degree legs

The bar top installed with 90-degree legs

The bar top installed with 90-degree legs

Making progress on assembling furniture

Matt and Emerson assembling furniture

Signage at the lumber yard

The raw Wenge

Fernando, the jack of all trades

The raw African Mahogany

A close-up of the African Mahogany

High-tech lumber transportation

The bar top being manufactured

Build Out

It's impossible to fully convey the collaborative nature of the build out. From architectural drawings to blue painters tape marking measurements on the floor, the evolution came in fits of creativity—and availability. The team constructing the space was assembled from skills often utilized on other projects. We would steal contractors away from other endeavors to keep the effort progressing on evenings and weekends while the Border team worked during the days.

There is something that comes from this slower pace: opportunity. We often changed the design of an element half a dozen times prior to fabrication. Had we laid out a firm plan with exact measurements, it's unlikely we would have ended up in the same place. Still amazing, possibly, but without the flare a leisurely approach affords.


Light is everything. Yes, it's important to have the right materials, spaces and design, but if fluorescent lights tint the world blue and flickery, it's all for naught. Each fixture in the office was chosen to create warmth and subtle elegance. They are familial, but uniquely sculptural. Our friend Fadia Pastrano at Urban Lighting in downtown San Diego helped choose just the right elements for our office.

The private office ceiling dropped industrial fluorescents for LED fins. Each light glows gently as a matrix of dots diffuse the illumination disguising the point of emanation. From Tech Lighting, the Span Linear Suspension system allows for continuous light runs as each fixture is positioned in sequence.

The bar top receives a very different aesthetic. Also from Tech Lighting, the Mina Pendants project LED light through pure optic crystal from a light source cleverly hidden from sight. The effect feels like a pure white Jupiter floating in a protective atmosphere, the laser etched crystal giving texture to the inner planet. Yes, they are very heavy.

Finally, the Corona light ring from Sonneman levitates above the conference table like a UFO. Contrasting with the rectilinear shapes of the table, white boards and carpets, the loop of light trades brightness for subtlety.

None of the lights demand attention. Rather, they are lavished with praise only when noticed. Each visitor has a favorite and the lights' organic illumination balances the straight lines of the space and warms the cool materials.

Glass, Steel + Wood

Glass was always a part of the plan. Steel and wood were later additions. The existing space had two pre-existing "walls" that would become the foundation of future structures. The studs of composite wood, bolted to the floor and ceiling with metal brackets and hefty bolts, lend a lot of warmth to the concrete to which they are anchored. Rather than design a new set of walls, these columns would become the stanchions for glass dividers.

Small eighteen inch walls of white painted strand board mirror the texture of the studs. Atop these "pony" walls, strides of metal provide a finishing touch as well as a stable footing for glass panels. The team at Advance Glass & Mirror, specifically Bill and Jaco, ordered and installed our custom panels. The glass is held in place by bolts and washers sandwiching the sheets against the studs. The effect is industrial, yet delicate. It doesn't seem possible for the glass to stay in place, yet it holds strongly.

The doors to the private offices quickly emerged as a focal point with incredible craftsmanship. Throughout the project Fernando Ramirez constructed diverse finishes. From wood wall fabrication to welding custom door frames, he stepped up to each challenge the team concocted. The blackened metal doors each frame a pane of glass and welded cross pieces provide lateral strength. The position, angle and direction of the cross bars were greatly debated. The final result, once again, balances strength with simplicity. When closed, the two chevrons, one for each door, point to a false hinge. In reality, the entire height of the door is woven to the support with a piano hinge.

Furniture + Door

Each custom piece of furniture–the bar top and the conference table–came to light under the skilled hand of Bill Murphy. Starting with raw materials and building each piece to size and spec, the natural surfaces fit well with the overall aesthetic. The conference table sets on a pair of craning legs. The entire table can escalate to forty-eight inches giving the team a great collaboration space when standing. Powered grommets and custom carve outs hide the electric outlets and phone cords to keep the conference space nice and tidy. The finished Wenge wood is deep and dark.

The bar top is very special. The reddish amber of the African Mahogany stands in sharp contrast to the lighter colors of the bamboo desks and composite studs. The wood slab juts out from the wall, anchored with a hidden bracket and rising over thin metal legs. The aft legs sit parallel to the wall. The fore leg is rotated ninety degrees. When viewed straight on, the front support is nearly invisible. The bar top legs and pony wall ledges share the same metal further unifying the space. The leather-wrapped stools purchased from AT-HOM in Little Italy perfectly match with juxtaposed leg orientation in the same gray as the bar top legs.

The front door to the office is another custom creation. Nearly ten feet tall, the door slides along a sixteen foot long aluminum track mounted to the concrete ceiling. The door has a groove cut in the bottom through which several aluminum pegs slide. Avoiding a track on the floor was imperative. Considering the door is wider than the distance between the columns, any sway is completely inhibited as the door is always restrained by a floor peg. Quite ingenious (nod to Babbo). The pegs are nearly invisible along the floor in front of each stud soaring upward as the barn door glides by. The door itself is made up of strand board with metal and aluminum caps and containers. The interior is painted the same orange as aspects of the building exterior to pull sunny days into the office. When fully opened, the door slides all the way out of sight enabling free flow in and out of the office.

The Final Office

The island of desks near the front door

Peering into the office from the common space

Little metal rods embedded in the concrete guide the barn door through an inlet

The 10' tall barn door is supsended from a 16' long track

Getting in and out requires a finger recess made of metal

The clever bisection of the door with a thin aluminum detail

The interior of the door is the same orange as elements of the building

The door exterior is painted, but still fairly raw

A detail of the barn door track

The glass walls are sandwiched between bolts and washers and the wood studs

The office exterior pulling in the bright atrium sunlight

Green from the plants warms the entrance

Even with the door closed, the space feels light

The front wall affords a collection of tschotskes

The island of desks, all electrically powered standing desks

Looking back into the office from the conference area

The exterior light beams through the sidelights

Wood, glass, wall and metal details of the private office exterior

The full-height piano hinge of the private office doors

The carpet planks are a mixture of different textures and colors

A detail of the conference room chair fabric

The wood grain of the African Mahogany bar top

The acoustic tiles are made up of pressed cotton

The sidelight next to the acoustic tiles

The moss wall above the bar top

The LED lighting over the private offices with glowing fins

Carpet wrapping around the studs and metal brackets

The checkerboard effect of the private office door hinges

Looking back into the office from the private space

The private office (pre-artwork)

The halo light hovering over the conference room table (also height adjustable)

The glowing orbs over the bar top contain crystal inside crystal

A wide shot of the private offices, bar and cozy corner

The interior "pony" wall of the private office

The private office doors butterfly back against the dividing pane

Custom door pulls made of metal for the private offices

The cozy corner with the mid-century ramp chair and bar cart

A close-up of the preserved moss wall

The wood grain of the studs

Two glass panes held in place by washers and bolts

The private offices

Looking out over the bar, conference space and atrium

The conference room with white boards and the acoustic tiles acting as a pin board

The cozy corner and bar

A close-up shot of the bar top front metal leg

The wall texture of painted strand board

If you're ever in the neighborhood, drop us a note and stop by. We'd love to share our space with you and let you experience the studio in-person. Thanks again to all of the amazing people who helped make our studio a reality.

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Aaron Martlage

Aaron Martlage

Aaron loves innovative solutions to complex problems. He's a strategist and designer who fights fiercely for great products. His vast experience and focus on process encourages new thinking in others.