Arresting Décor at the Latest Port Workspace

Design firm Because We Can designs the latest space for The Port Workspaces with eye-popping color, clever construction, and funky functionality.


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This mural was painted by Sean Giffin, aka Griffin One.

Courtesy of Because We Can / Kathleen Harrison

Thanks to the brilliant designers behind The Port Workspaces’ newest location 344 20th St. in Oakland’s Kaiser Mall, entrepreneurs, tech startups, makers, chefs, and artists have a space to match the creativity, purpose, and guts it takes to succeed.

“It’s like a gym membership for working people,” explained Jeffrey McGrew. McGrew, with partner Jillian Northrup, co-owns Because We Can, the Oakland design-build architecture studio behind this dynamic three-floor redesign. “It offers the experience of working at a large company campus for smaller companies and people who work for themselves.”

The sprawling 60,000 square feet of co-working space, dedicated desks, team spaces, private offices, and co-working kitchen are testament to BWC’s mission to make the world a more interesting place via architecture, creative reuse, interior renovations, furniture, and art. “A driving necessity behind the design was to offer many different types of working environments within one large space,” said Northrup. “Each floor has its own identity.”

To put it even more plainly, BWC put the “funk” in functionality.

Even from the street, one cannot help but be intrigued by the compelling brigade of iceberg-like sculptures that line the entranceway of this former shopping center. Get an up-close look, and it’s easy to see these artsy pieces offer 360 degrees of comfy seating, standing desks, and communal tables, all shadowed by a vast, evocative mural by Oakland’s Sean Griffin, aka Griffin One. And if that’s not edgy enough, consider what is around the corner: shipping containers serving as meeting rooms. The vibrant colors on the outside are balanced by the composed decor on the inside, including comfortable seating around long wooden tables. “We needed to create walls without actually building any walls,” Northrup noted, guiding a visitor past the perfect illustration of just what she means: stretches of rope lined up to partition a walkway from a parlor-like common area. Totally cool.

Move up to the second floor and go from spirited to spiritual, with rows of desks in a placid environment lit with “smart lighting,” which mimics the pattern of natural daylight from sunrise to sunset. “Because this floor has no windows, we spent a lot of time on lighting,” McGrew recalled. Clearly, it was time well spent, as the lack of windows eludes most guests and users. He noted the juxtaposition between the leafy plants (with special grow lights of their own) and the exposed concrete as contributing to the organic feel of this particular space. While the first floor invited spunky workers to blow off steam with video games and shuffleboard, this floor offers a yoga room for stretching desk-bound bodies and quiet reflection for busy minds.

What more could a persevering, self-starter want in a work environment? How about a place to meet other people just like them? Climb to the third floor and enter a sprawling space that marries lounge and library. The custom-built tables are just a few examples of the impeccable work of BWC’s team, as it breathed new life into this vacant, old restaurant space. “[There was] already a lot of dark wood, so we wanted to use that aesthetic and push it to look cohesive.” The deep gray hues and leathery seating support the humming energy of members talking business over a drink from the stunning bar area or enjoying some alone time with their laptops. Amber Iwata’s winsome mural of birds in flight leads to a rooftop terrace, complete with a tiki bar and breathtaking views of Oakland’s cityscape. Large patches of synthetic grass checker the concrete floor, adding a kind of choreography to the space. “We wanted to give the feel of different areas, creating different places for interaction.” McGrew pointed out. Northrup’s personal favorites are the artifical-turfed hills designed by BWC: rolling sculptures that invite visitors to climb aboard and repose before putting their noses to the grindstone again.

The innovation and artistry emanating from The Port Workspaces in the Kaiser Mall could not have been done without what Northrup describes as close collaboration with the client and a lot of teamwork among BWC designers. “We involve all our staff in our design review meetings, especially when we are brainstorming. We want to hear everything from everyone, even if they are not working on the project,” said Northrup. “Sometimes the best ideas come from the least expected sources.”

Published online on Sept. 7, 2016 at 8 a.m.

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