By the mid-2010s, Austin, Texas, was already on its way to becoming a boomtown. The combination of a flourishing urban center and low cost of doing business had earned the city the #2 spot as a “market to watch” from the Urban Land Institute in 2015—a designation Paul Clayton was painfully aware of as his search for a new office building entered its third year.
Clayton is a principal of Clayton Korte, a Texas hospitality and residential architecture firm. His Austin-based staff had been divided between two locations, and Clayton was looking for a space to better foster whole-team camaraderie. An unlikely prospect delivered him the solution: the Balcones Building, a 50-year-old property on North Lamar. The structure was in questionable condition—the foundations had slipped over the years on its mushy creekside soil—and its blocky, awkward massing was broken up by small windows. Yet Clayton saw potential in the building’s bones, proximity to downtown, and abundant parking (which extends to the roof of the office, thanks to its steep siting). And though the Balcones Building was more space than they needed, there was an opportunity to build a contemporary workspace that could serve a larger design community.
Today the structure—since rebranded the Design Office—is the home base for both Clayton Korte and Word + Carr, a landscape group that occupies the ground level. The two have worked together on several projects, including the new Albert Hotel in Fredericksburg, Texas, as well as Design Office itself. In combination with cohesive furniture specification across the building’s two floors, colocating the studios also had a less tangible benefit: “When someone walks into the building, it isn’t apparent where each begins and the other ends,” said Clayton. “It’s a sleight of hand in terms of the perceived horsepower of our firm.”
Getting to the bright, wide-open interior that the office now boasts, however, required a three-year renovation. After stabilizing the structure, the firm was left staring down a “warren of dark spaces,” recalled Clayton, referring to the private offices that made up the complex. Scooping away the innards like a pumpkin, the architects installed a mostly open floor plan, with a handful of doored offices, conference rooms, and private areas for phone calls. They also doubled the size of windows across the building and removed a service stairway, flipping the resulting void into an airy centerpiece staircase. (The treads, sourced from Hardwood Designs, are made of reclaimed wood from a 2011 Texas drought.) A full-height installation by Era Ceramics graces the abutting wall, resembling fluttering papers blown from a nearby desk. Pre-pandemic, these elements made for a welcoming backdrop at Design Office’s community events, including art openings and monthly Women in Design meetings. “It’s actually a really good entertainment space,” Clayton said. “People kind of circulate in and around the desks and see hand-built models and drawings. It’s like looking at Santa’s workshop.”
The team furnished the interior with a mix of contemporary standbys—Uhuru desking systems, Aeron chairs—and character-driven vintage finds, some of which they purchased at The Renner Project, a local antique dealer. Think a green mohair kidney-bean sofa, a Charlotte Perriand reception desk, and even a few Knoll prototypes. Felt-wrapped, sound-absorbing walls also double as pin-up space. Clayton isn’t worried about the creative clutter that might arise: “We’re not so precious that everything has to be real squeaky-clean.”
Header image: The 10,000-square-foot Design Office building in Austin is home to architecture firm Clayton Korte and landscape design group Word + Carr. (Casey Dunn)