“X” marks the spot

Buried in the bland, concrete confines of Humber College, located in Toronto’s not-quite-post-industrial west end, lies a little treasure, a jewel of a space carved out of an unprepossessing former workshop for industrial studies. Outside, the single-storey building wasn’t (still isn’t) that much to look at; inside, it was a 746-square-foot disaster: dark, low-ceilinged, and filled with cobwebbed woodworking and plumbing tools. Tania Bortolotto, Alex Horber and Jerry Lin of Toronto’s Bortolotto Design were tasked with turning this magnificent decrepitude into a welcoming, multi-use meeting place for undergraduates. Oh yes: and to build an exciting new brand around it. All on a budget of just $1.24 million. And no: the ceiling’s cheesy lay-in tiles could not be replaced or raised.

“Those were the biggest challenges – the low ceiling and the low budget,” says Tania Bortolotto. “We were left with a horizontal, compressed space. How to design it to maximize at least the appearance of ceiling height?”

Very cleverly, as it turned out, with an optical illusion created by overlaying the acoustic tiling with islands of metallic painted MDF panels fitted with recessed halogen lights. A strong colour scheme – fuchsia and tangerine calmed by charcoal grey – helps distract attention away from the ceiling and zero it in on the surrounding walls. There, square pink blocks interspersed with grey metallic reveals create an idea of verticality, augmented by the angular eye candy of the brand “X” logo liberally applied, light-pink-on-dark, to the walls.

Why the “X,” which gets mimicked dozens of times over, in back-lit laser cuts at the entranceway, along the walls, even as wayfinding signage to the washrooms? “The original building indicator was ‘L-X,'” Bortolotto explains. “That’s why those letters are still in upper case in the new LinX name. But the ‘X’ itself became the logo.”

LinX: a good name for a place to hook up with others, given its computer pathway connotations, an idea reinforced by the intersecting lines of the “X.” In mathematical terminology, “X” stands for the unknown; in film ratings it implies sexual content. So: modernity, mystery and maybe just a hint of sex, all jumbled into one neat little alphabetical symbol. Not bad. Even the building itself seemed to assist in this branding “X”-ercise: one long side wall already angled out, so the Bortolotto team added another, a convergent angle for the interior wall fronting the kitchen and bar serveries, forming an almost-“X” on the blueprint. 

Nearly as important as brand colouration, name and logo was the design of the space’s controlled use of direct and indirect lighting. “We added windows along the outside walls, which added character and natural lighting,” says Bortolotto. “But the big, open plan was a functional challenge. This was to be a transformational space, from day to night, quiet lounge to busy restaurant and bar, and loud, live entertainment at night. We had to effectively program the flow of this transformation through the area’s lighting, as well as its furnishings and acoustics.”

Roll-down blinds, therefore, on the windows, and the halogens on dimmer switches. Independent grids overhead that brighten into spotlit pools for the stage and dance floor. Special strobes for special occasions. Additional touches of visual excitement garnered from the reflection of ceiling lights bouncing off the highly polished concrete floor, metal tables and metal-clad support-and-service columns. And, always, the glow of light from the backlit “X”-logoed signage, the LED chameleon colour changes that highlight the bar’s back bottle display and front surround of sandblasted glass.

Everything about LinX, from the lighting to the logo is “built-in and custom,” says Bortolotto, “fully integrated into the space.” As well it should be, in this new era of brand-integrated design. The client obtains real added value in a project like this. And the design team? Before-and-after shots to die for plus, one assumes, a priceless sense of self-satisfaction.  cI