West Berkeley creative space doubled in size during pandemic

In February 2019, when Ciel Creative Space opened its doors in a former West Berkeley print house as a place to help big companies market, promote and conduct their business, it checked off a goal set by one of its co-founders, Cecilia Caparas Apelin, back in 2012.

Cecilia Caparas Apelin cofounded Ciel Creative Space, which opened in 2019. Credit: Joanne Furio

“I wanted to have a creative hub in the East Bay,” says the longtime creative director who spent weeks at a time working in such facilities, from L.A. to London. On a recent walk-through, she pointed out custom art and architectural elements crafted by co-founder Alexis Laurent as light streamed through the whitewashed interiors with 30-foot ceilings. Plants are everywhere, hanging over hallways and from ceilings, and in a pair of five-foot steel boxes. “This represents everything I wanted to be a part of,” she says.

Then came the pandemic. 

Apelin accurately predicted that many businesses would move from the physical to the virtual realm. “I anticipated an increase in video conferencing,” she says. So she initiated a series of upgrades at Ciel, ramping up its streaming capacity, shooting capabilities, website and Wi-Fi. “We took a really big risk,” Apelin adds. Though the physical space did shut down for three months, Ciel was soon allowed to open partially under strict protocols. Blessed with tall ceilings and a natural airflow, Ciel was able to keep going by hosting projects like a company-wide conference for Uber, with only its executive leadership on site, and the filming of a Master Class series. 

When the pandemic caused two businesses in the warehouse to downsize, Ciel acquired more space, doubling its size. Ciel now occupies 40,000-plus square feet, extending the length of a city block, and includes nine studios ranging from 1,000 to 3,700 square feet for photo shoots, virtual and live events, creative suites known as the Atelier, a fully stocked kitchenette and a state-of-the-art 1,600-square-foot sound stage. The expansion also made way for the Bay Area’s largest three-wall cyclorama, a device that creates the illusion of a panoramic image. 

Ciel Creative Space includes nine studios ranging from 1,000 to 3,700 square feet for photo shoots, virtual and live events. Credit: Ciel

Since opening, Ciel’s bookings have tripled. Now a $2.9 million company, Ciel has become one of the top production studio and event spaces in the country, with clients like Google, Adobe, Visa, Levi’s, Rothy’s, Everlane and Stitch Fix. To celebrate its expansion and the lifting of pandemic restrictions, Ciel recently held a reopening party called, appropriately, Rebirth. 

Los Angeles Clippers center DeMarcus Cousins shot an ad for Puma at Ciel Creative Space in West Berkeley. Credit: RC Rivera

In addition to setting her intention for a creative space back in 2012, Apelin, the daughter of Filipino immigrants, also envisioned her own creative agency. At the time, Apelin had already worked for Logitech and Old Navy, where she was a creative director and brand manager, and freelanced. In 2015 she opened Indigo Sky in Oakland, which has since moved into Ciel. Though glamorous, such work can be demanding, especially for a mother with two daughters, Ava Indigo and Mila Sky, born 15 months apart. “I wanted to be closer to home,” she says, another impetus to opening a local creative space.

In 2016 Apelin met Laurent, an artist and real estate developer known for putting his stamp on projects, through a mutual friend. He was behind such high-profile projects as The Pearl, a San Francisco warehouse-turned-event-space fashioned with his own installations and fabrications, and Zeus Living, a groundbreaking, turn-key corporate housing complex in SOMA, where he remodeled three multi-unit buildings.

Apelin and Laurent had been scouring the East Bay for a large, cavernous space for two years when Laurent noticed on his daily jogs a mostly empty warehouse at Eighth and Carleton streets in Berkeley. Formerly a 1940s print house still owned by the Willig family, the building fit their criteria.  It had an abundance of natural light, amazing air circulation, an architectural soul and creative companies as neighbors,” Apelin says. The abandoned railroad tracks that border part of the building harken back to a time when the flow of information involved a physical process, in contrast with the mostly digital media created there now.  

For the co-founders, Ciel, the French word for “sky,” serves as an incubator of creativity and a manifestation of their own. Their aesthetics, though different, clicked. His veer toward the South of France, rustic, Bohemian. She’s more of a modernist, an Eichler-lover. Together, Apelin observes, the interiors represent reflect “a masculine-feminine balance.” 

Out of respect for the building’s bones, they kept the original concrete floors and single-pane windows, both of which are stained light blue in spots, a residue from the printing process. Laurent created most of the building’s design elements using upcycled building materials, covering walls in salvaged lathing from a San Francisco project and crafting wall sculptures from metal shop scraps. Massive steel doors designed to Laurent’s specifications close off the studios, while the prolific use of plants offset the industrial hard edges. 

Ciel Creative Space’s recent reopening showcases industrial chic interiors featuring hanging plants and the original bones of the former 1940s print house. Credit: Joanne Furio

Apelin did the interior design of her office and the communal rooms with clean-lined furniture, lots of white, bright color and touches of earthy Moroccan elements like hand-woven rugs and textural pillows. In the open office she shares with her core team, a grey Plexiglas floor allows light to permeate into the Wellness Area, where she hopes to one day hold yoga classes or a sound bath at the end of a busy day. Desk lamps are from Hay’s Fourth Street shop and paintings now hanging are by Oakland’s Hueman, a.k.a. Allison Torneros. Selamat Designs of South San Francisco created gold metal chairs in the Wellness Area. “We are trying to support local as much as possible,” Apelin says. Ciel is also a wholly women-operated business. 

Apelin modeled Ciel after “world-class studios” like Milk in L.A. and New York — studios she’d like to go head-to-head with one day. In the Bay Area, Ciel’s offerings are not entirely unique. Most production studios here serve individual industries like film and video. And shared workspaces like WeWork are the equivalent of Ciel’s Atelier. But Apelin believes Ciel’s edge is that everything needed to make commercials, videos, conferences, fashion shoots, etc., can be found under one roof. Little Giant Lighting and Ranahan Production Services are on site to provide equipment rentals.   

Until now, Ciel’s business has spread only by word of mouth and social media. “I hoped my network would spread the word,” Apelin says. “I always believed good attracts good. ” 

Those who work at Ciel credit its success to Apelin herself, whose supportive style is a refreshing alternative to the big egos sometimes found in such positions of creative power.

“What got us here was the vibe, the aesthetic, the attention to detail. Then it was Cecilia and her team,” says Mike Janiak, executive creative director and cofounder of Pattern, a digital agency, one of the first tenants in the seven-office Atelier. 

Cinematographer Cliff Traiman of Little Giant says a combination of “love and talent” have made Ciel a success. He describes Apelin as having a “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” philosophy. “The world needs that right now.”

Ciel Creative Space, 2611 Eighth St., 510-898-1586.