Climbing the Dragon Gate

In taking on a new project, interior designers are handed a blank canvas and asked to create something dazzling. There are always mandates, requests, requirements and budget restrictions that will help dictate the design, but the first lines and colours must come straight from the imagination. However, often the canvas comes with the first brushstrokes already in place.

With commercial interiors, designers sometimes have a little help from branding firms. The role branding will take in the design and its process varies, as does the relationship between branders and designers. Not to mention the success of the collaboration. Goldfish Pacific Kitchen, in Vancouver’s Yaletown, is a perfect example of how branding and design can mesh to create a seamless venture.

Restaurateurs Bud Kanke and Darren Gates approached Vancouver branding firm Free Agency Creative with their plan to create a new Asian-influenced eatery, a major departure from Joes Fortes Seafood and Chop House, the proprietors’ very successful previous venture. Thus began a long and complex branding process, which kicked off with massive amounts of research. Free Agency Creative directors Tak Yukawa and Don Williams started out by looking at places like Spice Market and Nobu in New York, to set a precedent. “We did some online surveys and started to collect a lot of tangible data,” Williams explains. “We did a lot visual exploration through what we called ‘mood boards,’ putting together images, textures, patterns, whatever, into collected tones, like ‘glowing,’ ‘light,’ ‘dark,’ or ‘fresh’ – and looked at them together, which helped everyone get a sense of what everyone else wanted, and get everyone on the same page.” Through these boards a predominant theme – “inner glow” – was established.

The initial research translated into a core value summary, which boiled down to “West Coast with Pacific Rim influences.” Williams and Yukawa say they wanted a sense of authenticity with a really modern twist, without being pretentious. In order to grab the attention of the Yaletown demographic – young, high-income earners looking not just for great food, but a great experience – they knew the food, service, and decor would all have to meet a high level of expectation.

Coming up with a name was the next step, working with the research to come up with a list of nearly 200 possibilities. During the naming process designer Juli Hodgson was brought in, and once the moniker Goldfish Pacific Kitchen was settled on, the design quickly came together. “We worked with Juli on the visual representation of the name, and really the name made designing quite easy,” says Williams. Hodgson interpreted the “inner glow” theme with glazing on the facade that allows light to spill onto the street, and a laser-cut acrylic feature wall, backlit in several colours that can stay static or alternate animatedly.

Though in many cases, the branding firm would at this point hand the space over to the designer, with Goldfish a collaborative, holistic approach developed. While Hodgson, working with project architect Linus Lam and project designer Denise Liu, both from IBI/HB Architects, specified all the materials, Free Agency brought in some major elements that are key in the design.

The restaurant’s base is simple: white walls, dark floors, with strong feature elements, like the acrylic wall. The first detail Free Agency handled was in the entrance. A simplified, glowing orange logo is inset in the highly textured white wall. Behind the hostess desk, a 24-karat gold-plated sculpture flows across the wall. Free Agency brought in local artist Sonja Schneider for this piece, also an interpretation of the logo, taking its form from the goldfish tail.

Kanke had decided the 9,000-squarefoot space should be feng shui-approved, and when it was discovered that a fire element was needed for a back wall, Schneider’s services came in to play again. The idea for the dragon wall mural came from a Chinese legend, in which goldfish swim up stream to a waterfall called Dragon Gate, which they must climb to transform into dragons. The colourful mural is a modern interpretation of something traditional, like much of the restaurant.

Time constraints created a last-minute opportunity for Free Agency: the bathroom doors. In the spirit of strong branding, using the fishtail logo again was obvious. Each of the walnut doors features a different section of the tail routered into the wood, creating random patterns of flowing lines.

As the first restaurant project for both the branding firm and the interior designer, the project could have been a little overwhelming, but Williams and Yukawa agree the experience was a lot of fun. “Mutual trust is important. We all just kind of acted as sounding boards for each other,” says Yukawa. Adds Williams, “Everyone really respected each other’s capabilities – you can’t cut off someone’s creative legs.” Though collaboration like this could have resulted in a lot of ego clashing (and a design to match), in this case it couldn’t have worked out better.