Partners in design

“If you seek his monument, look around you,” says Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. If you seek II BY IV DESIGN’s monument, look around in Toronto: at the outdoor dining pavilion at the Thompson Hotel, with its jazzy skewed crisscross framework running along Wellington Street; at the Trump International Hotel and Tower; the café at the Holt Renfrew flagship, the South Beach Residences’ public spaces; or look up, way up, at the CN Tower restaurant soon to undergo their renovation. And with the II BY IV DESIGN–enhanced, very high-end Crystal Cruises repeatedly voted the world’s best cruise ships by Condé Nast Traveler and Travel and Leisure, the firm can be said to carry the flag for Canadian design. 

At their boardroom table flanked by classic Eames Aluminum Group chairs, an expansive Dan Menchions and Keith Rushbrook, founding partners of interior design firm II BY IV DESIGN, are enjoying a quarter-century retrospective walk down Memory Lane. The Humber College and Ryerson grads, respectively, have led a charmed life since launching their practice with $500 of capital and an “office” in the trunk of Menchions’ Chevy Nova. 

Today, their staff of 40 sprawls in brick-and-beam industrial loft space in Toronto’s Liberty Village, in lower Manhattan’s trendy TriBeCa district, and in a separate Toronto studio devoted to their latest design venture, product design. “We have a lot of mouths to feed,” Menchions says in his booming baritone. Right on cue, Rushbrook pours a glass of sparkling cold water for the visiting reporter and explains, in his piping tenor, “We have a Q water system, like restaurants use. It eliminates bottles and makes Toronto water taste delicious. We all have little carafes at our desk, so more people are drinking water.” 

The partners’ jointly act as creative director, Menchions says. “I’ll do more of the hotel, condominium and one-off big-picture pieces. Whereas Keith will concentrate more on the restaurant and retail component.” Menchions, typically the firm’s talking head, is a familiar quote-giver in weekend newspaper condo sections. They both stress the importance of mentoring. “Twice a year, we take the juniors out to tour other firms’ recent work and have lunch at a great restaurant that’s been designed recently,” he says. Completing each other’s sentences, as the two business-and-life partners are wont to do, Rushbrook adds, “Then we’ll take the intermediates, and then the seniors. We send staff all over the world for inspiration, to trade shows, to Milan, to Art Basel.” 

The partners attribute much of their success to their love of travel. During the 2007 financial crisis and ensuing recession, they relied upon it to rustle up gigs. “For those years, Keith and I traveled the world and marketed our company,” Menchions recalls.  

“We looked at our database of contacts and researched like crazy to find out who would be doing what, post-recession,” Rushbrook says. “We learned to ask for help and reach out to developers and people in the hospitality industry, to a whole web of chains that would make introductions. We would be seen…”

 “Going to restaurants, going to functions,” Menchions jumps in. 

“And going to awards,” Rushbrook says. 

“And getting your name out there and personally being seen,” Menchions adds. 

Along the way, their projects have gotten bigger, thanks to “soliciting all the developers here, in New York and San Francisco,” Menchions says. “New York has been very good to us; we’re working with Tishman Speyer Properties, one of the largest developers in the world. We did Yankee Stadium with them, and the largest residential development in San Francisco, under construction as we speak.” He’s speaking of Lumina, which occupies nearly a whole San Francisco city block. 

Longevity is not a term associated with hospitality, five to seven years being the norm, according to Rushbrook, but II BY IV DESIGN restaurants survive longer than most. Oro, on Elm Street, is pushing 20. Shark City Athletic Club, the boite that made the intersection of “Young and Eligible” hip, swam for 10 years along the swinging strip of Eglinton Avenue between Yonge Street and Mount Pleasant Road. Windows with oval frames suggested portholes in which billiard balls bounced above cutout waves. Downstairs, wave-shaped seating banquettes lined the walls; structural columns were encrusted with colourful glass nuggets inspired by barnacles growing on the piles under a wharf; and drink tables had fish-shaped feet and sharks sandblasted into the glass tabletops. 

If Shark City’s humour verged on slapstick, II BY IV DESIGN’s wit on subsequent hospitality projects seemed less literal and more subtle. Case in point: a trio of sophisticated spaces (2008) for top-level season-ticket holders at the new Yankee Stadium – Legends Suite Club, Legends Dugout Lounge and NYY Steakhouse – incorporating trademark architectural features of the old, demolished baseball park that play off loyal fans’ nostalgia pangs. Says Rushbrook, “We were inspired by not only the game, the materials and textures of the woods and leather, but also by the sophisticated restaurants of Manhattan.”  

Looking back, the designer duo view Holts Café (2002) as their first landmark work. The hybrid hospitality-retail project occupying former executive offices overlooking Bloor Street, seamlessly integrates a chic eatery serving gourmet salads, sandwiches and drinks with luxury-item retail goods arrayed on display shelves. “It was amazing that they wanted to work with us because we hadn’t done a lot of retail,” Menchions recalls. “Holt Renfrew was probably our first exposure to luxury. The valuable lesson we learned is that you minimize the colouration and finish selection for the sophistication of that market. They loved this so much we rolled it out at other locations across Canada [Montreal, Edmonton and Toronto Yorkdale].” 

Indeed, the minimalist, monochrome interior, with a materials palette of terrazzo, glass and glass tile, paint and lacquered stainless steel, is deceptively simple. “This was one of the first installations in the city for a brand to communicate to their client,” Rushbrook says, pointing out the hidden projectors that can cover the white walls with “images du jour.” This protean flexibility enables the real estate to earn its keep by doubling as an event space. The custom tables wheel away for trunk shows. In the ceiling, deep slots prevent the downlighting from mucking up the space. 

“There are a lot of [Toronto] firsts in this project,” says Menchions. The bar front, for instance, comprises eight-foot-wide, inch-thick white tempered glass. The smooth, bracket-less backlit walls boast concave insides, like car headlights, with lamps aimed to provide a shadow-free, giant lightbox effect. Second thoughts? “I wouldn’t change a thing. We’re not creating trends here. It looks as great today as when it was built.”  

By now it should be apparent that there is no identifiable II BY IV DESIGN house style. Menchions wears this attribute like a badge of honour. “I can honestly say we don’t have a ‘look.’ On other designers’ websites, their portfolio of work looks the same, there’s a continuity of the ribbon of design throughout, it’s consistent. We design ours specifically for the client.”  

A hundred years from now, when folks reminisce about Toronto’s good old days, they’ll cite the Trump International Hotel
and Tower. When the hotel opened, Menchions remembers, “People walked through the lobby and were in complete awe. They felt that they were in another era gone by. They’d never seen anything this exceptional here. We’ll never be able to do this again in this city.” 

A sky-high budget is manifest in the lobby’s focal point, a 1,300-pound crystal sculpture sprouting on the reception-desk wall that sounds a cherry-blossom motif seen on the elevator lobby ceiling and elsewhere. White onyx walls with handcarved molding playing off against giant-scale black granite window and portal embrasures, enunciating a champagne-and-caviar palette. Antique Italian mirror in the ceiling and bronze accents exemplify the project’s use of classic details in a contemporary way. “It was a fascinating learning experience,” Menchions says. “It was our first big full hotel. We did everything, 850,000 square feet of space, 54 storeys high, a hotel and residences with all the restaurants and amenities. We designed every aspect of the interiors down to the signage, the ventilation covers on the floors, the elevators, fabrics, carpeting, light fixtures, furniture, and molding profiles.” 

It takes discipline and ruthless editing to keep a palette of such lavish materials from appearing over the top or even vulgar. But II BY IV DESIGN knows how to temper luxury with comfort and a sense of fun – which helps explain why high-end clients flock to them. Their exquisite and imaginative detailing plays variations on a few themes. The laser-cut steel filigree on the ballroom stair railing, for instance, repeats on carpet throughout the hotel. In heavy-traffic areas like the ballroom, the pattern repeats several times, slightly shifted. The pattern’s busyness conceals wear and stains. For carpet on less-traveled guest-room corridors, on the other hand, the pattern makes a single appearance, sans overlay. The family resemblance of carpet patterns throughout the hotel conveys coherence and subliminally reassures guests that every single detail of their stay was carefully thought through. The eclectic style juxtaposes classic and contemporary.

“We wanted this space to feel like it was established,” Menchions says. “It wasn’t about rolling out an existing brand. It was about re-creating the brand and making sure it had legs to stand on. This building attracts a particular demographic that wants to feel like it’s in a luxury world of high-end design. And so the perception is that this design is part of that brand, going forward.” 

The payoff? “What this did for us in the hotel world was fantastic because now we’re working with the Trumps directly. We would do client-courtesy fly-downs to present designs to Mr. Trump and family and have a little bit of their input. Now we’re renovating all the public spaces in their Columbus Circle [Manhattan] property. They’re kind, polite, generous, lovely people.” And The Donald? He’s not like his public persona? “Not at all.” 

Finally, to combine trend watching with a look at what’s on deck, their designs for the public spaces and display suites at the condo development at 488 University Ave. in Toronto evince a new zeitgeist, with condos becoming more like grand hotels. “Most of our developer clients are looking for larger suites,” Menchions says. “In the properties we’re doing now, the suites are getting larger. We have such a small suite inventory here in the city, people are getting tired of living small. They [Amexon Development Corporation] are phenomenal at giving back to their clients. The public spaces are amazing. We have 20- and 30-foot ceilings in those spaces, with the opportunity to do big-scale art.” 

Rushbrook chimes in. “Amenity spaces are so important now. There are chef kitchens and libraries and theatre rooms.” Certainly, the indoor-outdoor saltwater pool, free of hair-yellowing chlorine, should seal the deal with the target demographic. 

“Yes,” Menchions says. “There are touches, little hints, of an era gone by that will speak to the interest of the purchaser.” •