The mid-rise premises at Bathurst and Queen Streets in downtown Toronto that Diego Burdi and Paul Filek have called home since the late 1990s has two characteristic features: first, the conspicuous absence of a customary trophy wall. Evidently, these guys win so many awards they can’t keep track of them. Indeed, they were charmingly surprised to hear that they had won so many from our magazine. “I can’t believe we won 20 Best of Canadas!” Diego exclaimed.
Second, the vaguely Japanese-style glazed pocket doors fronting a meeting room near the entrance evoke the tall, ripple-glass sliding barn doors in a design office in a galaxy long ago and far away—well, okay, on the other side of town: Yabu Pushelberg, where Burdifilek partners Diego Burdi and Paul Filek met.
Burdi was born in Toronto; Filek in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Both studied at Ryerson University (then known as Ryerson Polytechnical Institute), but Paul was two years ahead and the pair didn’t connect until their five-year stint at Yabu Pushelberg. “It was a great launching point for young designers such as ourselves,” says Diego. “The biggest take-away from them is learning to look at everything for its totality, making sure you don’t have a missed opportunity.”
The two left to start their own company in 1992; Diego as creative partner and Paul managing partner, though the roles are fluid. “A lot of the breakaway firms that originated at Yabu Pushelberg were a flash in the pan,” says Paul. “25 years later, Burdifilek has its own brand.”
Still, one can trace the Yabu Pushelberg genealogy in the refinement, subtle wit and attention to editing out potentially distracting details, on Burdifilek projects, so that the retail or hospitality guest’s eye always knows where to go. “What are you focusing on? The products,” Diego says.
The two take scouting trips together, yet lead different lives away from work. Paul, a family man, enjoys downtime in his Muskoka cottage and finds that some of his eight-year-old son’s interests, like street hockey, are becoming his own. Diego is busy buying art and furniture for his new house in Toronto, which he designed with help from architect Kelly Buffey of Toronto-based AKB – Atelier Kastelic Buffey (another Best of Canada winner, from 2011).
Gazing into the crystal ball, the launch of a Burdifilek product line is an enticing prospect. “We are constantly designing specialty pieces for all our projects and it’ s about time we did something we can share with the general public,” Diego says. “We get phone calls on that,” says Paul. “It’s a natural progression for us.”
Burdifilek’s crew counts rise and fall to meet the demands of the projects on deck, but generally hover at 35. Notwithstanding monthly visits to meet with clients in New York, the partners have no plans to open a satellite office in the Big Apple. “There’s not an extreme need to do something of that nature. We’ve been very fortunate to have a large global presence with a Toronto office,” says Diego.
Indeed, global ethnic diversity pervades the office. “[Our] people come from all over the world. They bring a different point of view to projects. Because culturally, the way they experience a space is different from how you would in North America.
“For instance, we’re doing quite a bit of work in Korea [where] in retail space, especially in the department store world, a sense of animation is brought forward using food. It’s not unusual to see a champagne bar beside the shoe department. They’re mixing uses. And not only that, it’s the way you sit in an environment. In North America, everyone is in their own ‘Don’t sit beside me!’ bubble.”
Korean clients include the high-end department store Galleria. And thereby hangs a tale of how Burdifilek often gets gigs. “We did not market towards them,” Diego recalls. “This is a good example of how you really have no idea of who is looking at your work. One day, we received an email saying they would like us to respond to an RFP. We didn’t know who they were and we responded, ‘How do you know about us?’ They sent us an email with several years of work and photographs: ‘We’ve been following you for a long time and we have a project that we think may be the right fit for you.’”
In turn, the Galleria project caught the attention of Shinsegae, “the highest-ranking luxury department store in Korea, owned by the Samsung family,” Diego says. “Our client is a dream client because she is most design-aware. She works with major architects and designers all over the world, like Peter Marino, and has amazing projects to play with.
“We’ve had the privilege of traveling globally. We’ve been to Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong several times. When you land in Hong Kong, you can tell that it was colonized. There’s an architectural sophistication to the design, an aesthetic value you can see right away. When you land in Seoul, you can see and feel the energy.”
Certainly, buying window-seat tickets has paid off. The vantage point proved crucial to Burdifilek acquiring their very first hotel project, W Hotel’s Atlanta flagship (what became a Best of Canada 2009 winner). One day, Diego recalled, he and Paul had decided “‘Oh, maybe we should get into the hotel world,’ and just put our feelers out there, and sent our portfolio out. W called us for a meeting in New York and, like, ‘We don’t know what it is, but you guys have something. We want to work with you.’”
The hotelier’s signature was a living-room-like public area that conveyed the spirit of the host city. But the partners had never set foot in Georgia’s capital city and they didn’t have much time to figure out its essence. “As we commenced landing, we serendipitously circled the city,” Diego remembers. “I looked out and thought, this is really, really green. They have skyscrapers, but it’s very lush. That was the ‘a ha’ moment: How do I create an urban oasis? I wanted the space to be like a secret garden, sitting underneath the tree canopy.” To that end, steam-bent wood represents vines wrapping trees and the water feature’s polished aluminum blades evoke waterlily pads.
Do the partners admit to career lowlights? “You mean my hair low lights?” Diego asks between guffaws. “Unrealized projects,” Paul says of designs that, for one reason or other, never got built, which happens to every practitioner at some point.
Looking back at Burdifilek retail projects over the years, it’s fascinating to see how the firm gradually wrested control of the ceiling. The ceiling at Club Monaco on Prince Street in New York (their first Best of Canada winner, in 1999), has so many lumps, bumps and holes it looks like someone went at it with the proverbial pogo stick. In fairness, this reflects the then-current, pre-LED-lighting state of technology.
Subsequent projects minimize visual distractions for the mechanical services such as lighting, fire alarm and HVAC. “We’re known for that because we hide it all. We just want people to appreciate the space,” Diego says. Cases in point: at Galleria in Seoul, he worked with Korean engineers to create a lighting trough system that incorporates the air return “so you only see one air slot. The ceiling’s not peppered with crap.”
Holt Renfrew (a Best of Canada 2004 winner) boasts segmental ceiling slot lighting using custom-made neon bulbs made only by one factory in Germany.“We had to make sure we lensed everything because we didn’t want you to see the hotspots.” Glare is a bummer. Its absence, moreover, lends a mysterious luminous quality to the space.
Brown Thomas Luxury Hall in Dublin (a Best of Canada 2010 winner) is a technological tour de force, with electrical conduits concealed, if not utterly invisible, within lamination layers of the dichroic mirror glass display panels. “A German company built this for us. I flew back and forth to Hamburg several times going through mock-ups of this design. We’ve had emails from several architects and designers globally, asking, ‘How did you do this?’”
Burdifilek have created a thriving practice by knowing exactly what to include and what to leave out, and have done so in a segment not often known for subtlety. “You can see retail environments where they designed for the sake of design; the product becomes tertiary,” says Diego, and Paul immediately adds, “You can’t find the product because the environment overpowers it. Our work complements the product. It sits behind the shirt, the shoe or whatever we’re trying to display and frames it in a meaningful way.”
Faced with landmarked Ionic columns running down the middle of the Club Monaco store on Prince Street in Manhattan’s Soho district (Best of Canada, 1999 winner) that would detract from the envisioned crisp, clean minimalist interior, Burdifilek created a budget-savvy drywall envelope-within-the-envelope that lets the columns pop out while hiding their busy curlicue capitals.
Holt Renfrew Toronto
The main-floor makeover at Holt Renfrew’s Toronto flagship (Best of Canada, 2004 winner) exploited intriguing sightlines and custom finishes—such as birch bark and alabaster in the fine-jewelry department and exotic imbuya and macassar woods in the men’s department—to convey the retailer’s high-end brand message.
Holt Renfrew Personal Shopping Suites
Custom carpet with a stepping-stone pattern and a wall-sized display case with a jazzy Mondrian-esque montage of flat-bar rod sculptures set a suitably luxe tone for Holt Renfrew’s exclusive Personal Shopping Suites (Best of Canada, 2007 winner).
W Hotel Downtown Atlanta
The double-height ground-floor Living Room in the W Hotel Atlanta Downtown (Best of Canada, 2009 winner) boasts a screen of steam-bent walnut screen representing trees and the heavy vines wrapping round them crowding the city’s lushly forested perimeter. The screen in turn wraps around curved banquettes and seating enclaves.
The hotel’s Wow Suite has a curving polished-metal screen that separates the lounge from the dining room.
Brown Thomas Department Store
At Dublin’s Brown Thomas department store (Best of Canada, 2010 winner), slender polished-nickel rods inspired by the wire sculptures of artist and furniture designer Harry Bertoia add glinting vertical accents to the piazza-like Luxury Hall.
In Toronto jeweler Mark Lash’s flagship prototype store (Best of Canada, 2016 winner), wall surfaces of bronzed mirror and triple-layered, variously patterned silver- and bronze-toned glass lend an ethereal quality while conjuring a distinctive brand identity. Lighting emanates primarily from the vitrines, focusing attention on the product.
Suitably located in the heart of Toronto’s Rosedale community, the modern sensibility of Hopson Grace (Best of Canada, 2016 winner) is expressed in a muted palette of calming colours, classic textures, and noble materials to echo the timeless quality of their exclusive product offering.
Marking their foray into flagship stores, Mackage (Best of Canada, 2016 winner) commissioned the design of a global brand concept to reflect their sexy, modern edge. A prestigious contemporary brand born from the celebration of colder climates, the cult following for its outerwear collections has since evolved into a lifestyle brand.
Galleria Luxury Hall West
Who needs a store directory at Galleria luxury department store in Seoul when there are wayfinding devices like the built-out, articulated, geometric focal drywall sector and fitting rooms whose amorphic shape evokes a squashed hard-boiled egg, thereby making high drama out of the low ceiling height.
The shimmering iridescence of semi-reflective gold-tinted dichroic glass sheaths the shop-in-shops, while floating display vitrines are lit with power wires mysteriously concealed. Honed marble flooring in mottled taupe, cream and café-au-lait adds a textural complement to the slick surfaces.