It’s a time-honoured truth that travelling the world often has a profound effect on how you view home. It’s an interesting perspective from which to view the work of Vancouver’s CHIL Design.
CHIL’s highly atmospheric interiors have earned an impressive array of awards over the years, including several in 2016; its greatest-hits list comprises most of North America’s top hotel chains such as Toronto’s tony Shangri-La Hotel, and increasingly, sought-after destinations all over Asia. Yet with a team of just 20 at its home studio in Vancouver —which recently expanded to about 37 after taking over parent company B+H Architects’ Hong Kong satellite in November last year — CHIL has a small-shop modesty that is quintessentially Canadian.
According to co-principal Adele Rankin (who steers the firm along with Paul Morissette), the company’s penchant for immersing itself in the history and iconography of the host location, the client’s brand, and the often very specific expectations of future guests, are basic to its Canadian DNA. It’s not so much about an identifiable style or look, she explains, as a particular way of approaching a project — a certain tractability, perhaps.
“I think about [Canadian-ness] a lot when I talk to international clients,” Rankin says. “There’s quietness to how we approach a first meeting, for example; we don’t come in with the idea that ‘this is how it needs to be done.’”
Rankin herself has a strikingly international background that makes her well-suited to her calling. Born in Scotland, she grew up in Oman and all over Canada before settling in Vancouver, where she earned her interior design degree. She joined CHIL when it was still a small department within an independent firm owned by the architect Richard Negrin. Negrin’s practice included a lot of work in the hospitality sector, and the team focused on providing interior design services as part of the architecture firm’s package. (“CHIL stands for Co-ordinated Hotel Interiors Ltd., but lucky for us, everyone soon just started calling us CHIL,” she laughs.)
After Negrin’s death in 2010, CHIL was acquired by B+H Architects, whose own hospitality work had begun to reach into the fast-expanding Asian market, after opening a studio in Shanghai in the early ’90s. After being rebranded as CHIL Interior Design, it began to expand rapidly both in Canada and increasingly in the East.
“It was fortunate for us to join B+H when we did,” Rankin says. “With them came the support of a global company, but them — and us — had no desire to throw away the ‘boutique’ approach, this little niche of hospitality design we had developed.”
Whether working in Vancouver for marquee projects like the Fairmont Waterfront, or on any of several Far Eastern projects currently on their drafting tables, including Primus Sanya in China and Hong Kong’s new residential-style hotel, The Humphreys, CHIL’s small size gives it a nimbleness that more bureaucracy-heavy firms might not match. For example, the Waterfront may be part of a big chain, but CHIL’s design approach was as unique as if it were a boutique hotel, giving it a uniquely West Coast feeling with natural wood and stone elements, and floor-to-ceiling windows in every room that make the view the undisputed star.
In Asia, a rapidly expanding and increasingly affluent population has transformed the entire continent as a sought-after travel destination. “What’s attractive about designing there is that it gives you the opportunity to flex your design muscles,” says Rankin. “There’s a real value to the design process; it’s not as conservative as some North American cities, and the more the population travels, the more demanding they are in terms of expectations.
“Especially with the very high-end Asian hotels, we can bring them a lovely design portfolio with all our top hotel projects, but they may not think it’s quite luxurious enough. It may not be that less is more, but more is more. They want luxury that resonates.”
But then, one of the most intriguing projects they’ve tackled in the last few years actually wasn’t a hotel at all: it was a pair of luxury riverboats in Myanmar, commissioned by an Australian touring company. The story of how they acquired the job is as non-standard as the projects themselves.
“The CEO of the company stayed at the Fairmont Waterfront, and was so impressed with the design that he called Paul in the middle of the night,” she laughs. “He said, ‘I feel like God is speaking to me! You have to design my riverboats.’ We’d never even thought of designing a riverboat before! It’s really a floating hotel, so some things were familiar, but there was still a pretty steep learning curve: yes, it’s a floating hotel, but it’s still floating!”
Also, a ship designed to ply a river has certain key technical differences from an ocean-going cruise ship: for one thing, it’s a lot smaller and makes a shallower draft; the two boats accommodate 72 and 60 passengers respectively. “So it requires a very different approach to the design. You have to fully immerse people in the culture, from the very first moment.”
Designing a venue geared to locals requires a slightly different, though no less finely tuned, modus operandi. For the Artemis Grill, a rooftop bar in Singapore’s financial district, drawing on the host building’s reputation as an award-winning sustainable property, along with Singapore’s tradition of great rooftop venues, “We decided to take a kind of ‘Our Man in Havana’ approach, combining ultra-sleek design with natural stone, reclaimed wood and other sustainable features; it’s not overly manipulated.”
Rankin concludes that it’s hard to make blanket statements about what constitutes “Canadian design,” given the diversity of the country. But perhaps it’s exactly that diversity, and ease with other cultures, that international clients are tapping into. “Our approach is to celebrate the location, in a more low-key and collaborative way, rather than imposing our own Canadian style,” she says, Which, in itself, is a very Canadian way to do things.