Taking On The World

It’s an odd juxtaposition. While the country to the south of us builds walls, both figurative and literal, to isolate itself from the rest of the world, Canada is taking the opposite tack. We seem to be in an expansive mood these days, exporting more and more brands on a global basis, eager to form new connections and build new relationships abroad.   

Our design community is a definite part of this equation. International projects have become the norm rather than the exception for many Canadian firms. But just what is it that makes our work so appealing to clients beyond our borders? I sat down with the three principals — Anwar Mekhayech, Matthew Davis and Allen Chan — of Toronto’s renowned DesignAgency to discuss their recent international hospitality successes and the role Canada plays as a creative incubator.  

Momofuku Las Vegas, DesignAgency
In a nod to Vegas’s colour-fuelled gambling energy, as well as Momofuku’s peach logo, DesignAgency installed neon “slots” above the restaurant’s open-kitchen counter.

To begin with, is there such a thing as a Canuck aesthetic? All three deny any overt manifestations, such as red-and-white colour schemes or the overuse of maple leaves. Perhaps it’s more to do with our closeness to nature and the general trend towards biophilia, or the representation of nature through tone and structural elements. In Portland, Ore.’s Duniway Hotel lounge, for instance, DesignAgency employed green-shaded glass, potted palms, terraria, and various images of birds to create a “natural” setting that whispers calm to our atavistic hearts. 

Momofuku Las Vegas, DesignAgency
Momofuku Las Vegas’s private dining room shows off a sexy riot of Oriental red, including two wild-and-crazy macramé “dragons” hanging from the ceiling.

Then, too, perhaps our strength lies in our very lack of an overarching aesthetic, as well as our famed national lack of aggression. “We don’t have egos that drive our ideas,” says Chan. “We listen to our clients. We don’t impose our design concepts on their needs.” Mekhayech succinctly sums up their own firm’s versatility, as well as that of other Canadian companies: “We don’t paint with one brush.”  

Generator Rome, DesignAgency, Italy
Colourful patterned floors, bottle green wall tiles, neon orange archways and a crush of red hanging Asian lanterns put the Generator Rome’s bar in stark contrast to other areas like reception or the café.

International clients also like Canadians because we are considered honest and nice, and thus easy to work with. Mekhayech adds cheekily: “And they love our cheap dollar.” 

For Davis, a further plus is Canada’s socialistic society, with its emphasis on the group rather than the individual: “We look at problems and consider all the users before making a decision.” Yet individuality is a factor too. Our country’s multiculturalism, best represented by Toronto, long lauded as being the most diverse city on the planet, ensures a healthy mix of viewpoints and artistic traditions that end up offering something for everyone. This blend is echoed in DesignAgency’s three ethnically distinct partners, each possessing a unique vision but all working together towards a common goal. It is a sensibility that has placed them in good stead with their international clientele, bringing them multiple projects with such leading-edge chains as Momofuku restaurants and Generator hostels. 

Generator Venice, Italy, DesignAgency
The Generator hostel in Venice presents an eclectic assortment of furnishings à la ancienne, a blown-glass chandelier that nods to the city’s craft ancestry, and a cheeky neon “fire” (fuoco) in the hearth.

DesignAgency claims to have no signature style, but it is there, composed of subtle markers that you must look closely to see. The contextualism of each space, for instance, that lets the city’s unique sensibility shine through: the Moroccan screens and ottomans in Generator Paris’s upstairs lounge that pay homage to that city’s immigrant experience, or the farm-fresh finishes in its café that speak to a field-to-table gastronomy. The divergence can be profound from one project to another. Take, for instance, the Duniway lounge’s emphasis on wood, leather, and industrial arts and crafts, versus the over-the-top sensor-ama of Las Vegas’s Momofuku restaurant. 

Customization is another idiosyncrasy, a way to add small, telling touches to an interior’s story. Examples include the large, strap-wrapped ottoman in the Duniway, or Generator Stockholm’s store-bought Ikea chairs re-upholstered in vintage fabrics. Matt Davis admits he and his partners pay a lot of attention to such little details, and are always on the lookout for “a hook” — a found object, an antique piece or an interesting fixture —that makes a space memorable. Another characteristic of the firm is the way furnishings always seem to be strategically positioned, allowing windows and doorways to act as frames for eye-pleasing compositions. Arguably DesignAgency’s best “obscure” attribute is the way its spaces achieve uncanny perfection in the balance of natural and artificial light. 

The Duniway Hotel, Portland Oregon, DesignAgency
The main lounge in The Duniway Hotel hints at the city’s industrial past, rugged naturalism, and present-day artistic vibe. Custom touches like commissioned glass “windows,” a strap-wrapped ottoman, and a smattering of vintage chairs add interest to the space.

The three principals’ own backgrounds have helped them considerably in the hospitality field. When they were young, Chan and Mekhayech both held jobs in family-run restaurants, and Davis worked as a server. In piecing together a restaurant or hotel, they instinctively understand the flow of customer and service operations, and can neatly bridge “cool quiet” areas, such as private dining rooms, with “hot active” areas, such as bars or open-kitchen counters. They even helpfully map out traffic patterns in red dotted lines on their schematics, so clients can see how guests and employees separate and come together. 

The Hyde Lounge, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, DesignAgency
The Hyde Lounge is an 18,000-sq.-ft. nightclub-themed space in T-Mobile Arena, home of the NHL’s newest expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights. Plush leather couches and lighting by Tom Dixon bedeck a space where guests have views either down on the action or out to The Strip.

Such expertise has led to a valuable collaboration with the Momofuku chain of noodle restaurants. The DesignAgency’s uber-cool eatery in downtown Toronto led to its assistance on the design branding of another location in Washington, D.C., and then to a new restaurant in Las Vegas, plus contracts for two more Momofukus in New York City. There’s also a hot new restaurant being planned for Fort Lauderdale’s The Dalmar, a retro-styled hotel under the Starwood/Marriot umbrella, another project that may lead to future contracts. The hotel, still in the process of being built, already owes its name and choice of typeface to DesignAgency, which has started officially offering clients a full slate of creative strategy, branding and graphics on top of architectural concepts and interior design. (“We were doing these things before,” jokes Mekhayech. “Now we’re charging for them.”) 

Generator Steckholm, DesignAgency
For Generator Stockholm, DesignAgency was inspired by the city’s history and strong sense of design to create a casual interior with a fresh Scandinavian look without emphasizing the blond wood and pale colours typically associated with Scandinavian design.

Versatility, broad ability and a solid reputation, combined with a slew of awards and magazine articles, have given DesignAgency a “Can”-do attitude, strengthening the partners’ confidence for diving into international waters. The firm, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in Toronto in 2018, founded a satellite branch in Barcelona four years ago, and has just opened another office in Los Angeles.  

Although modern communications technology means the partners don’t have to visit Europe or the West Coast on a regular basis, they do so anyway. “For us,” Davis says, “face-to-face relationships are at the heart of our business.” Such a nice, Canadian sentiment.

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