Air Canada: Destinations by Design
How Air Canada leverages interior design and singular spaces to instill a sense of its brand — even without using brand logos or colours.
Between the intermissions of a Maple Leafs or Raptors game, if you’re lucky enough to be invited into the Air Canada Signature Club you will see the following: descending down through a discrete passageway between the platinum seats, you’ll enter into a foyer where you can either walk through a wine room lined with smoked glass toward a marble-topped bar; turn right into a supper area dotted with cozy banquettes; or head left and sit in a lounge where an ice-trough might by pro-stocked with champagne, oysters or both. You’ll be surrounded by a sports-mad crowd that has either accented their bespoke Italian suits with team scarves, or left the office behind and donned a proper jersey. The atmosphere will be warm, with soft lighting, brass, Deco-esque accents and walnut walls.
As you work your way around the lounge, perhaps glimpsing Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan in one of the private dining rooms, here’s what you won’t see: crass use of corporate branding from either the titular sponsor, Air Canada, or MLSE, the sports conglomerate that originally commissioned the space from Toronto interiors studio, DesignAgency. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll see the Air Canada logo embossed on the bottoms of the bar menus, or Air Canada maple leaf’s outlined in brass on some of the service stations, built-in, walnut millwork that share similarly slim proportions to the pushcarts found on airplanes. And if you’re eyes are extra keen, you might notice variations on Air Canada’s signature colours on some of the upholstery: light grey dining chairs, dark burgundy leather banquettes (it offsets some indigo upholstery, a wink to the Leafs). But the colours aren’t exact replicas, they are more muted. “It’s the subtle hints we wanted,” says Matt Davis, DesignAgency co-founder. “The spaces weren’t supposed to be overtly like ‘welcome to your jetliner.’”
In the world of corporate branding, logos and colours are usually sacrosanct. Air Canada uses a highly specific, proprietary red: RGB 240.20.40. It’s much brighter and more recognizable than the red in the Signature Club. And in our heavily corporatized world, the rule seems to be that the more logos the better (that’s why Toronto now has a Rogers Centre, not a SkyDome). According to Davis, though, “both Air Canada and MLSE are very sophisticated clients. They understood that the Signature Club needed to be a successful room on its own. They encouraged us to evoke the ethos of their brands as luxury, elevated experiences, and did not necessarily tell us to replicate their branding directly. Which is great.”
The notion of a brand as an essence, rather than a set of hard assets like logos and hues, allows companies to work on a deeper, more subliminal level than traditional advertising. The same CEOs who dine at the Air Canada Signature Club might also fly Air Canada business class out of Toronto Pearson, stopping into the new Air Canada Café, a grab-and-go snack and coffee bar for Elite and Gold Status flyers. Despite both spaces having quite different aesthetics and material palettes, the company hopes they tie together in the minds of their clientele because of a shared level of quality. Rather than simply being associated with bright red, Air Canada is trying to associate themselves with luxury, which can be a much more valuable link when those CEOs ask their assistants to book a flight.
The brief for the Café, designed by Montréal’s Heekyung Duquette Design Office with Eric Majer Architect, was to provide “top-tier customers with a new, grab-and-go concept near the domestic departure gates,” says Lynn Haroon, product manager, Maple Leaf Lounges. As a design lead on the project, Heekyung Duquette did not take her inspiration from other premium Air Canada spaces, such the Signature Club, but from “the sophisticated environments more characteristic of museum cafés,” she says. “That resulted in a highly tactile environment of terrazzo, blackened steel, marble, charcoal glass and maple wood.”
On the project, Heekyung says she worked with an Air Canada brand manager to get a sense of the company’s corporate palette. As with the Signature Club, there are grey chairs: just not the same grey (hers are darker). And in keeping with the idea that the Café is meant to be an aspirational experience, rather than something cookie-cutter, Duquette had latitude to introduce elements that won’t repeat in any other Air Canada lounge. To give her design a distinctly local flavor, one wall is backlit steel perforate with aerial images of the city of Toronto. Likewise, she celebrated the vibrancy of Toronto street life with a photographic series called Queen Street by artist Nicolas Ruel.
The Café is the latest in a series of projects Duquette has designed for Air Canada, including other premium spaces such as the Toronto International Signature Suite and the Montréal International Maple Leaf Lounge. None of them have been roll-out. They all have somewhat of a passing resemblance, a bit like distant cousins, but they all have highly distinct personalities. The Signature Suite, for example, has a more somber vibe of dark slate floors and black armchairs compared to the Café’s youthful tones of white marble and blond woods (not to mention the self-serve kombucha station). For Duquette, what unites her projects to the person who might potentially be sitting on their laptop for a while in the Signature Suite before grabbing a coffee at the café right before hopping on the flight is that each “reflects Air Canada’s ongoing commitment to ever-evolving customer services through quality design.”
That might sound a bit amorphous, which it is, on purpose. And it’s definitely less tangible than simply showing the same logos or billboards or ads over and over again. But ultimately, the hope is that variety is more tantalizing and engaging, the versatility more durable.
Photography by Brandon Barré (Signature Club) / CNW Air Canada (Café)