Layered in Meaning: Nonument

He may be an architect by training, product designer by calling and an illustrator and installation artist by choice, but Dominique Cheng doesn’t do anything for its own sake.

Photo by Stacey Brandford Photography

Dominique Cheng modestly describes Nonument, his firm with the spellchecker-triggering name, as an architecture and design practice. Yet he’s also an accomplished furniture designer and architectural-drawing master. His firm’s handle, he explains, “is a play on the word ‘monument’ to suggest an alternative way to create cultural impact and/or significance.”

Cheng’s architecture-art pieces have appeared in exhibitions ranging from Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel and the Art Gallery of Hamilton to the Royal Danish Academy of Arts and Venice’s Arsenale, and in publications from The Globe and Mail to the Yale School of Architecture’s Paprika! journal to the UCL [University College London] Press book Drawing Futures: Speculation in Contemporary Drawing for Art and Architecture.

His two exhibits at the 2024 DesignTO Festival exemplify his wide-ranging interests. The colourful stacking resin Sip Stack drinking glasses in the Lucid Ideas group prototype exhibition at Umbra’s Concept Store highlighted translucency in homeware design. The cloudy glasses evoke the subtle still life paintings of Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio Morandi, whose bottles and vases seem shrouded in atmospheric haze.

The interplay between materials and textures is prevalent throughout Cheng’s work, including his art. The crochet art piece Made by Humans explores the ongoing dialogue between technology and human craftsmanship. The Sip Stack drinking glasses, part of the Lucid Ideas group prototype exhibition, explore translucency through concept, material and form. Both DesignTO 2024 exhibits were made in collaboration with Fallon Robar.

Concurrently, Stackt Market displayed his other DesignTO work, Made by Humans, a handmade crochet art piece depicting an AI-generated interpretation of a runway-model photograph. Here, as is often the case with Cheng, he wasn’t just making art for art’s sake, but also to send a polemical message. “This piece questions where the boundaries lie (or if they exist at all) in defining handmade creations amidst technological influence,” he wrote in the accompanying statement.

Among the genres Cheng engages in, his drawings and renderings stand out for their wit and virtuosic execution. For instance, his Valley of the Kings digital collage, shown at MOCA Toronto’s To Be Destroyed exhibition in 2014, depicts a graveyard of iconic museum elements, such as I.M Pei’s glazed entry pyramid to the Louvre, and entire buildings, such as the New York and Bilbao Guggenheims, and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou.

Valley of Kings, produced in collaboration with Kristina Ljubanovic, part of a MOCA Toronto exhibition in 2014.

“How much stock can we place in architecture’s ability to define the future of museums?” Cheng’s description asks. “And who’s to say these future museums will be physical entities at all? So what fate beholds these jagged, serpentine, crystalline and crumpled architectures? The proposed suggests an end to the museum as we know it, and a way of reading these institutions as majestic necropolis for a time when standing solemn before an artifact of art/culture, with hands stuffed in pockets, was among the noblest of pursuits.” 

Canadian Interiors readers will recall Cheng’s Ice House, winner of a 2023 Best of Canada Award in the residential category. Its crowning gesture was a staircase with chunky butcher-block treads. “I’ve scoured the internet and looked at all the magazines and don’t know of any other stair that’s been done like this before,” Cheng says. He had been influenced, and annoyed by, the central staircase at Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea in Finland, he explains. “Why did Aalto always use two stringers? His staircase was a clear tectonic expression of those stringers, but why celebrate them? The staircase would be more interesting if the treads appeared to be floating, without anything supporting them.”

The stair treads of Ice House appear as though they levitate, an illusion created by resting each one on a steel stringer that is colour-matched to blend with the plaster wall behind it. (Photo by Scott Norsworthy)

Unlike Aalto’s traditional flat treads, Cheng’s are massive bulging sculptural objects. “I was fascinated by their wedge silhouette,” he says. “I played around with the length of Aalto’s treads and how they bite into each other.”

To give the impression of a levitating staircase, he made the steel stringer practically disappear by painting it to match the plastered wall it was mounted on. “This interplay between materials and textures is prevalent throughout my work,” he says. “I value tactility. It’s important for you to visually feel if something has grit or softness or hardness is. There isn’t enough of that in modern architecture.”

To that end, he experimented with textured plaster, micro-cement and thick fabrics at his biggest project to date, the renovation of a formerly dowdy four-storey, 7,500-sq.-ft. red-brick garment factory on Richmond Street West in Toronto. Now it houses the offices of Radke, a film and television production company. In the façade’s “after” state, the grid of wide industrial windows punched into the gleaming white façade of troweled micro-cement evokes a Bauhaus-style apartment house. Only the ramped entrance, with its four-layer ziggurat of poured-in-place concrete cantilevering out like a sliding deck of cards, departs from the prevailing spartan aesthetic.

Radke Film Group commissioned Cheng to transform an underutilized three-storey masonry building into a multi-tenant commercial workplace. A textured micro-cement is applied to envelop the masonry, unifying the building mass into a cohesive monolith of solids and voids.

The interiors program called for a different colour and materials palette for each floor, giving him the scope to create memorable vignettes such as the sequence of circular change booths in the wardrobe room. For privacy, the booths are cloaked in a gradient of blue velvet curtains that gradually increase in colour saturation: an apt treatment for a client using colour reference charts to calibrate cameras.

The interior space is organizing into dedicated private offices and flexible workspaces, catering to the dynamic demands of media production.

Contrasting against the curtain’s softness are millwork cabinets with a micro-cement finish. In lieu of door pulls, Cheng carved voids that align, when a pair of doors closes, to resemble a skewed guitar pick, exemplifying his fondness for blobby, organic forms.

Steam Films (Photo by Scott Norsworthy)

He landed the Radke commission shortly after venturing out on his own in 2019 when leaving Hariri Pontarini Architects. During his 12 years there he rose to head up the firm’s luxury high-rise department. “What I learned there was how to design buildings that have a quiet confidence. They’re not screaming or graphic in any way. Radke is a byproduct of that.”

What he learned from Radke, thanks to the pandemic lockdown, was how to design entirely through Zoom meetings. He also learned how to survive on a reduced budget when COVID killed the other commissions he had in hand when starting his own practice. However, those projects’ intriguing concept drawings remain.

For instance, at F House, the owner wanted to update the existing Tudor-derived façade featuring five narrow second-storey windows. “I wanted to do something unconventional and wacky and play around with geometry,” recalls Cheng, who proposed replacing the windows with a giant-order semi-circular motif.

The Forager House is an off-the-grid habitat designed as a modest vacation home. The angled roof, which doubles as a planting surface, helps blend the building with its surrounding context.

For a client with a vacation property in Grafton, Ont., Cheng devised Forager House, an asymmetrical A-frame bunkie with a sloped roof that was terraced to grow greenery. The collapsible dwelling would sidestep the tedious, costly permitting process for a permanent structure. After building the 3D computer model, Cheng applied a patinated-copper map to create cladding with a green texture, resulting in one of his loveliest renderings.

The childhood dream for Cheng, born in Toronto to Hong Kong emigres, was to become a painter and illustrator. Then, in 1997, Miss Abssy, his 12-grade art teacher at St. Robert Catholic High School in Thornhill, handed him a newspaper clipping about Gehry’s newly opened Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. She saw it aligning with his fascination with proto-Pop and collage artist Robert Rauschenberg. “She said, ‘Dom, this might interest you. Look where architecture is going; It’s becoming more abstract.’ That was a turning point for me. Until then, my understanding of architecture was just pitched-roof houses with chimneys.”

After graduating from the University of Toronto with an honours B.A. and a specialization in architecture, he stayed on to earn an M.Arch. Meanwhile, he spent three summers working at Moriyama & Teshima Architects. “My first design project ever was their Metro Toronto Reference Library, which they were renovating. The front desk is my design; it looks like a wooden bar that’s been pulled apart.”

At U of T, he was one of about 65 lucky students to survive the winnowing down of the first-year-class complement of over 400. In his second year, he entered a portfolio-based competition that interned students with leading architecture firms around the world, including Behnisch Architekten in Stuttgart, Skidmore Owings and Merrill in Chicago, and Morphosis in Los Angeles. Winning two of the five positions, with SOM and Morphosis, he was forced to choose and picked Morphosis because its chief, Tom Mayne, had just won the 2005 Pritzker Prize. “They were hot. They were top of the world that year,” Cheng recalls.

Starting as a model-maker, Cheng rose to junior designer; Morphosis extended his six-month contract to a year. After returning to Canada to finish his graduate studies, Mayne asked him to help open a New York Morphosis office and head up their European projects. That’s when Cheng’s son was born and, in one of those fateful Robert Frost The Road Not Taken moments, Cheng decided to stay in Toronto, for which the city is certainly a lucky recipient.

As featured in the March/April 2024 issue of Canadian Interiors magazine.