Most designers have a defining aesthetic. But raise that idea with one of the most high-profile design firms in Canada and its founders just laugh.
“We talk about that all the time,” says Matt Davis, one of the co-founders of the Design Agency, along with Allen Chan and Anwar Mekhayech. As in, they don’t really have a signature style. But that is the secret to their success.
The trio have landed some of the most buzzed-about projects in Toronto recently, including Soho House and Momofuku. They also have projects under way in Vancouver and Europe. They credit their success in large part to their ability to collaborate with clients to create a style that fits the project rather than having a singular aesthetic that they impose on clients. You only have to look at Momofuku and Soho House – one sleekly modern, the other a throwback to the Georgian era – to see evidence of the Design Agency’s range and adaptability.
“A lot of firms have an aesthetic, and it’s an easy thing for them to default back to. We really look at each project as a unique project,” Davis says.
Adds Chan, “I think a lot of clients see that we understand their project and want to work with them on developing their brand or their identity as opposed to trying to force something down their throats.”
The company has been tapped to create a lounge inspired by a log cabin at this year’s Interior Design Show in Toronto this week. In 2008, they also created a concept space at the show.
“You’ve got this combination where they’re really talented and easy to work with – that’s a winning combination,” says Judy Merry, vice-president of Informa Canada, the company that produces the show.
The company today known as the Design Agency was formed in 1998. Chan and Davis had become friends as students in the landscape-architecture program at the University of Toronto. They met Mekhayech through Kensington Kitchen, the restaurant owned by his father where Davis had worked waiting tables. When a competition was launched to create a restaurant space on the U of T campus, Mekhayech, who had studied engineering at Western, approached Davis about doing the project together. They won. The restaurant, SpaHa, brought stylish minimalism to what was then a fairly dowdy neighbourhood.
High-profile projects soon followed, including raved-about work on Lobby, a chic supper club and Salon Jie, the ultra-modern destination for high-end haircuts.
“When Jie opened up, that was a pretty big turning point,” Davis says. “It was the exposure. It was a very public project.”
Such exposure earned them the attention of Westwind Pictures, the production company behind Designer Guys, who were looking to replace outgoing hosts Chris Hyndman and Steven Sabados. Davis, Chan and Mekhayech hosted the show for three seasons, between 2003 and 2005. From the beginning, they showed a clear preference for collaboration.
“They weren’t just coming in to showcase what they thought was great design, they were also really trying to implement what the homeowner wanted and try to take it to another level,” says Mary Darling, the show’s creator. And it helped that they were photogenic, stylish guys who respected each other’s opinions even when they disagreed, she says.
They are thankful for the experience and the boost it gave their profile, but none of them are keen to get back on television.
“It’s just such a time commitment,” Mekhayech says. “If you want to be on TV as a personality or a host you should really be focusing on that. If you want to do great interior design, interior architecture, you need to focus on design.”
“We’ve always based our company and business development on relationships,” Mekhayech says. “As a designer, you can only ever be as good as your client.”
As long-time friends, the three are able to bounce ideas off one another and have no problems dismissing bad ideas. Chan calls it “creative debating.”
And knowing each other so well has helped as the company takes on larger tasks.
“As we get bigger and bigger projects, they can get overwhelming. There’s so many moving parts. Knowing you have somebody that you have worked with for so long and basically know what’s going to go on in each others’ head, you have that trust in the relationship to let that project kind of grow between three people,” Davis says.
That focus on relationships is obviously paying off. The company has done several projects with Westbank Projects Corp., the developer behind the Shangri-La, Momofuku and Soho House. Westbank is so smitten with the Design Agency’s work that they’ve hired them to design the interiors of Telus Garden, a 53-floor condo currently under construction in Vancouver that will feature open concept, modern living spaces.
They may be collaborators, but they are not pushovers, says Renata Li, project manager at Westbank.
“They’ll argue with you because it doesn’t seem right, or what you’re suggesting doesn’t gel completely together,” Li says.
In the past three years, the company has also built a relationship with Generator, a London-based hostel company. That work includes design projects for style-forward hostels in Dublin, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Barcelona, London, Venice and one in Paris that will have nearly 1,000 beds.
While they would like to expand internationally, they now employ 20 people. The size of the company feels right, they say, large enough to take big projects but small enough to still be personable. That’s probably due to their style of working together and with clients. In their 15 years in business, their biggest fight was probably over hockey, they say. (Mekhayech often isn’t great at taking passes, apparently). There’s impassioned debate, but never bickering.
“Everyone sees us as really nice guys and easy to work with, and I think that’s sort of our personality,” Chan says. “Arguing is not really our thing.”