With projects ranging from jewel toned boutique bistros to sleek condos to chic retail spaces, it can be hard to pinpoint Mason Studio’s signature aesthetic.
That’s because co-founders Ashley Rumsey and Stanley Sun are less about putting their stamp on a project than letting the project leave its mark on them. “When we first consider a project we don’t think about what the space is going to look like, but how it’s supposed to function, how are people supposed to feel when they’re in it,” says Rumsey, sitting beside Sun in a sleek, white-on-white conference room in their west end Toronto studio space.
Both consider themselves minimalist – their office space, their outfits and even Sun’s dog, a striking greyhound named Oak, boast a certain bare bones chic. But again, that’s about philosophy more than aesthetic. Rich fabrics, bold colours and beautiful objects all play into their work when it makes sense: “I think if we have a signature,” says Sun, “it’s about paring a project down to the point that if you took one more thing away, it wouldn’t work.”
And so far it’s working. This fall Mason Studios picked up three trophies at the annual Arido awards – two for the 200-room Anadaz Hotel in Ottawa, and the rooftop bar in the same space, and one for the Village Juicery College Street in Toronto. Other recent victories include the Le Banane restaurant on Ossington Ave., the Cabin residences on Dovercourt, an Andy Warhol-inspired exhibit at TIFF (both in Toronto) and the recently opened Jing’an Residence in Shang Hai.
These are success they could have hardly have imagined back in their design school days when the classmates thought of themselves as friendly rivals – one frequently sneaking a peak at whatever the other was working on, playfully one-upping each other in the quest to create their best work. “I think even today there is still that sense of being inspired by each other, building on each other’s ideas,” says Sun. Their dynamic, he says, is hard to describe. “We’re incredibly different, but we’re exactly the same.” Their professional skill sets are complimentary (Rumey loves social interaction and co-ordination, Sun is the more quiet contemplator), but when it comes to professional vision, they are totally aligned.
“I think even today there is still that sense of being inspired by each other, building on each other’s ideas.”
Like many destined duos, they took separate paths that lead them back together. After graduating from Ryerson’s interior design program in 2008, both got jobs at corporate mega-firms. Rumsey was at Yabu Pushelberg, based in Toronto, but spent a lot of her time working on international projects. And Sun was in the UK at Jump Studios. They kept in touch and met up for a drink when Rumsey was in London for work. Both were feeling artistically stifled and looking longingly at the youthful energy of the Toronto design scene. “I think we both felt like maybe we had skipped the part of our careers where it was about taking risks and just be totally creative,” says Sun. By the time they split up, the plan for their future collaboration was at the blueprint stage.
It’s pretty standard practice for a design firm to bear the names of its founder or founders. For Rumsey and Sun “Mason Studios”, which launched in 2011, is a way of expressing their “it takes a village” philosophy – a nod to the stonemasonry and other tradespeople whose work makes their ideas a reality. It’s also a hat tip to their own history since both have grandfathers who were masons – a coincidence they came across a couple of years in.
By then their upstart had earned it’s first major buzz moment following an exhibit at Toronto’s annual Interior Design Show in 2012. Part of a series called “How We Live,” their work was an all-in-one kitchen/bedroom bathroom in a shipping container. On the wall a neon sign spelled out “Our Home And Native Land,” just one of the many patriotic flourishes. Canadiana continues to inform the work they do and, as they take on major projects abroad. It’s also about recognizing the nationalistic aspect of design. “It’s understanding how cultural practices relate to design,” both say (almost the same way, almost concurrently).
They both acknowledge that they finish each other’s sentences. “We’re like that old married couple who isn’t married. Or together,” Sun jokes. Rumsey has been in a relationship for fifteen years and says that her work husband and real-life partner get along great. Maybe too great: “When we’re together,” she says, “they’ll gang up on me.”
People might think being work spouses who finish each other’s sentences means they’re always together, but with so many projects to manage, they can go days without seeing each other. Hence their commitment to twice annual retreats. Often they’ll spend a week at Rumsey’s property in the Kawarthas. They’ll talk shop and discuss long-term strategy, and then also watch movies and make food and just relax. They’ll make a big brunch and start bouncing ideas back and forth. “I would say I am the expert at making the food and Stan is the expert at eating,” Rumsey jokes – just another example of their complimentary skill sets.