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Portrait of Alex Cochrane

Stefanie Wong/The Globe and Mail

How do you serve up a power lunch spot that’s relevant for 2020? With a balance of bold strokes and subtle gestures, says Alex Cochrane, the London-based architect tasked with reimagining the Holts Café at the retailer’s flagship store on Toronto’s Bloor Street. Now more refined and day-to-night ready, the restaurant features terrazzo floors, slatted white-oak walls, rich ochre banquettes and flares of electric-blue wool and lacquer. For Cochrane, whose eponymous firm’s credits include the men’s designer floors at British department store Selfridges and whose own South Kensington home has appeared on the cover of the World of Interiors magazine, this commission was a family affair: Cochrane is married to Alannah Weston, chair and creative director of Selfridges and the daughter of Holt Renfrew owners Galen and Hilary Weston. The morning after the Holts Café opening party, The Globe and Mail discussed drama, decoration and anti-design with Cochrane over coffee.

What considerations do you weigh when redesigning a social institution?

If you’re talking about a department store, it’s not just about selling product; there’s got to be an extra level of experience. For instance, we’re doing this one area in Selfridges that’s a huge accessories hall, and rather than sitting down and waiting for your bag, you can play basketball or video arcade games. We approached this restaurant the same way. We wanted to make it connect with the store, like the old café used to do, but we also wanted it to be playful. There are fun shapes and strong colours, so we hope that invigorates the soul and makes you want to come back.

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What’s the role of the modern café in a busy, urban centre?

It’s different over here. In England, people booze more – they’ll sit with a bottle of wine over lunch. Canada doesn’t seem to be like that. Everyone’s always on the go, so if you can stop them and provide a space where they feel they can pop in and stay a while, that’s the goal. We included discreet power outlets in the banquettes so it can be a place for meetings and not just lunches or dinners. The tables can also be moved around to offer flexibility.

The design of a restaurant has become as important as its menu. Where did you look for inspiration?

I’m lucky that London’s a great place to start. Richard Caring’s group, [Caprice Holdings], has done a lot of great spaces and there’s a restaurant in Mayfair called Isabel that I find very beautiful, but they’re all much more decorative. We’re known for a much more pared-down aesthetic so the challenge for us was, ‘How do you create drama without decoration?’ So we’ve gone bolder with colour, introduced warmth with the materials – like rosewood, wool and velvet – and paid a lot of attention to details and shapes that introduce sophistication.

Circles are a motif in this space, from the ceilings to the walls. Why are they so appealing?

It’s such a pure, beautiful shape because it’s got to be properly and perfectly round. The curves are sensual but also graphic. Think of the Japanese flag with its rising sun, which is such a strong and recognizable symbol. Look up, and the circular openings in the Barrisol stretched ceiling are meant to make you think of moonlight.

Do you pay attention to trends in restaurant design?

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Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but the places I like most are almost anti-design – that’s more interesting for me to study. Restaurant design is hard to get right and when it goes wrong, it can be a distraction. The last few times I’ve been in Toronto, I’ve admired the different approaches to what a restaurant should be. I recently ate at the Middle Eastern restaurant Parallel inside an industrial tahini factory and it had a really fantastic, young vibe.

What are the challenges of working for the family business?

There’s an added layer of intensity because you can’t screw it up. But we’ve done many projects together now and have a shared language, so it’s been great. One thing I don’t do is talk about my work with my wife, really; she probably knows less about my projects than other people in the business. It’s quite good to have some professional detachment and space, and it works for us.

How will you measure whether your vision for this reopening was a success?

I had my first lunch here right after the opening and it was very busy, which was lovely to see. I’ve learned that design can be really good, but it doesn’t solve everything. Once a design is done, will people come back? That’s the true measure of success.

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