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Best Interiors of 2021: Alchemy by Paolo Ferrari

This year, the path to opening a new restaurant, hotel, or retail shop proved anything but straightforward, with the unpredictability of the ongoing pandemic introducing plenty of twists and turns. Perhaps that’s why, when it came to interiors, hard-edged geometry became particularly passé. Eager to turn a corner into a more open era, designers began a wholehearted embrace of rounded shapes.

From the sweeping rotunda at Bourse de Commerce to the circular chandelier that hangs at Normann Copenhagen’s new headquarters, all 10 of this year’s top interiors are united in making a strong case for curves and arches. Even the Ace Hotel Brooklyn accents its rugged brutalist-inspired lobby with half-moon windows.

Our full list of 2021 favourites includes:

The main takeaway: in 2021, it may have taken some extra effort to open a spectacular space. But for those who were able to weather the loopy journey and design something interesting, people all-too-desperate for a change of scenery made for an especially appreciative audience.

Continue below to learn more about each project and why we love it.

Best Interiors of 2021: Ace Hotel Brooklyn
Ace Hotel, Brooklyn, by Roman and Williams

Long live the hotel lobby. Since Ace Hotel’s first outpost opened in Seattle in 1999, the boutique chain has reinvigorated the communal side of travel. At each Ace location, the lobby is a destination in itself, with the comfortable and well-amenitized spaces — usually featuring a bar, cafe and restaurant — transforming a transient zone into a hangout spot par excellence. At the chain’s new Brooklyn outpost, the ethos evolves to encompass art, with a public gallery (devoted to local talent) seamlessly added to the mix.

Designed by New York-based Roman and Williams (who were also responsible for the Ace interiors in Manhattan and New Orleans), communal spaces are elevated by a sense of warmth and a luxe vintage vibe. In the lobby, subtly arched concrete ceilings are paired with wood tones and soft lighting, making for a cozy yet cosmopolitan space. Combining a bar, art display spaces and a diverse array cafe-style seating, the room is a welcoming public hearth. The same ambiance — including the Ace’s trademark combination of wood and concrete finishes — translates across the hotel’s 287 guest rooms, most of which also feature original artwork. 

Best Interiors of 2021: Vela
Vela, Toronto, by PARTISANS

Over the past half-decade, Partisans has established itself as Toronto’s restaurant starchitects. Certainly, the studio’s portfolio is wide-ranging, but in the city’s ever-flourishing dining scene, they’ve knocked out some true bangers, from Bar Raval and Quetzal to Gusto 501 and their latest — Vela.

A “grand hotel lobby bar without the hotel,” Vela is situated in a section of the 1904 Parisian Laundry Building on popular King Street West. It harnesses the skills that Partisans has pioneered in previous projects, where the firm has turned walls into pixelated clay caverns and bulky ceilings into showstopping sculptures, to extraordinary effect. Here, the voluptuous ceiling is a canyon moulded around pre-existing beams and new HVAC vents; its prefabricated fibre-reinforced gypsum panels integrate 18 tracks of LEDs that swirl around the ceiling and cascade down the back wall, where, in the future (one hopes), live musicians will perform.

“Lighting sets the stage, but it’s also its own performance.”
Jonathan Friedman, Partner, Partisans
Lit up ceiling at Vela Restaurant in Toronto
Photos by Jonathan Friedman

The ceiling is a scene-stealer, but the restaurant’s less look-at-me features are just as compelling. Boasting pleasingly smooth edges, the line of massive concrete counters that begin with the holding area and then hug the west wall create a stage-like proscenium for the bar and kitchen — all the action delightfully out in the open. The restaurant’s central dining area feels cool and casual, while the elevated dining area against the east-facing windows is furnished with custom-crafted banquettes that snake along the platform. It’s a multi-tiered feast — and a space to savour.

Best Interiors of 2021: Normann Copenhagen Headquarters
Normann Copenhagen Headquarters, Copenhagen, by Normann Copenhagen

At its recently opened showroom flagship and headquarters in Denmark’s capital, furniture manufacturer Normann Copenhagen has demonstrated to a stunning degree how a sensitive adaption of an 85-year-old behemoth of a building can become a “must-see destination for quality design and creativity.” Setting about to preserve the historic features of the former printing house, the in-house design team re-exposed the reinforced concrete ceiling, a grid-like arrangement of massive beams hefty enough to support the weight of the original printing press machines. Adding a significant architectural characteristic, the raw industrial material also creates an intriguing foil for the brand’s modern and refined offerings.

Each of the three gallery-like showroom floors has been designated with its own colour palette — cool grey, minty green and shades of nude — and is furnished with bespoke elements like chunky metal counters with integrated aged birds-eye oak cabinets alongside curated collections of classic and soon-to-be-launched products. Luxe marble on windowsills and other surfaces, custom mirrored installations, hits of stainless steel and curious sculptural foam display plinths fortify the unique identity of each floor. (The upper four levels house administration, the design studio and workshops and a materials library, all with their own distinct personality and purpose.) It all adds up to a richly layered interior that respectively nods to its past while creating a canvas for future design innovations.

Best Interiors of 2021: Bourse de Commerce
Bourse de Commerce, Paris, Tadao Ando

In 1767, the Bourse de Commerce was built as a hub for grain trading, eventually evolving into an early stock exchange. By the late 19th century, the building’s enormous cupola was reimagined with a dramatic fresco glorifying France’s colonial domination. In 2021, the space was transformed again, becoming the home of the Tadao Ando-designed Pinault Art collection.

“I wanted a new architecture — a hyphen between the past and the present.”
Tadao Ando, Architect
Bourse de Commerce by Tadao Ando
Photos by Patrick Tourneboeuf

Inserted into the cavernous hall below the building’s dome, the 10,500-square-metre gallery is home to over 10,000 works of art. Ando’s intervention meets the original building’s ornate architecture with a rigorously pared-down design, comprising a 29-metre concrete cylinder that mirrors — and contrasts — the dome around it. As Laura May Todd discussed in our original coverage of the project, the space is at once deferential and defiant — a poetic counterpoint to its surroundings. Atop the concrete volume, a walkway brings visitors up to the fresco, inviting an examination of all that supposed colonial glory. Up close, it’s difficult to escape the cruel absurdity of the scene depicted. 

Best Interiors of 2021: Alchemy by Paolo Ferrari
Alchemy, Toronto, by Paolo Ferrari

As cannabis retailers explore edgier design territory, sophisticated pot shops are becoming the norm. But nothing comes close to Alchemy, Paolo Ferrari’s art gallery of a dispensary. Part laboratory, part monastery, part fantasy, the Toronto interior starts with a single tree anchored by a scalloped terrazzo floor and haloed by a glowing oculus — and as Evan Pavka wrote in our original coverage of the project, it only gets better from there.

“For us, the store is somewhere between a laboratory and temple.”
Paolo Ferrari, Founder, Studio Paolo Ferrari
Alchemy cannabis shop in Toronto
Photos by Joel Esposito
Alchemy cannabis shop in Toronto

Open at an angle, like a door held enticingly ajar, a lemon-yellow wall leads to the rotunda-shaped main space, which centres a carved whitewashed-ash table beneath a canopy of aluminum fins. Surrounding it is a display system that offers up curated paraphernalia on stainless steel counters (which rotate on a circular track) and vibrant rectilinear display cases. Along the edges of the room, curvy Corian walls serve up edibles in cloche-like vessels.

Beyond the main space, two other areas come into focus through tantalizing glimpses: One opening in the rotunda wall leads to a Lynchian curtain in orange resin that backdrops a display surface featuring more wares, its undulations slotting perfectly into the counter’s matching curves; another leads to a more subdued space — the terracotta-brick-clad checkout area. The entire experience, then, from beginning to end is like a head trip — of the best kind.

Best Interiors of 2021: Recast House
Recast House, London, by Studio Ben Allen

When Studio Ben Allen was called on to renovate a terrace Victorian in London, U.K., it was given a fairly standard brief — open up the dark, cramped kitchen and add two bathrooms (with one situated on the ground floor to ensure future accessibility) — that came with one exceptional allowance. As Giovanna Dunmall reported in our recent feature on the home, the owners of Recast House gave their architects free rein to use the project as “a testbed for ideas.” Embracing this opportunity, lead architects Omar Ghazal and Ben Allen ultimately undertook a more substantial overhaul that pushed the limitations of one of the industry’s most ubiquitous of materials, concrete — specifically, how pigmented concrete could serve as both structure and architectural finish.

“It ended up becoming an essay in concrete.”
Ben Allen, Founder and Principal, Studio Ben Allen
Photos by French+Tye

Utilizing off-site fabrication to accelerate construction, something not often done at such a small, residential scale, the two had a variety of concrete volumes cast — from beams, columns, stairs and wall panels to sinks, counters, benches and more — and pigmented in an unexpected palette of pistachio green, salmon pink and royal blue. Helping to keep the heavy material from weighing down the interior, new louvered vaulted ceilings installed in the kitchen and bathroom allow natural light to permeate the rooms, and a double-height void introduced to connect the ground floor to a new upper-level mezzanine helps pull that light deep into the rest of the house. Elsewhere, lime plaster walls add another layer of rich texture, while strategically placed hatches and arched cutouts in walls focus views, both internally and externally. In the end, the “essay in concrete,” as Allen puts it, shows how ingenuity and exploration can result in something slightly surreal and entirely dazzling.  

Best Interiors of 2021: Trois Cafe
Trois Cafe, Hong Kong, by NC Design & Architecture

Having to brew our own pour overs during the pandemic inspired a fresh appreciation for neighbourhood coffee shops — especially ones that feature fun, escapist interiors. Designed by NC Design & Architecture, Trois Cafe in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district greets passersby with a large, portal-like window that peeks into a space defined by bold pink and turquoise hues. But the sci-fi-inflected café’s beauty extends beyond just face value. Along with giving Hong Kong coffee lovers a new destination for morning java, Trois Cafe also delivers a thoughtful reflection of the city’s urban landscape.

“As people couldn’t travel this year, the locals are always in search of new places to visit and photograph.”
Nelson Chow, Principal, NC Design & Architecture
Photos by HDP Photography

As Lauren Jones wrote in her feature for our November/December issue, Trois Cafe incorporates numerous nods to the designs of Hong Kong’s public housing estates. For instance, its use of ceramic tile riffs on a key component of these brualist landmarks. Meanwhile, the graphic flooring and central dining table mimic the basketball courts found at nearby playgrounds, and accompanying seating is modelled after the city’s outdoor exercise equipment. Opening just as people began to emerge from lockdown, the café provided the ultimate encouragement to get outside and explore the city again — even if it was just on their way to pick up a fresh cup of coffee.

Best Interiors of 2021: Off-White Flagship, Paris
Off-White Flagship, Paris by AMO and Virgil Abloh

When thinking of the famed Parisian high-end retail scene, a streetwear brand might not be the first to come to mind. Off-White’s recently unveiled Paris Flagship store wants to change that. Composed of a courtyard, a gallery and a market extended over three generous floors, the new retail hub is an expansive, heterogeneous space that forms an “abstract reinterpretation of Paris,” according to OMA’s research and design studio, AMO, which collaborated on the project with Off-White founder Virgil Abloh.

Photos by Benoit Florençon

The ground floor mimics a traditional Parisian courtyard, while sculptural furniture echoes the haphazard look of Parisian flea markets. Throughout, experimental materials are put to unconventional yet elegant use. Walls clad in travertine and corrugated glass entryways might echo the luxurious feel of traditional Parisian retail, but the store makes no attempts to “fit in.” And of course, it wouldn’t be Off-White without a healthy dose of provocation — exemplified in this case by neon signs touting slogans such as “You’re obviously in the wrong place.” As we grapple with Virgil Abloh’s sudden passing last week, the space serves as a reminder of his incredible talent.

Best Interiors of 2021: Spacial Coworking
Spacial Coworking, Montreal, by Ivy Studio

In an old industrial building in Montreal’s Verdun neighbourhood, Ivy Studio has managed to turn a dingy gym and beauty salon into a flagship space for Spacial Co-Working. Before letting its creativity take over, the firm left many of the building’s original features — including ceiling joists and exposed brick — in place to contrast the contemporary and colourful fixtures that would eventually come to define the shared office environment.

Photos by Alex Lesage

To bring visual interest to the rather drab building interior, Ivy Studio didn’t skimp out on intriguing materials — from Rosso Levanto marble counters and mint-green cabinets to blue-tinted mirrors — but the rainbow-coloured zinc adorning the reception desk is the real star of the show. The metal’s iridescent finish reflects the light from some twenty skylights installed above the soaring corridors to counteract the lack of natural lighting in the space.

Paired with thoughtfully placed glass bricks, this strategy opens up the previously-cramped setting with enough light to work, study and socialize. As for the bathrooms, all-black furniture and tiling provide a muted alternative to the office’s otherwise colourful materials.

Best Interiors of 2021: Obsidian
Rendering by Cheryl Umbles Interior Design
Obsidian, by the Black Artists + Designers Guild

Throughout the pandemic, many institutions embraced virtual designs as a way to provide stand-ins for real-world destinations. With the help of a screen, our homes warped into strange facsimiles of meeting rooms, art galleries and retail shops. But while many digital replicas sought to transport visitors away from the domestic realm, the Black Artists + Designers Guild offered a fresh celebration of it. And unlike other virtual environments that quickly left us feeling cold (or dizzy), their concept house was warm and inviting. Rich spaces like “An Abundance of Welcome” by Cheryl Umbles Interior Design, above, encouraged us to keep clicking until we’d explored every last nook and cranny.

Rendering by Cheryl R. Riley

Showcasing “creative expressions of Black family life,” Obsidian presents a vision of an Oakland Hills, California, home in the year 2025. Launched in January, the project is the first initiative by the BADG, an organization founded to advance Black creativity. Designed by 23 BADG creators and two rising talents, Obsidian’s rooms feature details like a custom bed by Jomo Tariku and Woven Necklace pendant lights by South African designer Candice Lawrence hanging in the dining room. For her transcendental space, Sanctuary, designer Cheryl R. Riley looked to James Turrell and Eero Saarinen for inspiration, as well as glyphs from the Hausa people and the conical-shaped huts built by Northern California’s original inhabitants, the Muwekma Ohlone people.

Seven core values — wellness, identity, sustenance, terra, legacy dwelling and ancestral futures — guided the overall project. If the BADG wants to have a go at the Metaverse next, count us in.

Best of 2021: Our Top 10 Interiors of the Year

From Montreal to Copenhagen, curves and arches dominated the design language in our favourite homes, restaurants, offices and retail spaces of the past 12 months.

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