“What should we do tonight?” Over the past two and a half decades, on any given evening, someone in Toronto asks that question and inevitably ends up at a restaurant or bar designed by Allen Chan, Matt Davis and Anwar Mekhayech. Back in 1998, the three friends co-founded DesignAgency — a studio that has gone on to rule the city’s hospitality industry.
If you’re visiting Toronto from out of town, it’s possible that you find yourself staying at the Drake Hotel, which the firm recently reimagined with eclectic juxtapositions of retro and contemporary furnishings. Or perhaps you’re staying at the Ritz-Carlton and spending the night up in the luxurious Epoch Bar & Kitchen Terrace, which DesignAgency soaked in a medley of suave gold tones back in 2021. If you’re a little further east, you’re likely based out of the Broadview Hotel, which DesignAgency unveiled in 2017 after working with ERA Architects to strip away evidence of the building’s former life as an adult entertainment venue. An abbreviated list of other Toronto hotels that owe some of their style to DesignAgency includes the St. Regis, the Sheraton Centre, and soon, the Andaz slated to open as part of the supertall Foster+Partners tower going up at Yonge and Bloor.
But it’s not just out-of-towners who will appreciate the firm’s influence on the city. While many of the aforementioned establishments are destinations for locals as much as visitors, DesignAgency also envisioned the Toronto outpost of members club Soho House, buzzy restaurants like Minami, and recently, History, a concert venue that draws from the firm’s early experience designing nightclubs like the Guvernment. And when Torontonians travel, they’ll find that DesignAgency’s influence on places like Las Vegas is just as pronounced as it is in Toronto. (Indeed, the firm now operates four studios — three in North America and one in Europe.)
After 25 years — a period that included a pandemic that forced the hospitality industry to make sharp, unexpected pivots — DesignAgency remains as prolific as ever. (Up next: the rise of psychedelic wellness resorts.) Here, Chan (AC), Davis (MD) and Mekhayech (AM) talk through their firm’s evolution, discussing 10 lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Davis met Chan while both were studying at the University of Toronto (landscape architecture for Davis and architecture for Chan). Davis then connected with Mekhayech (who has an engineering degree from Western) while working at Kensington Kitchen, a Mediterranean restaurant that Mekhayech’s dad owned on Harbord Street. While Chan went on to do a masters in architecture at Columbia, he kept in touch with Davis and Mekhayech as the three began to plot the launch of Precipice Studios — which would later evolve into The Design Agency and eventually, DesignAgency.
We were all coming in fresh out of our various academic backgrounds and stepping into the design world at a time when everything seemed to be changing, in terms of people starting to pay more attention to the role of lifestyle design.
I didn’t really know what a hospitality design firm did, but I knew that I could do it.
We were full of bravado because we had this entrepreneurial spirit that our parents had passed down to us. We all shared a passion for new experiences, so restaurants seemed like a natural fit, because they tend to be on the cutting edge of design.
We also knew that, whenever a place opens, there’s a lot of buzz around it that is very fun and unique to be a part of.
The firm’s first major project was sPaHa, a bistro that opened in 2000 on the ground floor of the University of Toronto’s Graduate House, a deconstructivist student residence by Morphosis and Teeple Architects that was quite controversial in its day. As the owner of sPaHa — which landed somewhere between a student cafeteria and a fine-dining experience — Mekhayech played both client and designer.
Matt and I put on our tap shoes and went to pitch our idea to the University of Toronto, which was having a competition for the restaurant project. I loved how students always ate and drank so well in Paris, so we combined that French bistro concept with what I’d seen in the Berkeley food scene — which was basically farm to table before that term existed — while I was in California to go surfing. We won the project, and that was the catalyst for formalizing our company.
We designed as much of the project as possible. We did the graphic design, the menu, and we ran the operations.
We had a really good friend, Pablo De Ritis, who was working for Wallpaper, and he helped us get some great press around the project. And it was just a rollercoaster ride from there.
The buzz surrounding sPaHa’s interior design quickly earned DesignAgency a string of big Toronto commissions. Soon, the firm had completed Salon Jie, a Yorkville spa and salon; Brassaii, a King West restaurant that captured the feel of an industrial loft party; and the Guvernment, a major venture by club king Charles Khabouth.
In the early days, things involved a lot more trust on the part of our clients — not just because we were new but because not everybody was using designers.
Now, everything is led by design — there’s a designer or architect behind every project. But back then, having a designer somehow seemed more bougie — maybe it meant that you had more money for your project.
So much has changed in the past 25 years. Some of that has been because of Apple, and because of what publications like Wallpaper and Azure did by bringing design to the masses through their coverage.
Many Canadians find they need to first prove themselves internationally before finally earning belated recognition back home. Bucking this trend, DesignAgency made a global name for themselves based on the local success they experienced in Toronto — a city that was rapidly emerging as a design hub. Splashy international commissions came next.
Canada was a real design trailblazer in a way. I remember going to Yabu Pushelberg’s parties in the early 2000s and hanging out with other Toronto designers — talking about our projects and finding out what they were doing. George [Yabu] and Glenn [Pushelberg] have been real mentors to us. Seeing their careers grow as they built their brand internationally was a big inspiration.
These days, there’s still some really unique food concepts in Toronto. It’s always had that incredible diversity of food offerings, but looking at the city now, you can really see people honing their skill and leaning into the product that they’re offering. The entry of the Michelin Guide into Toronto is definitely huge and tells a lot of that tale about the seriousness with which people are approaching the culinary scene — and that seriousness also extends to the design.
As DesignAgency has grown, its hospitality projects have become known not just for cultivating a rich sense of place, but also for doing something far more difficult: building a bona fide scene. When Soho House Toronto opened in 2012, it already felt like a time-worn institution that dated back decades. On the other hand, STK (2017) offered a futuristic spectacle in the form of its sinuous floor-to-ceiling sculptures.
Now, it’s not good enough to have a place where the food’s decent — you can’t expect people to flock to that. Instead, you have to set the stage for an experience.
I was talking to a couple of restaurateurs, and one of them was saying that probably 75 per cent of people can’t remember what they ate at a restaurant, but they remember where they were and who they were with. The term “eat-ertainment” has been around for a while, but it’s still relevant. People want to be entertained.
Of course, social media plays a role in that too now — restaurants have a shorter lifespan because spaces are being consumed so much more rapidly. But hey, that’s good for business.
[Laughs.] You said that, not me. Our clients might not like hearing that. Thankfully, our designs are timeless — just like their business plans.
Another big milestone in DesignAgency’s history was envisioning Momofuku Toronto (2012), which spread a variety of dining concepts across three storeys of the Shangri-La Hotel.
David Chang came to Toronto wanting a design partner. It’s like with his chefs: He wants someone who’s the best in their class so that he can have total trust in you and just focus on his thing. Even though we went on to win a lot of awards and get a tonne of press with Momofuku, it wasn’t about making our mark or reinventing the wheel — it was about staying humble enough to keep it authentic to his brand.
He was concerned about the front of house, definitely, because it had to reflect the price point and drive the experience, but it was ultimately a supporting cast member to the food. That was a more mature kind of conversation, and that’s what you get with people really focused on their craft.
It’s the same with Nick Jones, who founded Soho House. While we were spending time with him and hearing his vision, the three of us were very open to learning and adapting. I think those partnerships survived and flourished because of that; we could listen and stay egoless in a way. Design is a journey, and we want to explore the potentials with our clients. It’s not just about us coming up with an idea and telling them how it’s going to be.
While Momofuku Toronto closed at the end of 2022, DesignAgency has gone on to complete several additional Momofuku projects in cities including New York and Las Vegas. Another brand that occupies a large part of the firm’s portfolio is Generator, which operates 14 boutique hostels across Europe.
With Generator, each location has its own expression relative to the locality, but it follows this overall DNA that we created to define a new segment of the market. You had boutique hotels becoming one thing and budget hostels another, but that clash of budget and luxury was a movement that we really created with hospitality entrepreneur Josh Wyatt.
He and I met serendipitously in New York through the basketball player Steve Nash, who is a buddy of mine. A year later, Josh called us up and said that he had a project for us in Dublin. He had this whole idea of making hostels cool. The three of us flew over there to meet with him, and the rest is kind of history. It was also through him that we worked on so many projects for NeueHouse, including a location in L.A.’s iconic Bradbury Building on Sunset Boulevard, as well as the Venice Beach clubhouse on Market Street, which opened this year.
DesignAgency’s ambition to become a studio that’s able to handle all aspects of a project’s design eventually informed the launch of a dedicated branding department.
The idea of storytelling and building a narrative is a lot stronger now than it was 10 years ago. Even though we’ve kind of always done that, clients and brands think about it more explicitly now. So five years ago, we formalized it into a core offering.
We work side by side with ownership groups throughout the entire journey, looking at how to integrate an experience across all these different levels.
The Dalmar in Fort Lauderdale (2019) was a milestone for us in the sense that not only did we design the hotel’s interiors, but we designed the brand, too. Clients come to us now because it’s easier to go to one creative super-hub that can be a one-stop shop. We’ve gotten into this world where we’re seeing that part of the business growing, and even getting invited to bid on work that’s solely branding.
Over the years, DesignAgency has expanded to operate four studios, in Toronto; Washington, D.C.; L.A. and Barcelona. The firm now includes 115 employees.
We always talked about how big of a company we want to be. We heard from a lot of people that once you reach 100 employees, things change. And that’s true — we’re definitely running a business. But we also want to make our staff happy, and we work quite hard to maintain our office culture.
Before, we used to do everything as the three of us together. And in a way, we still do. As the co-founding partners, we spend a lot of time thinking about the future of design, the future of the business, and how technology is going to interface with that. We’re very tight on strategy. But now it is more of a collaborative divide and conquer between us and our team. Handing things over becomes difficult when we’ve worked 25 years to grow a business. But having people we can trust is critical to how we move forward as a company.
It’s not just the three of us as the founders running the show anymore. We also have three principals and some great design directors that help us share the load. It’s much more of a group effort.
We’re also doing a lot of initiatives to build that team synergy across people in our different offices. Once a month, we do a Team Tuesday. Last week was a wellness day with sound baths and massages, but other times, we’ve had guest keynote speakers. Jen Keesmaat did a town hall for us that we broadcast to all the studios, and another time we simulcast a DJ session.
In late July, DesignAgency invited the Toronto design community to its studio for the ninth edition of an annual tradition: its summer Block Party. The event spanned both sides of Adelaide Street, with custom cocktails and food stations run by local restaurants like Mamakas Taverna. Dinner options included a giant paella in one corner and a pig roast in another. A DJ booth kept things lively long past sunset.
Officially, we just did number nine, but unofficially, there were actually a few more even earlier that were just parties in our office. But once we moved into our space on Adelaide Street, we wanted to make use of the location. We also had so many amazing restaurant clients working within the city, and we wanted to showcase their offerings in a way that brought together the industry.
This year, we’re making an effort to get out to all our different studios and do a version celebrating locally in each place. Getting out to Barcelona or getting to D.C. — it’s a great way to recognize our staff, friends, family, clients and suppliers in these different cities.
We’ve been busy building our company, but we also want to be more involved in building the design community. We’re starting a scholarship at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Interior Design as one way to give back to the industry. All of us have seen how small steps can make a big impact on the future of the industry and the people coming up in it.
As the firm reaches a major milestone, its co-founders reflect on past accomplishments and key steps to success.