Toronto-based DesignAgency offers hybrid hospitality

Backpacking through Europe in need of affordable lodgings that radiate locality and design? Enjoying a stopover in Toronto with other jet-setting members of the city’s exclusive Soho House? Drooling at the thought of chicken wings or relishing the idea of haute cuisine? You can have it all amid interiors created by Toronto-based DesignAgency. Founded in 1998 by partners Allen Chan, Matthew Davis and Anwar Mekhayech, the company has seen the hospitality industry undergo a series of transformations. DesignAgency’s portfolio goes beyond hospitality venues, however, to cover residential and commercial projects that represent all aspects of the interior-design spectrum. Catching Anwar Mekhayech during one of the rare moments he’s at the Toronto office – travelling in search of hidden gems is an important part of his life, which is apparent in DesignAgency’s interiors – we zoom from zero to five stars in 30 minutes, while discussing how the shifting perception of hospitality is affecting both luxury and low-budget projects.

What are the most interesting developments on the hospitality scene at the moment?

ANWAR MEKHAYECH: I don’t think the hospitality scene is as stable or as standard as it used to be. With regard to hotels, one trend we’ve noticed is how the lines between luxury and budget are blurring. We see quite a bit of exploration in the middle market, where projects have become more cost-effective but still display great design.

A lot of new brands are trying to address different demographics – to appeal to specific groups – and here I’m talking about technology-based hospitality concepts, budget-based health and fitness facilities, and projects that target millennials. These trends also have an impact on what people are paying for good design, which isn’t limited to the luxury segment any more.

Hotels are increasingly accommodating certain lifestyles, rather than just offering a bed. Why do you think that is?

I think it comes from the younger market, made up in part by the millennials, whose priorities are different. They don’t necessarily want to spend money on the same things all the time. They want more choice.

Two other important factors are the way people work and their willingness and ability to share spaces. These two things affect everything in hospitality. People don’t just go to places to have fun and to socialize. As a result, more and more hospitality concepts include the potential for work. Sharing spaces with people you don’t know but don’t mind being with is exemplified by the growing popularity of services like Uber.

How do you respond to the evolution of the so-called shareconomy in your designs?

It affects how you plan out spaces, whether the space is a restaurant, a hotel or a workplace. We envision people using the space and then start to develop the programming. Some areas will be private and others communal. Many of our hospitality clients say they need a communal table because people like to share, sit together, socialize – even when they don’t know each other.

A lot of the hotels we’re seeing claim to cater specifically to millennials. Their interiors target a particular generation instead of focusing on price range. Have you run up against this?

Most of our hotel clients have an idea of who their demographic is. They let us know which age group is typically attracted to the area or the brand, but we try not to focus too much on such limitations. For us, it’s more about concepts and designs that can be enjoyed by like-minded people. It might start as an age group, but it’s actually more of a philosophy. If you share that philosophy, the concept will appeal to you, no matter your age. That sentiment was really important to us when we did interiors for the Generator Hostels.

Traditionally, hostels welcome a very wide age group. These are people whose philosophy includes sharing and spending their money on some of the finer things in life – dining, shopping, travelling – and not on hotels. We adopted that mentality in our designs for Generator.

DesignAgency’s work embraces a wide range of projects and budgets, from pared-down to posh. What’s the difference between designing for a five-star hotel and, for instance, a Generator Hostel?

The obvious thing is the budget. It can be difficult to come up with great designs on a lower budget. But what’s great is that owners and clients are realizing that you cannot put design in the background any more. No matter whether the project is budget or luxury, you need to have forward-thinking design. With so many good design firms in the world, there is really no excuse for not having your spaces curated or thought about. You don’t always need to hire a designer, though. Several great boutique hotels have been designed by their owners. Ultimately, I think that budget plays the biggest role, but I also believe the challenges that come with designing a hotel are currently the same for every segment.

Some design agencies have a style that’s apparent in every project. We play with different styles. You can see that in our portfolio. We aim for a design that makes sense locally – one that fits the city we’re in. Wherever we are in the world, we never consider designing spaces that feel foreign. We try to achieve a sense of familiarity – that’s more important than a big wow factor. We want people to feel as if they know our spaces, to feel comfortable while also finding something new and fresh that will make them interested in knowing more about the brand and the concept.

So has the notion of luxury changed?

I think it’s trying to be redefined. There are two pillars of luxury. The first is one we think of as ‘classic luxury’, almost like old-world luxury. Think about Mandarin Oriental or Four Seasons, which have very deep roots in luxury and guests with certain expectations. They have loyalty programmes – not only for their guests, but also for their designs.

On the other hand, you have ‘new luxury’, which entails some exploration into what it is and how it can become more experimental and exciting. I’m thinking of what Marcel Wanders did with Andaz Amsterdam, a hotel where fun luxury provides playful moments. But it doesn’t all come down to design; it’s about service, too.

Which of the world’s regions are on your radar at the moment when it comes to hospitality design?

I’m interested in Mexico City, where we’ve noticed some great designers and some places based on a nice modernist approach. Grupo HABITA is one of my favourites.

Lately we’ve been doing a lot of work in Stockholm. What’s exciting about some of Europe’s smaller cities are their emerging areas, gentrifying areas, which are forming their own identities and adding character to these cities. We like finding the newer parts of town, like Amsterdam-Oost.

South and Central America are definitely on my radar in terms of architecture and design. I’m into Brick Expressionism as well. Travelling a great deal of the time, we draw inspiration from so many different things.

When designing a hotel, what are some of the things you have to consider?

A combination of ingredients goes into hospitality design. As I mentioned, workstations and the like are increasingly influencing the discipline, but the driving factor is a connection to restaurants and cafés. A hotel brand often covers a wide range of components, from retail and fitness to wellness and food. The whole coffee culture that’s exploded over the last five years has had a massive effect on design. Retail and hospitality are merging – almost  becoming one. Stores now have coffee shops for their customers.

While hospitality brands expand their services, brands from other sectors, such as fashion, are entering the hospitality scene. How do you approach this phenomenon?

We’re seeing quite a few brands that suddenly want to add hospitality to their plans. It makes for interesting projects and poses a different type of challenge. How do you take a brand that’s known for one thing and create a hotel that corresponds to that image? Virgin Airlines, for example, also operates Virgin Hotels. Luxury brands have always dabbled a bit in the overlapping space between sectors. It can be interesting to come up with concepts that have a foundation in a different industry.

How do you envision the evolution of hospitality in years to come?

I think there will be more concepts and more choice, especially in the middle-market segment. As new brands appear, the demand for good architecture and design will only increase.

Obviously, technology will play an important role in the overall guest experience, in the customer journey, and in human interaction with designs and spaces. In some cases it will be more personal – a return to being more about people and service – and at the same time more technology-based, almost fully automated. We will see an increase in what the industry is calling ‘limited service’. An extreme example is the capsule hotel, which offers rooms for rent by the hour. Big in Japan.

It all goes back to the guest’s philosophy. Hospitality design is about what people want, how they live their lives, how they work, how they travel. The idea of a hotel room as an accommodation to be used from 3 p.m. until noon the next day is not necessarily what people want any more. People are going to start ignoring the rules – breaking the norm.

Portraits Justin Poulsen

Photos Nikolas Koenig

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