Meet our first De­signer of the Year

Cre­at­ing every­thing from geode-shaped res­i­den­tial pro­jects to cityscape-in­spired cul­tural and com­mer­cial in­sti­tu­tions, Lebel & Bou­liane’s ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice proves it’s any­thing but square

Designlines - - Front Page - By Alexan­dra Caufin

Head­ing a stu­dio of just eight, Natasha Lebel and Luc Bou­liane may seem to hold un­likely seats at the ta­ble of no­ta­bles ush­er­ing in a new era of con­tem­po­rary Cana­dian de­sign. But then, Lebel & Bou­liane is not your av­er­age bou­tique firm. For one thing, they’ve all but ig­nored a main­stay of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture: the cube.

For al­most a decade, trape­zoids, tri­an­gles and faceted sur­faces have de­fined the cou­ple’s port­fo­lio, from a sprawl­ing es­tate on the Scar­bor­ough Bluffs to the mar­ble-edged front desk at Canada’s largest ad agency. L&B’S award-win­ning Rel­mar Houses in For­est Hill ac­tu­ally be­gan with an im­age of a cracked-open geode – a peb­ble split down the cen­tre to re­veal a pris­matic, crys­tal­lized in­te­rior.

“A lot of our work looks into ge­o­log­i­cal earth forms and the other con­texts of a site,” ex­plains Lebel. “That’s our idea of po­etry.”

For Bou­liane, the prin­ci­pal ar­chi­tect of the stu­dio, that’s the re­sult of grow­ing up in Sault Ste. Marie and soak­ing in the oth­er­worldly rock for­ma­tions of the Cana­dian Shield.

“I grew up in the city,” ex­plains Lebel. “So for me, it’s more about my re­la­tion­ship to the scale of a build­ing. I’m not about form for the sake of form, but for your per­sonal re­la­tion­ship to those vol­umes and how it can shape your per­spec­tive.”

No doubt, this play­ful, as­pect-al­ter­ing ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with di­men­sion has be­come L&B’S sig­na­ture. For their geode-in­spired Rel­mar Houses, two rect­an­gu­lar homes stretch to the lim­its of a sin­gle city lot, so form had to be carved out within. A se­ries of an­gu­lar rooms, cut­aways and mill­work defy the con­ven­tional floor plate and max­i­mize the cir­cu­la­tion of rays from the op­er­a­ble sky­lights above.

Small but nim­ble, L&B has opted to sit out the condo boom to helm some of the city’s most ex­cit­ing adap­tive re­use pro­jects. In 2017, creative agency Onemethod com­mis­sioned Lebel & Bou­liane to reimag­ine the in­te­rior of their 4,650-square-me­tre space in the iconic Philip John­son–de­signed Cana­dian Broad­cast­ing Cen­tre. With 8.5-me­tre ceil­ings, the two-floor tab­ula rasa begged for dra­matic, large-scale el­e­ments to di­vide the space, which was to be shared with sib­ling com­pa­nies Ben­si­mon Byrne and Nar­ra­tive PR.

Em­ploy­ing ur­ban plan­ning strate­gies (and Guy De­bord and the Si­t­u­a­tion­ists’ con­cept of psy­cho­geo­graphic map­ping), in­door streets, bridges and bleach­ers con­sign each agency to its own “neigh­bour­hood.” The firms are united by a se­ries of hos­pi­tal­ity-in­spired com­mon spa­ces, in­clud­ing a café–bar and an in­door bas­ket­ball court.

Ar­chi­tec­turally speak­ing, it’s not easy to make an empty ware­house feel pol­ished or cul­tured or built for a multi-faceted com­mu­nity, but this is per­haps among L&B’S great­est strengths as a firm. Lev­er­ag­ing the same place­mak­ing ap­proaches as it did for Onemethod, L&B trans­formed a for­mer fish fac­tory into a home for the much buzzed-about Side­walk Labs, the avante-garde head­quar­ters where Google’s par­ent com­pany Al­pha­bet is work­ing with Wa­ter­front Toronto to reimag­ine a strip of the lakeshore in the East End. Upon en­try, a dra­matic vol­ume rem­i­nis­cent of a ship’s hull me­di­ates of­fice and group ar­eas. Mean­while, a raised floor treat­ment of hexag­o­nal ply­wood ush­ers vis­i­tors into an open com­mu­nity space.

In the com­ing year, L&B will re­vamp a slew of his­tor­i­cal build­ings across Toronto, in­clud­ing pro­jects in the Dis­tillery and at the Univer­sity of Toronto. And by in­fus­ing their res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial tac­tics into the de­sign of mu­se­ums, li­braries and aca­demic sites, the firm is breath­ing new life into the city’s in­sti­tu­tional ar­chi­tec­ture – which is of­ten pi­geon­holed by red tape and pro­cure­ment rules.

Of this cross-pol­li­na­tion, Lebel notes laugh­ingly, “It em­bold­ens you. We don’t have a lot of ego in our work – which is help­ful, be­cause we get told ‘no’ a lot.”

No mat­ter. That’s what it means to think out­side the cube.

Last year, Com­mute De­sign opened two of Toronto’s most cap­ti­vat­ing restau­rants – Oretta and Aloette – and they could not be more dif­fer­ent. Oretta is a vo­lu­mi­nous space on King West, the lat­est Ital­ian pro­ject of restau­ra­teur Sal­va­tore Mele. The six-me­tre-high ceil­ings are punc­tu­ated by right-an­gled brass pen­dant light­ing that plays nicely with the mil­len­ni­ally coloured art deco style of the main room. Where Oretta vaults, how­ever, Aloette nooks. And it is pre­cisely this al­lu­sive­ness and brash brown-ness that makes it num­ber one in our books. Rem­i­nis­cent of a pri­vate rail car, the high-end diner, run by chef Pa­trick Kriss (his much lauded Alo is up­stairs), fea­tures large win­dowed booths un­der a round, rose­wood-pan­elled ceil­ing. It’s com­pact, for sure, but not tight.

“Cir­cu­la­tion was a chal­lenge,” Com­mute prin­ci­pal Hamid Sa­mad says. “We had to make sure we could have four-per­son booths, so every­thing is cus­tom; all the scales and mea­sure­ments were tweaked. It has a very tai­lored feel.”

And look­ing around the 67-square-me­tre space, you quickly un­der­stand that ev­ery sin­gle patch of it was con­sid­ered, from the rec­ti­lin­ear leather ban­quette up­hol­stery to Com­mute’s own shadow-in­spired wall­pa­per and metal-rod pen­dants – the very light­ing the stu­dio has be­come known for.

There are lay­ers upon lay­ers of visual in­ter­est, the re­sult of Sa­mad and part­ner Sara Parisotto’s acute at­ten­tion to de­tail. The ser­pen­tine floor tile pat­tern, the brass cham­fered shelv­ing and im­pec­ca­ble mill­work be­hind the bar are all com­po­nents you might over­look on your first, or even se­cond time in. But they pro­vide the sort of eye-candy that sets Aloette apart.

This ob­ses­sion with minu­tiae, they share with the Miche­lin-pedi­greed chef. Kriss’s care­ful treat­ment of diner sta­ples like ice­berg wedges and le­mon meringue pie el­e­vates them into the realm of the city’s best food – served in one of the city’s most fas­ci­nat­ing food spa­ces.

Credit must be paid to the in­te­rior de­sign at Aloette (ar­guably Toronto’s finest diner), which was ex­pertly crafted by Com­mute.

Tom Chung’s most re­cent of­fer­ing, a techy ta­ble lamp with a trick up its sleeve, be­gan as many great de­signs do: with a void.

In 2016, the Emily Carr grad took on the in­te­rior re­design of his par­ents’ Van­cou­ver home. “I couldn’t find a lamp that would cast light on ei­ther side of a space-di­vid­ing book­shelf,” says Chung, who was in­spired to cre­ate his own. He pro­to­typed a lamp that poured light from op­po­site ends of a cylin­der; a knob could be turned to di­rect the beam out one end or the other, or both, with vary­ing am­pli­tudes.

Chung de­buted the de­sign at the Stock­holm Fur­ni­ture & Light Fair in 2017, where it quickly showed up on the radar of Scan­di­na­vian home­wares brand Mu­uto. They launched the de­signer’s re­mark­able Beam lamp late last year, fea­tur­ing an ele­gant an­odized alu­minum body that pro­vides di­rect light­ing or an am­bi­ent glow.

Only three years into his own prac­tice, the 28-year-old has ac­crued mul­ti­ple edi­tions and in­te­ri­ors. This year, Chung will re­lease a case­goods col­lec­tion with EQ3 that lever­ages the com­pany’s Win­nipeg up­hol­stery op­er­a­tion to cre­ate mod­u­lar cab­i­netry with fab­ric or wood-slat slid­ing doors.

And while he chalks much of this suc­cess up to “good tim­ing,” Chung’s ap­proach to pro­duc­tion cer­tainly helps. “I’m al­ways think­ing of a hy­po­thet­i­cal place when I’m de­sign­ing an ob­ject. But I also think about the ship­ping, the sys­tems and how things need to be moved around the world.”

Much of this savvi­ness is no doubt a prod­uct of Chung’s roots at Um­bra, where he helped de­velop the first Shift col­lec­tion – the game-chang­ing new di­rec­tion that saw the Cana­dian com­pany move from plas­tics to craft ma­te­ri­als. “That en­light­ened the pro­duc­tion path­way for me,” says Chung, who worked with Um­bra’s ma­te­rial ven­dors and trav­elled around the world vis­it­ing metal fac­to­ries and ceram­ics sup­pli­ers, as well as weav­ing and wood work­shops.

Chung’s new­est ven­ture, Part & Whole, re­turns the de­signer to this holis­tic role. The Vic­to­ria-based com­pany, which he con­sults and de­signs for, will fo­cus on 3D-knit so­fas, which are more af­ford­able to pro­duce than tra­di­tional pat­tern cut­ting and re­sult in near-zero waste.

And while the end buyer might not see these ag­ile man­u­fac­tur­ing sys­tems, they’re cer­tainly passed along in price, turn­around and ac­ces­si­bil­ity. What does end up on dis­play are visual ex­pres­sions of ne­ces­sity and re­straint – pieces that feel as wise as they do al­lur­ing. Like all of Chung’s work, it’s the pro­duc­tion backstory that truly pow­ers the de­sign. TOMCHUNG.NET 

The award-win­ning Rel­mar Houses pro­ject fea­tures cap­ti­vat­ing stone-clad light wells and sculp­tural age-in-place ameni­ties.

Cat­walks, in­door streets and a bas­ket­ball court ap­point the 4,650-square-me­tre Ben­si­mon Byrne and Onemethod of­fice space.

 Chung’s flat-pack Hover stool for Um­bra Shift and the alu­minum Cast pen­dant for Menu.

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