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
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.