The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - COVER STORY -

What started out as a friendly pint led for­mer peers Ash­ley Rum­sey and Stan­ley Sun to co-found Ma­son Stu­dio


SPA­CES, it can be hard to pin point Ma­son Stu­dio’s sig­na­ture aes­thetic.

That’s be­cause co-founders Ash­ley Rum­sey and Stan­ley Sun are less about putting their stamp on a pro­ject than let­ting the pro­ject leave its mark on them. “When we first con­sider a pro­ject we don’t think about what the space is go­ing to look like, but how it’s sup­posed to func­tion, how are peo­ple sup­posed to feel when they’re in it,” says Rum­sey, sit­ting be­side Sun in a sleek, white-on-white con­fer­ence room in their west end Toronto stu­dio space.

Both con­sider them­selves min­i­mal­ist – their of­fice space, their out­fits and even Sun’s dog, a strik­ing grey­hound named Oak, boast a cer­tain bare bones chic. But again, that’s about phi­los­o­phy more than aes­thetic. Rich fab­rics, bold colours and beau­ti­ful ob­jects all play into their work when it makes sense: “I think if we have a sig­na­ture,” says Sun, “it’s about par­ing a pro­ject down to the point that if you took one more thing away, it wouldn’t work.”

And so far it’s work­ing. This fall Ma­son Stu­dios picked up three tro­phies at the an­nual Arido awards – two for the 200-room Anadaz Ho­tel in Ot­tawa, and the rooftop bar in the same space, and one for the Vil­lage Juicery Col­lege Street in Toronto. Other re­cent vic­to­ries in­clude the Le Banane restau­rant on Oss­ing­ton Ave., the Cabin res­i­dences on Dover­court, an Andy Warhol-in­spired ex­hibit at TIFF (both in Toronto) and the re­cently opened Jing’an Res­i­dence in Shang Hai.

These are suc­cess they could have hardly have imag­ined back in their de­sign school days when the class­mates thought of them­selves as friendly ri­vals – one fre­quently sneak­ing a peak at what­ever the other was work­ing on, play­fully one-up­ping each other in the quest to cre­ate their best work. “I think even to­day there is still that sense of be­ing in­spired by each other, build­ing on each other’s ideas,” says Sun. Their dy­namic, he says, is hard to de­scribe. “We’re in­cred­i­bly dif­fer­ent, but we’re ex­actly the same.” Their pro­fes­sional skill sets are com­pli­men­tary (Rumey loves so­cial in­ter­ac­tion and co-or­di­na­tion, Sun is the more quiet con­tem­pla­tor), but when it comes to pro­fes­sional vi­sion, they are to­tally aligned.

Like many des­tined duos, they took sep­a­rate paths that lead them back to­gether. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Ry­er­son’s in­te­rior de­sign pro­gram in 2008, both got jobs at cor­po­rate mega-firms. Rum­sey was at Yabu Pushel­berg, based in Toronto, but spent a lot of her time work­ing on in­ter­na­tional projects. And Sun was in the UK at Jump Stu­dios. They kept in touch and met up for a drink when Rum­sey was in Lon­don for work. Both were feel­ing ar­tis­ti­cally sti­fled and look­ing long­ingly at the youth­ful en­ergy of the Toronto de­sign scene. “I think we both felt like maybe we had skipped the part of our ca­reers where it was about tak­ing risks and just be to­tally cre­ative,” says Sun. By the time they split up, the plan for their fu­ture col­lab­o­ra­tion was at the blue­print stage.

It’s pretty stan­dard prac­tice for a de­sign firm to bear the names of its founder or founders. For Rum­sey and Sun “Ma­son Stu­dios”, which launched in 2011, is a way of ex­press­ing their “it takes a vil­lage” phi­los­o­phy – a nod to the stone­ma­sonry and other trades­peo­ple whose work makes their ideas a re­al­ity. It’s also a hat tip to their own his­tory since both have grand­fa­thers who were ma­sons – a co­in­ci­dence they came across a cou­ple of years in.

By then their up­start had earned it’s first ma­jor buzz mo­ment fol­low­ing an ex­hibit at Toronto’s an­nual In­te­rior De­sign Show in 2012. Part of a se­ries called “How We Live,” their work was an all-in-one kitchen/ bed­room bath­room in a ship­ping con­tainer. On the wall a neon sign spelled out “Our Home And Na­tive Land,” just one of the many pa­tri­otic flour­ishes. Cana­di­ana con­tin­ues to in­form the work they do and, as they take on ma­jor projects abroad. It’s also about rec­og­niz­ing the na­tion­al­is­tic as­pect of de­sign. “It’s un­der­stand­ing how cul­tural prac­tices re­late to de­sign,” both say (al­most the same way, al­most con­cur­rently).

They both ac­knowl­edge that they fin­ish each other’s sen­tences. “We’re like that old mar­ried cou­ple who isn’t mar­ried. Or to­gether,” Sun jokes. Rum­sey has been in a re­la­tion­ship for fif­teen years and says that her work hus­band and real-life partner get along great. Maybe too great: “When we’re to­gether,” she says, “they’ll gang up on me.”

Peo­ple might think be­ing work spouses who fin­ish each other’s sen­tences means they’re al­ways to­gether, but with so many projects to man­age, they can go days with­out see­ing each other. Hence their com­mit­ment to twice an­nual re­treats. Of­ten they’ll spend a week at Rum­sey’s prop­erty in the Kawarthas. They’ll talk shop and dis­cuss long-term strat­egy, and then also watch movies and make food and just re­lax. They’ll make a big brunch and start bounc­ing ideas back and forth. “I would say I am the ex­pert at mak­ing the food and Stan is the ex­pert at eat­ing,” Rum­sey jokes – just an­other ex­am­ple of their com­pli­men­tary skill sets.

Ma­son Stu­dio co-founders Stan­ley Sun (left) and Ash­ley Rum­sey (right) pose for a photo in their Toronto of­fice.

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