Constructive Dialogue

DESIGNER DIALOGUE 38

TEXT LESLIE JEN

PHOTOS ERIC LAU

As Canada’s largest city, Toronto hasn’t yet seemed to fulfill its potential as a leader in interior design, particularly in the retail and hospitality market. That distinction belongs to cities such as New York, London and Barcelona. However, there are a few local emerging firms that are starting to make significant advances, setting a new standard for dynamic and innovative interiors that provoke and delight. One of these is Toronto-based Dialogue 38, led by graduate architect Bennett Lo and his team of six. The sophistication and refinement evident in Dialogue 38’s design has its roots in Lo’s varied educational and career path. Born in Hong Kong, he received his Master of Architecture degree from Virginia Tech, after which he honed his skills in Aldo Rossi’s New York office. Time was also spent during school on work terms in Germany, giving Lo a taste of design in a European context. But by the mid-1990s, the pull of family lured him to Toronto, and he ended up working for Kramer Design Associates, led by prominent graphic designer and artist Burton Kramer, who in 1974 designed one of Canada’s most identifiable icons, the CBC logo. For six years in Kramer’s employ, Lo’s design skills were utilized on a smaller scale–in graphic, product and industrial design, all of which is evident in the level of considered detail apparent in his growing body of interior design work.

From a portfolio comprised almost exclusively of retail and hospitality design, two projects stand out for their unorthodox approach. Shoppers on Queen Street West have enjoyed the sophisticated jewelry selections at Eko since 2000, but owner Mina Yoon found the shop and standard display options too limiting for her carefully curated collections from around the world. So in 2006, she hired her good friend Lo, and requested his help in reconceptualizing the design of her shop, her primary goal to increase display space for her stock.

To address Yoon’s needs, Lo’s initial move was to enlarge the shop from 580 to 850 square feet by opening up the back zone that was previously used for storage, creating a raised platform area/gallery that can accommodate more display space. The back wall was conceived of as an art wall, upon which a constantly rotating display of local artists’ work is hung.

Conventional jewelry display usually translates into an arrangement of freestanding glass cases where customers bend over and peer downward. Lo felt that the space should mimic the minimalist blank space of a gallery, where the art and artifacts are allowed to dominate, and where viewers can more comfortably peruse the pieces at eye level without stooping over. The concept that emerged here was a sequence of vertically oriented glass display cases, running the entire length of both walls and separated at regular rhythmic intervals with an armature of sorts, structural ribs that run vertically from the floor right to the top of the 13-foot ceiling, and which continue straight across the ceiling and back down the opposing wall, forming a succession of orthogonal archways that run all the way to the back of the long shop.

Because of Lo’s clever manipulation of the side walls by progressively narrowing them from front to back, it creates an illusion of a larger space from the resulting exaggerated perspective, but it also offers a view of the rhythmic framing of the archways to street traffic. But the ribs protrude sufficiently from the surface of the glass display cases that one can’t actually see past them. Counterintuitively, this ber-minimalist design erases all suggestion of what the shop actually contains, as views into the shopfront reveal nothing but the pristinely articulated interior space and a single “floating” Cipollini marble display counter/cash desk. In a competitive retail environment, this could be seen as a very risky move, but Yoon was confident in Lo’s direction.

A fairly limited budget meant an economical material palette, which translated into pale blonde ash laminate floors, and structural ribs made of MDF which were then painted white. The ingenious design of the display system for the individual pieces of jewelry was a joint effort between Lo and Yoon; magnetic aluminum blocks affix to the back wall of the cases, and allow for endless flexibility in display arrangements.

Yoon’s established customer base and dedicated following continues to grow, to the extent that she expanded her business and opened a second location earlier this year on Eglinton Street, a well-heeled neighbourhood north of the downtown core. The design is entirely consistent with that of its sister shop, but a fluid organicism characterizes Eko 2. The same system of vertical display units between clearly articulated structural ribs is utilized, but the white ribs are canted, and they do not continue across the ceiling plane as the ceiling height in Eko 2 is considerably lower.

Most evident though, is the fact that the walls serpentine from the front of the shop right to the back, creating a sort of rounded fish shape in plan. Importantly, this gesture offers passersby oblique views of what is actually in the display cases, unlike the Queen Street location where the intrigue and mystery ends only after entry into the shop. This decision addresses the fact that the Eglinton market, perhaps a little more conventional than the downtown market, would need to actually see the merchandise to be sufficiently enticed to “bite.”

Another evolution in Toronto’s retail and hospitality landscape is the recent rapid proliferation of high-style yet economically priced restaurants. The city of Toronto is often praised for its dynamic multicultural mix, and the dining options reflect this diversity. But anyone living in the city over the past several years will have noticed a curious phenomenon–Asian restaurants, long noted for being cheap ‘n cheerful, have been elevated to new heights, largely through the efforts of Dialogue 38. Harsh fluorescent lighting, grease-streaked Formica tables and sticky faded menus have given way to flattering and diffuse lighting strategies, an elegant and rich material palette, and easily identifiable icons of modern design, such as George Nelson bubble lamps and Eames plywood chairs.

The Spring Rolls pan-Asian restaurant chain comes to mind, as locations keep popping up everywhere, migrating from their origins in the downtown core to the furthest reaches of suburbia. A family-owned empire led by Thai Hua, Spring Rolls Corporation has clearly developed a successful formula that began more than a decade ago when they opened their first location on bustling Yonge Street. Lo was a frequent customer back in the early days, and talked his way into first redesigning the graphics and menu for the restaurant. His client was so taken with Lo’s design skills that he commissioned him to redesign the entire restaurant. From that point onwards, a successful partnership was born and Dialogue 38 has designed 12 separate locations for Spring Rolls over the past eight years.

As the restaurants spread to the outer reaches of the city, their sizes increase dramatically. And so, in the heart of Mississauga opposite from the imposing Square One–one of the largest shopping malls in the country–is Sussex Centre, a nondescript business complex in which a massive 6,500-square-foot Spring Rolls opened in December of 2007. This outpost of Spring Rolls, however, is far from nondescript. Its enormous size and throbbing, hot colour scheme of pinks, oranges and reds gives the space a distinctly nightclubby feel, and transports the dining experience into the realm of the theatrical.

An organic theme is also present, apparent in the floral patterns, wavy lines and amorphous shapes visible everywhere. This relationship with nature and the outdoors was a driving concept from the very outset, and the elaborate entry sequence to the restaurant was orche
strated in great detail to reinforce this connection to nature. Visitors must engage in a pleasantly circuitous route, passing through an entry portal and crossing a series of bridges, ponds and a waterfall before arriving at the restaurant proper and the sizeable outdoor dining patio.

Inside the restaurant, the vast space does not overwhelm due to a skillful delineation of an array of distinctly zoned dining spaces and level changes. The main dining room has views of the impressively long white marble bar, the back of which is lit from behind: digitally printed film applied to the glass wall provides a vibrant explosion of red flowers that glows luminously, overtop of which the Spring Rolls signature graphic identity is subtly laid, a mesmerizingly repetitive pattern of overlapping rounded squares. This floral lightbox effect is also utilized to great effect in the partitions dividing the seating modules. The ceiling plane of the main room is not ignored in this endeavour, as the fluidity of movement is captured through the curvy bent plywood fins that descend from the ceiling in dizzying patterns.

In direct contrast to the buzzy energy of Spring Rolls Sussex is the elegant restraint of Spring Rolls’ most recent franchise unveiling in the Sheppard Centre, located at the major intersection of Yonge and Sheppard Streets in north Toronto. Again housed in a complex that comprises retail, office and residential uses, this restaurant–though considerably smaller than its Mississauga counterpart–is also divided into a number of zones, offering a diversity of environments and a greater sense of intimacy in such a large space. The chain’s appeal to a wide audience coupled with its affordable price point makes it a frequent choice for private group dinners and functions, requiring the provision of separate dining rooms to accommodate.

Though one would be hard-pressed to say that the location of Spring Rolls Sheppard is grittily urban, it is moreso than its sibling in Mississauga. As such, the material palette chosen for Sheppard is much more sedate to reflect a more refined and urban sensibility than the suburban Spring Rolls Sussex location. The dining rooms are all blonde wood, white walls and ceiling, white tables and chairs, and soft uplighting, delivering a muted and relaxed vibe.

In contrast, the lounge and bar area seems a little more crisp and hard-edged. As this particular restaurant is housed in a mixed-use complex, it enjoys access from both the street and from within the complex. To attract potential customers accessing the building from underground parking, the lounge and bar area opens up to the interior mall facing the cinema, drawing in customers with a well-stocked 23-foot-long gleaming white stone bar. The bottles are attractively displayed on the back wall in a checkerboard pattern of red rectangular receptacles alternating with mirrored glass panels, all dramatically spotlit for effect. The Spring Rolls graphic motif is evident here again, subtly and monochromatically, in the glazed enclosure wall of the lounge. Frosted clear acrylic is laser-cut and laid on top of the glass to give a filtered screened view into the lounge, which hints at the interior enough to entice traffic, but which prevents a complete fishbowl experience.

Perhaps the most stunning feature of Spring Rolls Sheppard is the breathtaking chandelier hanging in the semi-private lower dining room. Measuring an expansive 24′ 4′, the luminous ceiling fixture is constructed of well over 10,000 cranes made from iridescent gold-tinged ivory Japanese origami paper, each painstakingly hand-folded by the Spring Rolls owners along with their family and friends. The thousands of cranes are suspended from a concealed steel grid, and are simply illuminated along the 24- foot length of the fixture by eight 60W domestic bulbs. Aside from the obvious Asian connota- tions, the paper crane chandelier developed as a response to budgetary limitations: the design called for a lighting showpiece of an impressively grand scale, and standard options on the market would have been prohibitively costly. Here, necessity proves to truly be the mother of invention.

To be sure, the insanely reasonable prices and the quality of the environment guarantees loyal repeat clientele. While the food at Spring Rolls is more than decent and offers credible interpretations of the cuisines of China, Thailand and Vietnam, it’s not a stretch to admit that the quality of the interior design probably exceeds the quality of the food. The artistry and design sensitivity apparent in the restaurant interiors have unequivocally raised the standard for a casual dining experience.

What does the future hold for Dialogue 38? Due to the success of the Spring Rolls enterprise, other Asian restaurateurs have commissioned Lo and his team to design their interiors to remain competitive. Dialogue 38 have cornered the Asian restaurant market in Canada’s largest city, and now Caucasian restaurateurs have approached Lo and discussions are underway for future endeavours. Later this fall, another Spring Rolls will be unveiled in Fairview Mall in yet another suburban Toronto neighbourhood. The firm is currently involved in the design of a small boutique hotel in downtown Toronto, and Shanghai has also come calling with a potential hotel interiors commission. Lo says that someday, he would like to return to the world of architecture and big design, but for now, he is happy producing small packages that deliver big impact. CA

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EKO 1 AND EKO 2, TORONTO, ONTARIO

CLIENT MINA YOON

DESIGN TEAM BENNETT LO, JERICHO LEE (EKO 2 ONLY)

CONTRACTOR CANSON BUILDING LTD

AREA 850 FT2 (EKO 1), 875 FT2 (EKO 2)

COMPLETION DECEMBER 2006 (EKO 1), MAY 2008 (EKO 2)

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SPRING ROLLS SUSSEX CENTRE, MISSISSAUGA, ONTARIO

CLIENT SPRING ROLLS CORP.

DESIGN TEAM BENNETT LO, RAUL DELGADO, JERICHO LEE, MARYA HWYN

MECHANICAL TRAN DIEU ASSOCIATES AND HIDI RAE CONSULTING ENGINEERS INC.

STRUCTURAL TRAN DIEU ASSOCIATES

CONTRACTOR CONT-TOP CONSTRUCTION

AREA 6,500 FT2 + 1,700 FT2 PATIO

COMPLETION DECEMBER 2007

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SPRING ROLLS SHEPPARD CENTRE, TORONTO, ONTARIO

CLIENT SPRING ROLLS CORP.

DESIGN TEAM BENNETT LO, RAUL DELGADO, JERICHO LEE, MARYA HWYN

MECHANICAL GEORGE CHAN AND THE MITCHELL PARTNERSHIP (TMP CONSULTING ENGINEERS)

ELECTRICAL GEORGE CHAN

CONTRACTOR CONT-TOP CONSTRUCTION

AREA 4,800 FT2

COMPLETION MARCH 2008

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