House rules

TEXT Nova Tayona
PHOTOS Breakhouse

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computers, once said, “Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”

Thanks to Apple’s most famous product, the iPod, we can now move through the day with our own personal soundtrack to accompany every moment. This kind of designed “experience” reaches more people than ever before, and can be attributed to the collaboration between business and design ideas. As a result, Apple’s competitors are now forced to rethink the look and feel of their own products. Perhaps more significantly, the iPod is an example of how the simple design of a media player has implications beyond itself, reaching into the social and cultural sphere, affecting how we interact and creating our individual and collective musical environment.

That design can have such an organic effect beyond its original intent is at the heart of cultural experience. At the city level, our everyday urban experience is a collection of moments–repetitive and fleeting–forming a representation of the world. Some of those moments are designed, while others are not. In the architectural profession, we are creators of spaces, places and things, and they all contribute to a layered expression of a larger whole. At the heart of it all, we ask: “What is that experience?”

This question is always the starting point for Glen McMinn and Peter Wuensch, co-founders of Breakhouse, a multidisciplinary design studio based in Halifax. Their work in the areas of branding, interior design and small-scale architecture recognizes the need for design as a necessary, integral tool for successful environments, from large or small businesses to urban communities. In Halifax, their work is part of a growing public design consciousness that has picked up steam over the last several years. Breakhouse’s studio is diverse. Comprised of people within the complementary fields of architecture, fine arts, graphic arts, and interior and industrial design, these varying backgrounds lend themselves well to a design approach that considers the small details of a logo on a menu to be as important as the restaurant itself.

It’s the belief that “design makes everything better” that inspires McMinn and Wuensch, who met in 1995 while working in the Halifax film industry. McMinn’s studies in architecture at Dalhousie University and Wuensch’s fine arts background from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design are certainly complementary, but it was their work as production designers and art directors in film that sowed the seeds of their partnership. To create a scene for the camera is to add layers of visual meaning to the script, reinforcing an emotional intent behind spoken and written words. This is what good design should do. And this is what McMinn and Wuensch did when they also began helping friends who owned small Halifax businesses to develop logos, signage and interiors. At a certain point, one of their friends in the communications industry identified the pair as branders. The statement “design makes everything better” describes the very core of all that they do, whether it’s designing and branding built environments or organizing public design talks. “It’s not a smiling happy face kind of better,” says McMinn, “but more about finding a complementary design solution that matters, because at the end of the day, designers are problem-solvers.”

This way of thinking was a key point in their lecture at the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario last fall. As part of their speaking engagement, McMinn and Wuensch coordinated a workshop between business students and visual arts students, asking them to design solutions to improve campus life. Bringing two different types of students together with an understanding that design can make an environment better reflects Breakhouse’s desire to encourage public design awareness and discussion. “It’s imperative that designers and business people get together,” notes McMinn. “Both are creative and critical thinkers so the marriage is very natural and frankly, very important to the future of our planet.”

The interconnectedness between design and business finds fertile testing ground in projects like Carbonstok, a new store on the retail fringes of downtown Halifax that Breakhouse co-owns with Uncommon Group, a company specializing in retail development. A kind of pilot project, it demonstrates that a sustainable design philosophy can be profitable, while promoting consumer awareness in a retail environment. Products are all sustainably sourced and well designed. A sign in the store says, “Our daily choices affect the world we live in. Design that thinks forward can make a positive difference.” In creating this new brand experience, Breakhouse designed everything from the interiors, graphics, packaging, website, millwork and business philosophy. Since opening last September, Carbonstok has seen solid sales in a part of the downtown that Haligonians typically associate with a popular blues bar and the train station.

Like Apple’s iPod, Breakhouse’s individual branding endeavours have grown beyond the firm itself and extend outwards to the city of Halifax. Breakhouse’s website reveals a list of well-known clients in Halifax and throughout the Maritimes. While their branding skills have undoubtedly contributed to a successful bid to design a new generation of Bell Canada stores, it’s the small projects like Carbonstok that have impacted not only the local businesses in Halifax, but the overall experience of the city.

Two examples come to mind: Fred and Jane. As I am a transplanted Haligonian who makes frequent visits back to my home city, these are not merely names to me but symbols of how thoughtful design and business can produce results that are obvious (i.e., financially successful) and unplanned (i.e., full of urban surprise). Whenever a new small business enters a neighbourhood, its survival is determined by how well it does financially, what kind of experience it adds to its surroundings, and if it appeals to those in the neighbourhood while also attracting people from beyond.

As a hair salon and caf, Fred occupies the building of a former bank, and its signage and crisp interiors have brought modernity to a street that was once home to a number of pawnshops and antique stores. Located at an intersection just beyond the Angus L. MacDonald Bridge that spans Halifax Harbour, Fred is a fresh face amongst a colourful but at times rundown collection of old houses leading up from the bridge.

Similarly, Jane’s on the Common occupies an edge condition in an area of Halifax better known for the city’s public sports fields. Its conception began with first-time restaurant owner Jane Wright, who turned to Breakhouse to create a physical environment reflecting her menu of gourmet comfort food. What they delivered was a memorable visual experience which, combined with her delicious culinary creations, has created a loyal following from neighbourhood locals and customers from across the city. According to Wuensch, Jane’s on the Common was a pivotal project for Breakhouse, gaining them more visibility as a branding design studio because of its immediate success “in a place where you don’t expect it.”

My own parents’ house is a three-minute walk around the corner from Jane’s. It’s a 10-minute walk across the flat green of the Commons to the shiny bustle of Spring Garden Road and the downtown. In my memory, the Halifax of my childhood had very clear urban boundaries divided along residential, recreational, commercial and institutional lines. It is still largely this way, but the Halifax of today is a sizeable regional municipality encompassing 380,000 people– including its outer reaches. I currently live and work in Toronto, but when I return home, each trip reveals surprises like Fred and Jane’s. For me, these additions to the city symbolize a Halifax that is changin
g, stretching and reaching past its old boundaries in what could otherwise be perceived as unplanned moments that extend one’s own memory’s map of the city. In Toronto, there are many places that occupy similarly marginal areas as the spaces that are changing Halifax: a new coffee shop sprouting up amongst dusty antique stores; an opening in a colourful brick wall where handmade ice cream is sold only during the summer. When you discover these moments, it’s a surprise. Suddenly, the city expands while becoming more intimate.

In addition to their branding endeavours, Breakhouse are active participants and hosts of design-related public discussions ranging from the formal to the informal. They have participated as members of the Halifax Regional Municipality Design Panel and have created Poodle Club, a branch of Breakhouse that provides Halifax with a relaxed forum for public discussion about community and design. This winter, Poodle Club hosted Halifax’s first Pecha Kucha night, a popular event that has 150 chapters worldwide. It was founded by the Tokyo-based firm of western architects Klein Dytham Architecture as a means for sharing and cross-pollinating ideas, and has grown into an international series of informal talks about design and creative endeavours. Despite the fact that Halifax’s first Pecha Kucha launched during a snowstorm, the event was packed. “We figured whoever would show up really wanted to be there,” remembers McMinn. “It’s an amazing low-tech way of being connected to the world–on our first night, Lima, Peru was also having its first night, while Tokyo was having its 50th.”

What does design sound like, feel like, taste like, look like? In these uncertain times, it’s easy to think of this question as a luxury that could easily be crossed off a business plan checklist, but a business can’t survive without establishing a memorable visual identity–its brand experience. Companies that are trying to ride out the recession must rethink what it is they have to offer, and what makes them unique. With this in mind, Wuensch is particularly pleased with where the last 10-plus years have taken Breakhouse, and feels empowered each time they sit at the table with CEOs of large corporations. “Because of our growing body of work in branding, we’re more confident and able to offer design advice that makes good business sense.” When we extend this notion to the urban form of the city, major capitals like London and Bogot tell us that a city interested in the benefits of design–be it at the individual scale or the urban planning and infrastructure scale–is a multi- layered city that is economically viable and ultimately, liveable.

What has Breakhouse brought to the city of Halifax? As a multidisciplinary studio, they are, in a sense, like art directors, creating an experience within a framework of business environments–possibly a hair salon, a restaurant, or a retail store. These designed mini-worlds have a place within the larger experience of the city of Halifax. The design of each element from small to large, from logos and menus to interior and exterior spaces, have an expanding effect that reaches beyond each individual project. As Wuensch says, they are not making big moves, but perhaps are helping to effect change “1,000 to 2,000 square feet at a time.” CA

Nova Tayona is an intern architect working at Ian MacDonald Architect Inc. in Toronto.