A yellow-hued lounge
A lounge at the DA-refurbished Generator London, once a police station. Photography by Nikolas Koenig.

What Keeps Hospitality Spaces Hot? Ask DesignAgency Founders

From the day of DesignAgency’s inception 25 years ago, hospitality has been baked into the Toronto-based firm’s DNA or, at least, that of its three founders, Allen Chan, Matt Davis, and Anwar Mekhayech. Friends and all, at the time, recent graduates—the first two in landscape design from the University of Toronto, the third in engineering from the University of Western Ontario—the trio joined forces to work on a project of Mekhayech’s devising. The son of a successful restaurateur, he hoped to open his own place someday. So he enlisted Chan and Davis for a competition to design and run a student bistro in U of T’s Grad House, a new building by Morphosis Architects. They won, and sPaHa, an unpretentious yet attention-grabbing restaurant, bar, and lounge was born—and the fledgling firm along with it.

It was an auspicious time to launch a hospitality-focused multidisciplinary practice—interior design, architectural conceptualization, strategic branding, and visual communications are all on the buffet—as the boutique-hotel movement expanded. Toronto was no hospitality-design desert—hello, Yabu Pushelberg—but DA brought a fresh, youthful energy to the scene, culminating with the 2012 introduction of two international boldface brand names, Momofuku restaurant and the Soho House members’ club, to the city. The firm established its own international reputation as creative directors for Generator Hostels, a European chain that, as Mekhayech says, “was a mix of boutique hotel and budget hostel that launched a segment in the market, from both a design and a travel point of view.” That long-term relationship led DA to open an office in Barcelona, Spain, which has since been joined by studios in Los Angeles and Washington. A dazzling spectrum of clients, from Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis to NeueHouse and Motto by Hilton, has kept the hospitality quotient of the founders’ business elevated. We talked to them about some of the highlights.

A hotel bedroom with sage green walls and bold red accents
One of three bedrooms in the Artist Loft, an apartment annex at Toronto’s Drake Hotel, conceived by DesignAgency as lodging for performers appearing in the property’s entertainment venues. Photography by Adrien Williams.

DesignAgency Cofounders Share Career Highlights and Industry Insights

DA’s founding partners—from left, Matt Davis, Allen Chan, and Anwar Mekhayech—in the multinational firm’s Toronto headquarters.
DA’s founding partners—from left, Matt Davis, Allen Chan, and Anwar Mekhayech—in the multinational firm’s Toronto headquarters. Photography by Rebecca Wood.

INTERIOR DESIGN: DesignAgency started 25 years ago with the sPaHa student bistro. How did the hospitality practice evolve from there?

Matt Davis: It was a long road to get to the hotels. We did a lot of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and entertainment-based venues, slowly building up to bigger, more notable projects. The next step was into multiunit residential—larger buildings with amenity spaces. About a decade in, we started getting our first hotel breaks, lobbies first, then guest rooms.

Allen Chan: When we launched, food and beverage was where hospitality design was at; it wasn’t such a huge thing for hotels. That began to change as the boutique hotels came online and lifestyle magazines started focusing on them.

ID: Is that when you began working with Generator, the European hostel brand?

MD: Yes, it gave us a chance to rethink everything about what hospitality was in the new market space, looking at it as a millennial brand, asking how people are traveling today, what the experience is, how to activate lobbies and food-and-beverage areas, so guest rooms are more like crash pads where you don’t spend too much time because you’re out in the lobby and those other spaces. Working as Generator’s creative directors in nine countries across Europe helped leverage us into the hotel world because the industry saw what we could achieve with a budget in a sector that hadn’t been design focused.

A hotel sweet with bold hues and contemporary wall art
The terrace suite atop the modern wing, a five-story addition to the Drake by Diamond Schmitt Architects with interiors by DA. Photography by Brandon Barré.

ID: During your second decade, you helped bring Momofuku and Soho House to Toronto, but you also got your first ground-up lifestyle hotel project. Tell us about it.

AC: That was the Dalmar, a 209-room, 25-story property that opened in 2019 in Fort Lauderdale, not on the beach but downtown, so it has a modern urban arts-district vibe along with the classic indoor-outdoor style of a Floridian resort. It was exciting to be able to look at the master plan and do all the programming—where to put a restaurant, a coffee shop, and so on. We worked with the architect, Sol-Arch, on the skin of the building, too, as well as doing all the creative services, really getting into the property’s entire branding portion—how to tell its story, how to weave it into the interior design. It was a passion project that took almost five years.

ID: A more recent ground-up project is the Drake Hotel. What was DA’s role there?

Anwar Mekhayech: Drake is a hospitality group centered in Toronto, where it opened its first boutique hotel around 2004. The group came to us about five years ago to work with local architect Diamond Schmitt on adding a five-story modern wing that would provide 32 more guest rooms and a penthouse suite, a new lobby experience, and a jewel-box bar that sits right on Queen Street West. It was more of a maximalist project, layered and strong on arts programming because Drake has an exceptional curator. It opened in 2022, a very successful project, I think, from a creative point of view and also for the city.

A bright and airy coworking space with wood furnishings
Social areas and workspaces at NeueHouse Venice Beach, the private club’s third Los Angeles location, all by DA. Photography by Yoshihiro Makino.

ID: How about your collaboration with the NeueHouse chainlet of private workspace and social clubs?

AM: That’s been a great relationship for the past five years, where merging hospitality, culture, and shared working environments was a mantra. We designed the rooftop restaurant at the Hollywood location, then transformed the 11th floor of the New York flagship, by Rockwell Group, into a premium workspace, followed by the build out of another L.A. location in the famous Bradbury Building downtown. Also in L.A., we recently finished the Venice Beach club house, which has a strong art program. Over the past 25 years, working and curating with gallerists and artists has really ramped up for us and will continue to be a strong component of our projects.

ID: You’ve also dipped a toe into an emerging luxury-retreat category that offers psilocybin and other induced experiences.

MD: We worked on a startup, Dimensions Algonquin Highlands, a 40-acre, 15-cabin property in Ontario where guests can go on a curated psychedelic-assisted spiritual journey—all within the Canadian legal framework, of course! New therapies and technologies are leading influences on luxury wellness design, and psychedelics are definitely one of the trends.

A cabin at Dimensions Algonquin Highlands with wood walls and a white bed
A cabin at Dimensions Algonquin Highlands, a wellness retreat in rural Ontario offering legal psychedelic-assisted experiences. Photography by Kayla Rocca.
The exterior of the cabin in fall with changing leaves
The exterior of the cabin, one of 15 on the 40-acre lakeside property. Photography courtesy of Dimensions.
Business cards for the Dalmar in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Business cards for the Dalmar in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Photography by Bob Gundu.
Black coasters with sleek branding
Branding on coasters at Moonraker, a roof­top restaurant at the Pendry Washington DC–The Wharf. Photography courtesy of DesignAgency.
The exterior of a hostel with a bright green doorway
Generator Copenhagen, a transformed six-story Philippe Starck–designed apartment building and DA’s third project for the European hostel chain. Photography by Nikolas Koenig.
A teal tote bag with pink circles with project logo
Botanically inspired branding for Flora Flora, another restaurant at the Pendry. Photography courtesy of DesignAgency.
A pool terrace in a hotel
The pool terrace at the 209-room property, DA’s first ground-up lifestyle hotel. Photography by Bob Gundu.
A woman with a light gray tote with the logo
A tote bearing the project’s logo. Photography courtesy of DesignAgency.
The exterior of a Toronto office
Radiator, a Toronto office and retail development in a former factory. Photography by Nikolas Koenig.
A yellow-hued lounge
A lounge at the DA-refurbished Generator London, once a police station. Photography by Nikolas Koenig.
The skylit gallery and event space at Generator Berlin Mitte
The skylit gallery and event space at Generator Berlin Mitte, housed in two converted 19th-century office buildings. Photography by Nikolas Koenig.

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