ONE HOUR WITH JOHN TONG

Posted by Stevie Holyoke, February 05, 2016
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The concept of evolutionary design and the recently completed Drake Devonshire project were the main topics of discussion during my one-on-one sit down with the affable John Tong. As the founding principal of the multidisciplinary firm, +tongtong, John has a refreshing approach to taking on projects that aim to embrace community culture. As the Drake Hotel’s rural cousin, the Drake Devonshire’s Prince Edward County location made for an interesting challenge in allowing the local vernacular to inspire the design. +tongtong was not only up for the challenge, but far surpassed expectations for this award-winning design.

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Although his background is in architecture, John Tong asserts that “design is the world around us-architecture is only part of it.” Taking cue from the Bauhaus philosophy for design, +tongtong fosters the exploration of many disciplines as a part of their process. From furniture, lighting, art, installations, to interiors and architecture, +tongtong values the concept of living the full spectrum of design. Tong does not see himself as an autocrat of design- he believes that his projects should have the opportunity to grow and change to fit the user’s needs, and that every project is a reflection of the client, the community, and the culture in which it serves. +tongtong does not prescribe to a certain style, but rather lets the client’s DNA define what the aesthetic will be. Understanding the user’s brand is at the core of +tongtong’s project development. Whether it is in the context of a neighbourhood, or a community of like-minded people, the concept of being actively engaged with the community is what helps influence the project, and vice versa. This approach allows +tongtong to take on a multitude of exciting projects while stocking their portfolio full of a broad range of aesthetics.

John Tong’s connection to The Drake Hotel owner Jeff Stober began when Stober asked Tong to design his house. The two bonded over buying trips to New York and LA and spent many an evening talking shop in the lounges of boutique hotels. At the request of Stober, Tong would critique the design of these boutique hotels, noting their existence as “modernist spaceships that landed in the middle of a neighbourhood and had nothing to do with their surroundings”. Stober’s response to this critique was to create a model for a hotel as a “lifestyle destination”. A place that could reflect the cultural fabric of Toronto and would house everything from food to art classes. After settling on the location of Parkdale, Stober and Tong knew that whatever the project was to be, it needed to be influenced by the creative community living there. The most important part of this project would be that upon entering the door, the user would have the immediate feeling of being plugged into the creative energy of the neighbourhood. +tongtong’s concept for setting this project in motion was to leave room in the design process for evolution and change, to allow for rules to be set- and then, subsequently- broken. Since neither Tong nor Stober had tackled a hotel before, they felt they had the freedom to explore what felt right, and to work and learn together. The hotel had to feel as though it could grow, and had the potential to evolve and change as the neighbourhood did. Tong’s intention was to leave some strings untied, so that the future occupants had the chance to influence the space.

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10 years later, +tongtong jumped at the idea of being involved in another Drake project, as they had felt so much a part of the original branding and identity of the timeless hotel. The Drake Devonshire Inn project offered Tong and Stober the opportunity to revisit the original model and really test it, this time, in a rural setting. This project offered a new investigation into what made the Drake unique, and how far they could push the envelope while staying true to the brand identity. Elements that needed to be passed on from the original Drake to the Devonshire was “the sense of playfulness, the delightfulness of colour, the juxtaposition of new and old, custom and classic”. Upon first visiting the location, Tong observed the original site as being a series of buildings which had been added onto the property as the need required, a fairly typical condition for rural properties. Tong knew that if this new build was to be consistent with the neighbourhood, it also had to have the feeling of being a series of buildings. Since most of the original architectural elements of the building weren’t salvageable +tongtong rearticulated the use of masonry, an authentic nod to the past aesthetic.

Once the condition of the site had been established, it was all about articulating the interior, and what sort of feeling the architecture of the space could evoke. Tong decided that each of the programmed spaces were to have their own unique feel. The kitchen, for example, gets its idiosyncrasy from the brick structure both inside and outside. The dining room, with its wooden beams, evokes the feeling of being inside a ship. The screened-in pavilion is reminiscent of cottage porches, and features slatted siding so that a specific lighting quality could be achieved while inside this space. It was important for Tong that the three roofs remain separate, and that the composition would be anchored by the full height chimney. Inspired by his times spent at summer camps and cottages, the chimney becomes iconic in the sense that it acts as a hearth for the entire space. Whether or not it is lit, the user feels its presence.

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The perception of unique spaces within the Devonshire is also achieved through the adventurous use of materiality. Wallpaper, for example is applied differently in separate parts of the building floor-to-floor to molding in the old part, and set in bands with other types of wallpaper in the new, leaving room for interpretation based on its application. The sense of exploration and play is reflected in the flooring choices as well, particularly at the main entrance. Bright and colourful tiles contrast each other and the wooden flooring, encouraging a fun yet restrained relationship. Tong attributes this bold move to his years of renovating houses and uncovering layers of flooring. He wanted to reimagine this discovery and sense of progression through time by bringing three types of tile together that seemingly have nothing to do with one another. Taking inspiration from the Italian’s effortless ability to marry traditional with contemporary, Tong is able to pull off the ad-hoc look, in a considered and sophisticated manner. Tong reflects back to the original Drake, when they stripped the flooring in the lobby, there was a line in the flooring where the original reception desk had been. Instead of changing the whole floor, they simply filled it in with cement, so that when polished, you can see this shadow of a former condition. This, Tong feels, is what gives a space a sense of mystery, of interest, of timelessness. Like a final squeeze of lemon on a plate of food, hits of colour in contrast with more naturally toned materials and clean lines are what Tong feels gives life to the Drake Devonshire project.

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The Drake Devonshire’s proximity to water becomes a focal point to the entire project. Floor- to-ceiling windows provide powerful vistas to the captivating view. Because the site is located on a flood plane, there was a limitation of how close to the water they could build, in order to protect the fish life. In response to this limitation, +tongtong designed the dining room to cantilever over the water, reiterating the feeling of being a ship on the water and giving users an intimate interaction with the view. The bleachers, which cascade down to the waterfront, were a point of constant evolution throughout the project, with the final achievement being that they truly evoke a space and that serves to connect the building to the natural landscape. Instead of simply being a set of stairs, they act as a space where people can spend time. The architectural conditions of the Drake Devonshire, combined with custom furniture design by +tongtong, allows for every guest room to be unique by nature, each representing its own character and personality. The transient nature of a hotel room is encapsulated by what Tong describes as playful industrial punk style furniture. Every furniture element you would expect to be in a hotel room is present, however the lack of drawers and high gloss piano finish give users a sense of whimsy and surprise. Collaboration was key to the finishing of this project, and so +tongtong sought council from stylist Caro Colacci and cultural programmer Mia Nelson. These two were able to use their keen eye and artistic sensibility to outfit the Devonshire with an eclectic mix of vintage furniture and carefully commissioned artwork. Tong names Jeff Stober as the “ultimate collaborator” and attributes his hands-on approach and penchant for travel as a major source of inspiration.

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Although the complex programming of the Drake Devonshire meant challenges for +tongtong, the success of the project was achieved through creating a real space where people can engage and feel a part of the community. For Tong, the true success of the space is attributed to the embrace of the local residents. Knowing that even without travellers, a buzz about the Devonshire has been created by the residents who work and play there. Even though at the beginning, an air of suspicion around the arrival of these “hipsters from the city” surrounded the project, the engagement of local wineries and food producers on the part of the Drake quickly put this rumour to rest. Tong believes the Drake identity serves as a mediator between locals and travellers, a meeting place for people of all backgrounds. The knowledge that both parties are fulfilled by this experience is what crates a symbiotic relationship for the Drake Devonshire.

The Drake Devonshire has merited many awards, a prospect that Tong uses not as validation, but as motivation to push the boundaries further with his next project. What drives +tongtong is the potential for crossing a line that has not yet been crossed, an exploration into new and exciting territory. What’s next for +tongtong? We will wait with bated breath to see.

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Stevie Holyoke is a little fish from the East Coast, making her way in this big pond of a city. She is a fourth year Interior Design student at Ryerson University with a background in Sociology + Textile Design. When she's not working, she's usually found soaking up the music, arts, culture + (hidden) nature scene of Toronto.

Posted in: Drake Devonshire