Last summer (August 2017) saw the opening of a newly-renovated and expanded Broadview Hotel, situated on the North-west corner of Queen Street East and Broadview Avenue in Toronto’s east end. At that time, I stopped in for a visit and was prompted to write a series of posts about the design of the café interior by DesignAgency. In honour of DesignAgency’s 20th Anniversary this summer (August 2018), here are those posts edited and stitched together into one essay.
Overview: A Street-side Café for the Broadview Hotel
A much-anticipated event in the Toronto design community, the recent opening of the new Broadview Hotel (August 2017) involved many local and international creative collaborations and features interiors by Design Agency. How could I stay away?
As I sipped my coffee in the main floor café on a sunny Sunday morning, I marveled at how the design team had crafted such a pleasing interior in this historic building. Historic buildings often come with real or perceived limitations, and some design teams are better than others when responding to existing architectural conditions. In this case, the exterior of the four-storey Romanesque Revival style building carries strong stylistic cues. Originally built (in 1891) when architectural beauty was largely evaluated in terms of the quality and content of its decorative ornament, the building is admired for its “wide arches and rusticated stonework on the ground floor, rows of rounded arch and square-head window openings, and decorative terra cotta panels.” (Heritage Toronto historic plaque, 2015)
Inside the new café, the chief architectural elements are tall stove pipe black columns suggestive of chimney stacks with dentil detailing scaled to the red brickwork outside. These columns support a ceiling grid of black beams and white decorated coffers. Large, stylistically neutral plate glass windows provide views of the surrounding neighbourhood. The interior is presented as an historic architectural piece that is clarified chiefly by the introduction of distinct furniture groupings.
Furniture plays a key role in the success of this interior. This isn’t surprising, considering the Revival-era context of its ornamented architectural shell. Where furniture is built-in, it strives to look stand-alone and preserve is own identity. Diverse seating and table styles suggest an amalgam of the room’s historical past. (Graphic murals energetically illustrate this past in the adjacent, not-to-be missed stairwell.) The capacity for furniture types and arrangements to carry meaning is exploited to the fullest; we recognize and take comfort in figures that function as spatial cues. Even though the café is not a large interior landscape, it presents a stimulating variety of interior spatial zones. These zones can be defined by their furniture: the circular stacked bar; the wingback entrance lounge; the womb-chair in wood salon; the café chair dining range; the harvest table multi-use space, and the service bench.
Feature: The Circular Stacked Bar
At first glance, the key feature of this room is the bar. Centered in the rectangular floor plan and emphasized by a bloom of hexagonal porcelain floor tiles set amongst end grain wood blocks, the Café’s bespoke bar is a recognizable type of table and stool combination. It features a large circular serving surface detailed in milled wood and marble. The polished metal and glass shelves stacked above follow the table’s curve and make a tall decorative feature of the bartender’s spirits and tonics. Lush indoor plants cap the vertical; this is not an architectural room within a room. Patrons can pull up a padded stool to the counter’s full cabinet front, rest their foot on the brass rail, and feel welcomed. It is clearly visible from the street as a beacon and from the hotel lobby as a destination. It stands when others sit and is a landmark anchoring the room’s organization.
Each of the Café’s interior zones revolve around this circular feature: lounge and salon areas mark our approach to the bar; the long axis of the dining range hugs the bar’s swelling perimeter; the multi-use back dining area terminates our path around the bar. Design features in the bar’s composition further emphasize its spatial function. There is a marble serving cube inserted into the front segment of bar’s wood cabinet that does away with seats and shelves and reverses spatial focus back to the adjacent mirrored waiting zone. The bar’s seats and shelves are made available just as our passage deeper into the interior might get stalled, and we are lead further around the bar’s curve. This circulation path then loops back to pass the strangely public service bench and kitchen link. At the end of our promenade we either find the glorious stairway to the restrooms or exit back to the lobby.
The circular stacked bar is a landmark furniture piece in the room’s overall design that also activates a sense of place. As evidenced by re-run TV shows and movies, the bar stool and service counter unit is a surprisingly intimate shared space that can become a symbol of community. More than the precise and quantifiable qualities of a designed space, a sense of place is something supplementary and ineffable that involves memory, contingent experience, and personal context. Furniture, with its recognizable lexicon of ancient types to which are added contemporary details, can support the experience of interior place. It appears that the designers and custom fabricators who worked on this project were careful to balance forms, details and materials keeping these considerations in mind.
Entrance: The Wingback Lounge and Scandinavian Salon
We expect every interior to have an entrance, a marker of movement from one bounded space to another through a recognizable gap. Good entrances create anticipation by holding back a little in the transition. While at first glance it might appear that the clear sightlines connecting the dark and glamorous Broadview Hotel Lobby through a wide opening into the light-filled Café manage to avoid this spatial signal, but this is not the case. Two carefully positioned seating areas at the entrance elicit a moment of pause in the architectural promenade. How do they do this? By grouping recognizable lounge seating types around dark, low tables in close conversation with trim, tuxedo-style sofas tucked securely against feature walls. In these compositions, the bucket seats of substantial arm chairs stay the surge of circulation into the cafe, appearing as hosts to be greeted or invitations demanding response. It’s striking!
First we meet the stately Wingback nestled with its party against a heritage brick window wall. This chair type has a long history that has been continually re-thought by designers ever since the 18th century in England. As a form, it has the benefits of a high back and side wings that permit an informal, relaxed sitting position. This version combines refined, modern lines and nostalgic brass tack detailing. The Wingback chairs cluster around a low table on wheels suggesting industrial heritage. It’s perfect for sipping coffee and reading the financial pages.
Next we meet the svelte Scandinavian modern Lounger facing a glamorous panelled mirror backdrop and two casement sofas upholstered in large-scale, pixelated floral print. The moss green tweed Loungers have sculpted armrests and an integral wood frame in the style of Folke Ohlsson’s famous mid-century chair for DUX. This mid-century reference recalls the elegance of early international travel, cocktail hours in case study houses, and North America’s sometimes hesitant embrace of European modernism. As an interesting counterpoint, at the center of the gathering are perfectly-crafted wooden stools and benches. I recognized the benches as Toronto’s own Coolican & Company’s small-bath, locally-made Adelaide bench in blackened oak. Lively convos over signature cocktails anyone?
Stately and svelte are clues to two different historical moments in furniture design history, each rich in potential to connect creatively with current users. These divergent historical references also lead us back to the storied historic past of this heritage building. I’m glad that the designers at The Design Agency have taken a composite approach to the furniture choices for these threshold spaces. With the strong draw of the windowed view just beyond, it is important that the entrance sitting zone receives due design attention in order to capture our eye and imagination.
Main Event: The Dining Range
Beyond the Entrance and the Bar are two seating options – the café chair dining range and the harvest table multi-use space – that, together, achieve a balance of functional and symbolic design objectives.
Dining areas of The Broadview Hotel Café are dominated by large windows that fill the tall interior with light and views of the surrounding street life. In contrast, the furniture groupings supporting the room’s main function are deliberately understated. A long cream banquette offers seating along the room’s sunny, windowed eastern perimeter. Detailed as leggy furniture interrupted at regular intervals by stove-pipe black columns, this built-in seating does not immediately read as a static feature. A series of marble-topped café tables with black iron pedestal bases are pulled up alongside it. Bentwood café chairs complete the informal dining group. Just beyond, as floor space opens up behind the landmark bar, the dining furniture is released from the perimeter walls. Symptomatic of an open public room, the large plain rectangular harvest tables and farmhouse-style chairs invite reconfiguration as the occasion allows. This is lightweight, unceremonious furniture that tends to fill the background rather than become the main event.
Despite this supporting backdrop role, well-considered furniture can become expressive and support rich interior experience. All of these furniture pieces, for instance, are examples of recognisable design types that signal a shared pre-modern built heritage. Harvest tables with their turned legs and undecorated tops were familiar in rural Southwestern Ontario as affordable, durable pieces that could be made by local carpenters using local hardwood. The farmhouse-style chair is a similarly democratic, anonymous design that existed in large numbers. The bentwood café chairs used here are stamped with the brand name “TON” that provides a virtually unbroken link with Michel Thonet and his classic Café chair No. 14. Thonet founded his bentwood furniture company as early as 1849 in Vienna. By 1867 he debuted the famous Chair No. 14 at the Paris World’s Fair and won a gold medal that ensured publicity. Thonet went on to improve and standardize his steam bending process. He expanded distribution by using a flat-pack method for shipping partially-assembled chairs to customers far away. Although he had patented these design innovations, the great success of Chair No. 14 attracted many competitors and in no time bentwood chairs were being used in countless dining spaces around the western world. This type became synonymous with late 19th century urban café culture. Contemporary patrons – cued to an historical awareness by the renovated building – are sure to recognize and bring meaning to these types.
During the early years in Toronto’s history that saw the building of Dingman’s Hall – later the Broadview Hotel – furniture pieces such as the harvest table, the farmhouse chair, and bentwood café chair marked a time of increasing industrialization. It was also a time when the urban public house started to become what Ray Oldenburg has called a ‘third’ place that is neither fully public (the office) nor fully private (the home). The characteristics of a third place include an accessible welcoming and comfortable place where people congregate at will and have no obligation to stay. With lightweight chairs and moveable tables, it is easy to welcome an unexpected guest to your party – and perhaps even an unforeseen idea to your party line.
To wrap up this serialized essay about how furniture functions as a key design element in DesignAgency’s interiors for The Broadveiw Hotel Café, we were able to ask Matt Davis – Founding Partner at DesginAgency – a few questions about the project.
Whitestudiolo [Karen White] – I think that the interiors at The Broadview Hotel are really successful. Congratulations! I’m currently writing about the Café interior with a special focus on how furniture functions as a key design element. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my questions.
Overall, one of the things that impresses me about this project is your support for and collaboration with local designers, makers, and artists. In terms of furniture, I noticed that you used Toronto-based Coolican & Company’s Adelaide bench in blackened oak for one of the Café’s two threshold waiting areas. Are there any other examples of furniture that was locally-sourced or that features local creative collaboration?
DesignAgency [Matt Davis] – Yes, we love collaborating with local artists to produce original pieces. In addition to the ones that you’ve mentioned, we worked with local lighting designer Anony on the installation of their Plumb Pendant prototype in the reception. Also, we worked with American artist Erik L. Peterson on the concept for the neon light. Also this fixture’s fabricator was local and the grandson of the person who made the original New Broadview Hotel sign.
In addition to collaborating with artists, we also try as much as possible to work with local fabricators and suppliers including Viso who was responsible for manufacturing several of our light fixtures, and Quince Flowers and Beech Nursery who created the floral arrangements and the potted plants. Rollout designed the custom wallpaper in the cafe — which was inspired by vintage wallpaper that we discovered during the interior demolition.
In addition to all these collaborations, DesignAgency also custom designed several custom pieces for the hotel including the reception bench, several light fixtures, and the headboards.
Whitestudiolo – I enjoyed your specification of the TON café chair No. 14 and marble-topped café tables as a memory cue for 19th century European café heritage. Can you tell me more about how you see furniture working at an idea level in this project?
DesignAgency – The building’s historic architecture and its varied uses over time inspired us with the opportunity to explore and reference its various phases and styles. We imagine the cafe capturing some of these early European influences and embracing a bit of a classic cafe style, ornate moldings on the ceiling and replicating the original wallpaper…and then we gave this space a few twists by adding industrial columns, the brass shelving cantilevered off of brass poles and the suggestive neon light sculpture.
Whitestudiolo – At the back of the café there is a large area that combines harvest tables, white farmhouse chairs and two-tone dining armchairs. This seems like a deliberate contrast to the European café scenario evoked in the adjacent zone. Can you tell me more about this contrast?
DesignAgency – We really wanted to make this space feel lived in and layered, not frozen in one style, time or place. That’s why we’ve mixed in harvest tables and two-tone spindle chairs and the lounge area is intentionally placed to help reinforce the eclectic layered and built up over time narrative.
Whitestudiolo – Do you have any further comments about how furniture design factored into your process for this interior?
DesignAgency – We have included some very deliberate yet subtle conversation pieces into the mix of furniture such as the 1950’s print lounge sofa in the cafe, and the floral print dining chairs surrounding ostrich print table tops that you’ll see in The Civic. Our Sling Bench in the reception, wing back headboards, floral print slipper chair (that perfectly matches the wallpaper), and our mid-century clam shell bar chairs are just a few of the pieces mixed and matched to create a rather curated and amusing narrative.
Whitestudiolo – The brass and leather bench in the Hotel lobby is fantastic! Could you tell me more about its design?
DesignAgency – The Sling Bench started as a sketch which I crafted when stuck trying to source the perfect piece to define the hotel lobby. I wanted something that felt in part vintage and familiar yet also new and relevant. I came up with its form thinking of a bench that could be crafted from a minimal palette (brass, leather and marble) with a very simple frame.
Whitestudiolo – I understand that DesignAgency is also working on the main floor restaurant, The Civic, due to open this fall. Could you tell me a bit about how furniture for that project ties in with the theme?
DesignAgency – This space will have more of a classic tavern feel with darker tones and richer colours. The furniture will have a bit more weight texture, suggesting a longer, more involved, and multi course dining experience.
Whitestudiolo – Thanks very much!