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Meet the Minds Behind Restaurant Design - David Nicolay and Robert Edmonds

Jul 31, 2013

By Alia Akkam

Longtime partners David Nicolay and Robert Edmonds, the men behind Vancouver firm Evoke International Design, have crafted interiors for local restaurants like Bel Café at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, Heirloom Vegetarian Restaurant, and Commune Café. The entrepreneurs are also behind five stylish eateries. Here they talk collaboration, sustainability, and a reverence for Le Corbusier.

Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?

DN: I always enjoyed both the arts and science, so architecture school was a great match. After school I realized design was way more fun.

RE: It was survival of the fittest for my subjects at school, with the last two standing being art and English. So a career combining words and images was a natural.                                                                                        David Nicolay

What are some of your first memories of design?                                                   

DN: I grew up in a great 1970s West Coast modern-style house. I must have drawn it fifty times.

RE: As a child, I was fascinated by the graphics of wine labels and would soak them off the bottles my parents had at dinner, collecting them in a scrapbook. The mornings after a dinner party were a gold mine.

How did you end up where you are today?

DN: After graduation I decided to start my own design business, forgoing a formal architecture path. Along the way I met Rob and we merged our two companies in 2000.                                                                                     
                      Robert Edmonds

RE: Having worked in design studios in Melbourne, Australia, and London, I settled in Vancouver in the early nineties and started my own studio. After several years of project collaboration with David, we decided to merge our companies to form Evoke.

Do you have a greatest lesson learned?

DN: In the beginning, no job is too small. Truthfully, we still try to stay engaged with small start-ups. You never know who's going to be a huge success down the road.

RE: Ditto.

What inspired you to start your company?

DN: After architecture school, I had a real desire to start designing my own projects, on my own schedule. This allowed me to go after the kind of work I was really interested in.

RE: The recession of the early nineties. After a year stint back in Australia working as an art director at FCB-Melbourne, I returned to Vancouver to find that agencies were no longer hiring. So I opened my own studio, forcing me to become business as well as creatively minded.

Tell us about your office culture and design process.

DN: Evoke operates as a design studio, in that we all work together in open spaces. All designers are given a voice to contribute to the design of a project, from start to finish. We like to keep the size of our office down to no more than ten so that Rob and I can be properly involved in all the work.

Why hospitality?

DN: We've always had an interest in travel, and hotels and restaurants are a big part of being away. Restaurants specifically grabbed us in the early days of Evoke, and in fact it's what led Rob and I to open our own restaurant in 1999. Since then we have four more of our own, and are currently building a brewery.

RE: Hospitality is the most fluent and natural way of combining our design disciplines of spatial and interior design, along with graphic branding and art.

How do you think being in Canada influences your approach?

DN: While we do travel a lot and appreciate an international style, we believe in the power of local design and specifications. Vancouver is very rainy and gray for a lot of the year, so maximum daylight and punches of color are really important. We recently opened an office in Toronto, so we'll see what that brings.

What are some of the challenges of the industry today?

DN: We are moving more and more into focusing on sustainable design for the hospitality industry. It has long been deemed too expensive, but we just did two restaurants in Vancouver that were heavily driven by green decisions. Forage was built around local materials and energy-efficient lighting, while Heirloom was more of a reclamation approach.


How do you first tackle a project? What do you look for?

DN: For us, the early stages are all about the client and their objectives and goals. We really see design as a collaboration, and the client needs to be an essential part of this. Our most successful projects are the ones where the client was an active participant in the design and construction process.

RE: Storylines are important to us—whether that be the history of the neighborhood or building, the passions of the chef, or the style of the food. We look to weave the personal into our designs. 


What’s a recent project that was most challenging and why?

DN: We recently were the designers for Pixar Canada's head offices. While not a hospitality project per se, there are many lounge, bar, and dining areas within the space, and based on our hospitality experience we were really able to bring some creative ideas to these areas. The challenging part was that the 30,000-square-foot space had to be designed and built in about sixteen months. It also had to be phased as the client was already occupying the space.

What’s one project that you are most proud of and why?

DN: I am really proud of one of our own restaurants called the Union. It's a Southeast Asian bar and restaurant on the edge of Chinatown in Vancouver. The area is emerging, and the local community has really supported it well. We're also really happy with Heirloom, as it was a pretty incredible transformation of a space that had housed the same restaurant for almost sixty years, on a very tight budget.

                                                                           Union Restaurant

RE: Commune Café in Vancouver. Commune incorporates bold graphics with Scandinavian-inspired interiors. Evoke was involved with every aspect of this project, from spatial flow, interior design, and custom furniture to naming, branding, and interior and exterior murals.

                                                                            Commune Café

What are some projects you are currently working on? What’s next for you?

DN: We are currently working on a country western-themed nightclub, a rapidly expanding chain of Asian restaurants called Noodlebox, and our own brewery called Main Street Brewing Company. Next up is our expansion into the Toronto market.

Summer is also a busy time as we continue our twelve-year association with Live Nation, creating graphics to promote outdoor concert series and festivals.

Most creative solution for a cool design feature you have recently come up with?

DN: I like the back bar for Heirloom. It's built of a variety of reclaimed windows and cabinets, which were left with the original finishes intact. This detail met both a budgetary concern as well as the sustainable design approach.

RE: The kitchen at the Union is built from reclaimed barn board and stenciled with the lyrics to Crosstown Traffic, referencing the young Jimi Hendrix who would spend his summer holidays next door with his grandmother. The lyrics have been broken apart and reassembled to represent the fracturing of the neighborhood caused by the adjacent Georgia Street viaduct—which cut directly through Vancouver’s black community—in order to flow traffic 'cross town into the city.

What would be your dream project?

DN: Definitely a design-focused hotel.

RE: A boutique hotel.

                                                                             Electric Owl Social Club

What’s the key to a successful collaboration between designer and client?

DN: Our business approach is to carefully select the type of work we believe to be best suited to our modern aesthetic, values, and creative process, and to align ourselves with clients who share the desire to create innovative and original projects. We approach design from a collaborative point of view, rather than from a position of simply applying a final aesthetic to the work of the other consultants. We see client involvement as critical to the success of a project and operate under the assumption that the client wants to be an active participant in the design and construction of the project. Collaboration and open communication is of paramount importance because we share the same goal as the client: to arrive at a successful and cost-effective project that meets or exceeds expectations.

What’s the most important thing to remember when designing a hospitality space?

DN: Stay focused on the overall theme and concept. We like to meet with all critical members of the team so that we can always stay on message.
Greatest accomplishment so far?

DN: In general, growing our company to what it is today. Our growth in the past thirteen years has been based on our understanding that we are providing a service, and the needs of the client are always put first.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?

DN: If it were remotely possible, a professional hockey player.

RE: A musician.

                                                                                 Bimini Public House

If you could have supper with anyone living or dead, who would it be? Tell us about them.

DN: Le Corbusier, greatest architect of all time.

RE: The Australian artist Jeffrey Smart, who recently passed away. He combined architecture, graphics, and color into work that spoke uniquely of the relationship of humans to the built environment.

Describe that meal and what you're eating and drinking.

DN: Hopefully something typically French, like bread, cheese, and wine.

RE: It would be in the Tuscan village of Smart's adopted home, with pasta and buckets of red wine.

Whom do you admire the most? Why were they an influencing factor in your career and life?

DN: Historically, a tie between Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. I really appreciate a rational approach to design, one that results in something timeless and not trendy.

RE: Saul Bass. For the way he was able to visually bring personality and emotion to words and graphics.

hdtalks: the interviews

During HD Expo 2014, Hospitality Design’s Michael Adams sat down with HBA’s Michael Bedner to talk about his half-century in the hospitality design industry. View the video.



Produced by: Emerald Expositions
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