Chill or Thrill
Low-key meets high-energy at Red Bull’s Toronto office by Johnson Chou
Tim McKeough -- Interior Design, 11/1/2010 3:44:00 AM
You might call Johnson Chou a playful minimalist. There's always a twist to his pared-down interiors, most of them in Toronto. Interrupting his signature expanses of frosted glass, polished steel, and simply finished wood, unexpected features aim squarely at creating delight. He once installed an indoor slide, a fireman's pole, and a "hot tub" meeting area at the advertising agency Grip Limited. At a TNT fashion boutique, reflective tabletops pivot up 90 degrees to becomefull- length mirrors. Lime-green lighting, hidden under banquettes at Blowfish Restaurant + Sake Bar, gives the room an undersea glow. "I'm interested in surprise, the complexity within the simplicity," he says. Call it minimalism with a human face.
If Chou's work falls just outside the sphere of the expected, so does his career path. He actually gave up on design in the early years-only to fall accidentally into the profession once again. After-studying architecture at the University of Waterloo and bouncing between a number of Toronto firms, he found himself out of a job during the recession of 1992, so he switched his attention to art, co-founding the Archive Inc. Gallery & Art Library. Ironically, his design for the gallery encouraged art clients to enlist his expertise for their own offices and residences. He officially established his namesake firm in 1999. Today, it has a staff of six.
His willingness to take risks, while maintaining a polished aesthetic, is making him a favorite among creative clients looking for urban style. And ho-hum clearly wasn't going to cut it for the Toronto headquarters of Red Bull Canada. Having leased 12,300 square feet split between the top two levels of a three-story building, the energy drink maker imagined interiors that reflected its focus on extreme sports and could also double as a hub for cultural activities.
The project demands a shift in expectations from the outset. Merely getting from the entry to reception requires walking through a long red tube dimly lit by color-shifting LEDs. The tube deposits visitors on a glowing frosted-glass block that sits on the floor like an oversize ice cube. Step down, and you're in the Red Bull clubhouse. Business visitors can check in at the reception desk straight ahead. However, most of reception is a gallery that's open to the public, and pivoting wall panels allow the room to be reconfigured for different exhibitions. Album-release parties take place here, too. "Beyond the coolness of the design, the space has really engaged the community," Red Bull Canada president Jim Bailey says. In the double-height atrium next to reception, magnetic boxes dot a wall of stainless-steel panels. The boxes hold inspirational CDs, sketches, and other objects donated by Red Bull- sponsored artists and collaborators. "Anyone who participates in an activity with Red Bull can leave mementos of the experience," Chou explains. Over time, the boxes will fill up the entire wall.
Some visitors will proceed directly to the upper level via the atrium's spiral staircase. For those who need to wait a few minutes, there's a lounge that looks like Chou removed the living room from a neighboring family home and reinstalled everything in an openfronted box-damask-pattern wallpaper, crystal chandelier, wooden folding chair, cowhide-covered drum table, and all. "It's sort of an abstract cottage," he continues. "The budget was extremely tight, so our strategy was to leave the base building as it was but develop these separate spaces within it."
Directly next door, the staff lunchroom offers a striking contrast symbolized by the two spaces' very different chandeliers: old-fashioned in the lounge and completely contemporary in the lunchroom. Less a single fixture than a suspended installation, it's constructed from horizontal glass tubes filled with loose crystals and lit from above. Below sit a hefty black granite table and benches made from cherrywood planks to match the floor.
The table in the lunchroom appears in slightly different forms upstairs, inside a shapely shell that seems to hover on a cushion of light. Built as a suite of recording studios for a Red Bull music event, the structure is now largely open, thanks to strategic sections that Chou cut away in converting it into three distinct meeting pods. They increase in formality from front to back. In the first pod, wrapped from floor to ceiling in red vinyl, jaunty polyethylene stools line the cantilevered bar. The second pod, dominated by a sunken seating area, is clad in strips of maple, as is the third.
Given its long conference table, this is the one that feels most like a standard boardroom.
On either side of the meeting pods, Chou kept individual offices simple. Desks and other built-ins are oak-veneered MDF. "They're a little rough, a bit of Canadiana," he explains. Transparent glass fronts up the ante with dynamic angles suggesting the adrenalinefueled brand's tagline: Red Bull gives you wings.
Photography by Tom Arban.
silke stadtmueller (project designer); can bui; heather shute: johnson chou. halcrow yolles: structural engineer. toews engineering: mechanical engineer. hcc engineering: electrical engineer. arm welding & fabrication; cb metal design: metalwork. lcm group: woodwork. c&r air systems: mechanical contractor. fraser’s hardwood flooring: flooring contractor. market block commercial; renovate all: general contractors.
FROM FRONT metro wallcovering: wallpaper (reception). robert king lighting: custom chandeliers (reception, lunchroom). mobles114 barcelona: stools (meeting pod). armstrong: wall covering. vitra: guest chairs (offices). herman miller: task chairs. artemide: sconces. maharam: banquette upholstery (meeting pod). THROUGHOUT eurolite: recessed ceiling fixtures, track lighting. benjamin moore & co: paint.
ROBERT KING LIGHTING: CUSTOM CHANDELIERS (RECEPTION, LUNCHROOM).
MOBLES114 BARCELONA: STOOLS (MEETING POD).
ARMSTRONG: WALL COVERING.
VITRA: GUEST CHAIRS (OFFICES).
HERMAN MILLER: TASK CHAIRS.
MAHARAM: BANQUETTE UPHOLSTERY (MEETING POD).
EUROLITE: RECESSED CEILING FIXTURES, TRACK LIGHTING.
BENJAMIN MOORE & CO: PAINT.