Throwing the status quo out the window with DesignAgency

Founded in 1998 by long-time friends, Toronto-headquartered design firm Design Agency focuses on global design to create unique and innovative solutions that improve our daily environment.

Incredible things happen when you mix never-ending creativity, a forward-thinking vision, unstoppable talent, and an unbreakable friendship; such is the story of the highly sought-after global firm, DesignAgency.  What started as an idea to redesign a restaurant on the campus of the University of Toronto in 1998 turned into a successful design firm called upon to create interiors, branding, and visual language, among other things, for renowned companies around the world.

Founded by partners and long-time friends Allen Chan, Matt Davis, and Anwar Mekhayech, DesignAgency combines interior design, architectural concept, strategic branding, and visual communication to create one-of-a-kind innovative solutions. Their ability to design through narratives and develop unimaginable environments while achieving a high level of excellence has launched them into global success and placed DesignAgency as one of the most distinguished design studios in Canada. 

As an integral part of the incredible trio behind the Toronto-headquartered firm, DesignWanted interviewed Anwar Mekhayech and found out more about DesignAgency, their creative process, their thoughts and future trends, and what is next for the firm. 

DesignAgency - St Regis Toronto
St. Regis Hotel in Toronto, Canada – ©Brandon Barré

Who is Anwar Mekhayech, how did the journey for DesignAgency begin?

Anwar Makhayech: “I guess I’m a creative director, owner, co-CEO, designer, brand creator, and visionary of sorts.

It all started in 1998 when Matt Davis, Allen Chan, and I discussed launching a design studio. The idea was to leverage our passion for architecture, interiors, and landscape, as well as for food, art, and music to create unexpected, fun, and inviting environments for clients, friends, and ourselves. I was our catalyst client: our first project was my first restaurant. Twenty-two years later, here we are. I can now say that it is much easier concepting and designing restaurants than it is to run them!”

Find more about NeueHouse, DesignAgency’s design for private workspace in a XIX century L.A.’s building.

DesignAgency - NeueHouse
NeueHouse Bradbury in Los Angeles, California – ©Nikolas Koenig

Why DesignAgency, why focusing on global design to improve our daily environment?

Anwar Makhayech: “My love for design, architecture, and engineering led me down the path of wanting to create spaces and concepts. Travel and culture have always inspired me. I think to be a great designer you have to pull inspiration from various places but you also have to have innate creativity and vision.

I’ve also always loved the business of design – how the process of working through projects from start to finish is as important as the end design itself. I think that also comes from being an entrepreneur and restaurateur.

In my early teens, I created a fictitious company called I.D.E.A.S. that stood for: Innovations and Designs for the Enhancement and Advancement of Society. After graduating from university, I opened my own restaurant and co-founded a design studio. I think our ideology – to use design to make the world a better place – has carried through to our vision for DesignAgency today.

I love what I do because I get to work with talented designers and collaborators to bring designs to life. We are always only as good as our clients. I like to take clients on a journey and to explore the design process with them. It’s different every time and often the journey is as rewarding as the end project.

I am happy because we are working globally, collectively, and intelligently in a diverse and inspired way; because our clients enjoy working with us, and ultimately because we have fun together.”

DesignAgency - Momofuku Kawi interior
Momofuku Kāwi in New York – ©Bob Gundu

DesignAgency’s work spans many genres, clients, concepts, and strategies, and has the ability to create special environments through narratives developed with the client. Which are the main values, core concepts, or style inclinations that, above all, will always represent the studio?

Anwar Makhayech: “Our core values are: Design with purpose. Create boldly. Lead the pack. Design with passion. Bring people together. Diversity is strength. We don’t have one set style that we impose on a client or project. Understanding the narrative and the business objective is paramount.”

DesignAgency - Generator Venice lobby lounge

Having worked with clients in more than 26 cities and 9 countries worldwide, how do you choose the type of client and project to work on?

Anwar Makhayech: “As I mentioned, our clients are key and we can only be as good as they are. They interview us and we interview them. We want to set ourselves up to succeed and, yes, to wow and amaze them, but also to have our feet planted firmly on the ground. It’s not enough to dazzle — we need to design to open opportunities and results.

Again, our collaboration with clients and their teams is key. We are good listeners. We try to be egoless. We become long-term creative partners with our clients. That means that when we go to a new city or country to work on their brand, they can rely on us understanding their objectives and vision.”

DesignAgency - Genaerator Rome bar
Bar at Generator Rome Hotel – ©Mans Berg Photography

What have been the biggest challenges or constraints you have encountered during the design process?

Anwar Makhayech: “The biggest limitations of the design process are time and money. We strive to collaborate as much as possible; art and industrial design are key in our designs. The key is to have open communication with clients and to show them the importance of certain elements. We also make sure from the outset that budgets are well-considered. Many times we try to make sure that these key elements get approved and committed to early on in the process so that we have the time and budget to realize them. This always yields the best results.”

DesignAgency - Generator Rome lounge room
Generator Rome Hotel – ©Mans Berg Photography

Being one of the most distinguished design studios in Canada with services that are widely sought after, what are the main trends & future directions within interior design and architectural concepts, and what do you think of them?

Anwar Makhayech: “It’s an interesting time to be thinking about trends and the future. Design, in many ways, is a renaissance of ideas that meld together to create a space or concept — whether modern, traditional, or contemporary. With less travel, I find it harder to have the same inspiration as before so I think that will be a challenge for designers. (Instagram and Pinterest don’t count as travel but they are a necessary tool of sorts).

A lot of design and future thinking now obviously revolves around the recovery and reinvention of many segments of our lives as we contemplate the new normal. We love to take on projects that involve reinvention and throwing the status quo out the window. It’s a rethink on all things design and behavioral. Especially in workplace design, hospitality, and living. We want to be a part of all those conversations with and for our clients.

Sustainability and the back-to-nature movement was already on the horizon, so this slow living philosophy will only be amplified in the future. The driver for architecture and design has always been rooted in how the space is used and how people interact with it; we like that design is now being considered more purposeful or even essential.”

DesignAgency - Broadview Hotel restaurant
The Broadview Hotel restaurant – ©Worker Bee Supply

With more than 20 years of experience in the field, what is the next step for DesignAgency?

Anwar Makhayech: “It’s an exciting time for the future of space, design, and creativity. There are so many opportunities to use design to change, grow, and improve while maintaining our core values. We’ve always been about our designers and our collective talents. Now is a great time to grow and think about the future and how we can inform it.

We have really ramped up our creative services as we focus on creative strategy, design thinking, branding, and graphic design, and as we start to work with many clients in the early stages of their projects. We have also always embraced working remotely and globally, with our team in various cities around the world, so that will continue, and we are focusing on new markets such as Asia and new areas such as resort destinations.

We recently launched a podcast called DesignAgency in Conversation in which we ask inspiring clients and collaborators for reflections on their projects, industries, and careers.

Curious to know more about hotel designs? Don’t miss Interior design for luxury hôtellerie – The word goes to Tony Chi.

DesignAgency - Broadview Hoter bar
The Broadview Hotel bar – ©Worker Bee Supply