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Undesigning a Drake Hotel

This project updated a classic hotel in Ontario

05/01/2015

By Ashleigh VanHouten

When hotelier Jeff Stober purchased a run-down hotel on a corner of Ontario’s Queen Street West in 2001, he envisioned thoughtfully updating a neighborhood classic: keeping the best of the old building and fusing it with modern design and décor to create an atmosphere of neighborhood creativity. Today, his Drake Hotel—a hipster haven that has contributed greatly to the bustle of an artsy area of Ontario—is just the beginning of a popular and unmistakable brand of hotels, restaurants, event spaces, and boutique shops that meld local culture and art with unfussy luxury. It’s a brand that has all eyes turning towards Prince Edward County, Ontario, where Stober has opened his newest project, the Drake Devonshire Inn.

“All of our Drake properties [the Drake Hotel, Drake One Fifty restaurant in Toronto’s financial district, and the Drake Devonshire Inn] celebrate the old and new, the juxtaposition of antique pieces alongside custom, modern designs, and a specific focus on integrating art with hospitality spaces,” says Stober. It can be tough to pinpoint specific elements that signify a Drake property; it’s truly more a feeling than a piece of furniture or a signature color. Still, there are hints, like the use of natural materials like wood, marble, cork, and leather. Every location boasts a customized photobooth, a micro Drake General Store offering up fun pieces of Canadiana, unique wallpapers and upholstery, community corkboards, and contemporary art curated by Mia Nielsen, head of cultural programming for Drake Hotel Properties.

“At all of our locations we look to create a balance of historic references with contemporary elements, to create a timeless quality that appeals to young and old alike,” says Zoe Shapiro, Drake's senior manager of corporate marketing and content strategy. “Antiques are mixed in with contemporary modern pieces, and we’ve created a now-iconic bar stool that pops up at all of our locations, but in different colored leathers.”

At it’s most basic, Stober says the Drake style guide is a “perfect blend of modern, timeless, and vintage.  We have the benefit of an in-house design team that is expert at sourcing the perfect accoutrement for a given space. Whether it is a meticulously crafted piece of millwork or the sourcing of gorgeous fabrics to reupholster timeless vintage finds, it has to be perfect,” he says. “The secret is finding great pieces, and trusting your gut until it’s just right.”

According to designer John Tong—who along with his design studio +tongtong worked closely with Stober and the Drake team on the Drake hospitality projects—the design brief for each property is shared amongst everyone involved, at every level, to ensure consistency and understanding: not just the designers, but operations managers, art directors, stylists, buyers, chefs, cleaning staff, and marketing and community relations.

“The design approach we have always employed with Drake projects is one of balanced ‘undesign’—a term I coined when we developed the Toronto Drake,” says Tong. “It involves the taking apart of every aspect of the project and reassembling, creating a sense of evolution where things can change and be added to, which reflects the way we live in the real world.”

During the design of the first Drake hotel, Tong created a document called “Undesigning—A Design Sensibility” that he says is “a sort of thesis. It is a process of design at many levels from the detail level to overall, but is also a process of deconstructing, sometimes literally, preconceived or assumed ideas and then reassembling them, possibly in a new way, and hopefully creating depth where one can bring different meaning to, where we may all experience differently.”

While there is an immense amount of thought, effort, collaboration, and hard work that goes into making these spaces both comfortable and cool (not to mention the flawless food, great cocktails, and plenty of space for live music and other fun events), it’s that idea of undesign—the concept that a strong brand need not feel traditionally

“brand-like” at all—that is a big part of Drake’s appeal. “I think that people are attracted to the Drake brand because we invest tremendous passion and authenticity in everything that we do,” says Shapiro. “From the team who puts together our menus, to finding buildings stemming from active participation in the art scene, we are excited to create new experiences and help determine what’s next.”

For Stober, the Drake brand is more than a collection of impressively cool hospitality spaces; it’s a genuine experience created through authenticity, passion, and a desire for fun. “We want to create a unique experience for guests that extends beyond a great sleep in one of our beds or a delicious meal,” explains Stober. “We have interesting art and culture offerings that are very approachable. Sophisticated menus and cocktails that are on point but still affordable and accessible for everyone. We truly love what we’re doing and like to have fun doing it, and anyone that walks through one of our doors can sense that immediately.”