Toronto-based design firm Munge Leung was established in 1997 by Alessandro Munge and Sai Leung. Now internationally recognized for its interior spaces from luxury hotels to restaurants and nightclubs to residential projects, the firm was nominated this year for a James Beard Award for its work on Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver. Other projects such as El Catrin and Gusto 101 Bistro in Toronto and Kumi and Whiskey Down in Las Vegas showcase the designers’ innovative approach. Here, the firm’s principal discusses early inspirations, the Munge Leung dynamic, and analyzing how restaurant spaces function.
Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
Growing up, I was really drawn to architecture (and still am), so I may be a bit of a closeted architect. I was in high school when I discovered interior design; it was actually a history teacher who saw what I was passionate about and suggested that I pursue it. I owe him a lot!
What are some of your first memories of design?
Through my teens, I would often help my mother out with her drapery business. She was a seamstress but I would design drapery concepts and even began negotiating deals for her. I got hooked on the business of selling design ideas and taking ownership of that aspect.
Did where you grew up influence your career path?
My mother was who ultimately influenced my career path, through her work as a seamstress/decorator/business entrepreneur. I always admired her passion and survival instincts; she truly grew her business from the ground up. Today I’m constantly inspired by my travels all across the globe. The hometowns of the world influence my career path.
Gusto 101 Bistro (Photo by Evan Dion)
Give us a bit of your background: college, first jobs?
I’ve been in the industry for nearly 20 years now—16 years at Munge Leung and four years previously with Yabu Pushelberg. I graduated from Ryerson University’s School of Interior Design [in Toronto]. A university professor had recommended me to Yabu Pushelberg for an internship, which I did during the summer of my third year and continued with them after graduating. It was there that I actually started worked with Sai [Leung]—he was my senior—and we would always work on the most exciting projects together. It was an amazing experience for me as a new grad, and I learned a lot from working with Sai, George [Yabu], and Glenn [Pushelberg].
Why and how did you start your own firm?
While working together at YP, Sai and I were taught to always find the best design solution but we always knew in our hearts that we would venture out on our own one day. We really just took a chance—we started out drawing on my girlfriend’s (now wife’s) dining room table and then landed our first project. The rest is history, really.
Sai and I are very different but also share a lot of similarities, both culturally and professionally. First and foremost, we love design and equally share a passion for it. We have a sort of “yin and yang” partnership, where Sai is very reserved, and I’m very loud and emphatic (very Italian). Our personalities really complement one another, though—I run the business and focus on the big picture, while Sai is the details guy. Sai and I work to develop the design concept together, where I manage and guide the vision and Sai then executes it in-studio. He’s very hands-on, and makes sure the design vision is carried through and executed properly. Long gone are the days of drafting on the dining room table. Over 16 years we’ve grown to a staff of 37 in our Toronto office plus 10 at our new office in Beijing. It’s really exciting and there is a lot happening these days!
El Catrin (Photo by Eugen Sakhnenko. A Frame Studio Inc.)
Can you discuss some of your recent projects?
We have an amazing new French bistro, Cluny, opening at the end of May in Toronto’s Distillery District. It’s going to have an amazing outdoor patio—nearly 8,000 square feet –that will be ready by mid-summer. Also, Munge Leung was recently awarded two major hotel projects: the Thompson Hotel Seattle and JW Marriott Hotel at Vancouver’s Urban Resort, a new development abutting BC Place. The JW is part of a larger urban resort complex owned by major developers out of Las Vegas, in partnership with Dundee Realty. It is very much an example of cutting edge modern architecture, complete with Vancouver’s only casino as well as an Autograph Hotel (also by Marriott). The Thompson Hotel Seattle is a true boutique project, with Munge Leung’s design giving a nod to Seattle’s history of aviation. We also have tons of exciting work going on in Las Vegas, though a few of those need to stay under wraps for now—but stay tuned!
Is there a challenging project that you are especially proud of?
That would have to be Rosewood Hotel Georgia in Vancouver. It went through four hotel brands, the recession, and more value engineering than any other project we’ve worked on; but today it truly is one of Vancouver’s gems. We’re so proud of the results. Last year the City of Vancouver gave the hotel a Heritage Award of Honor for its detailed restoration. Being able to contribute to the city of Vancouver and its heritage preservation was an amazing honor for us, and is on an entirely different level in our industry. It really is a special project.
Hawksworth Restaurant (Photo by Martin Tessler)
What are you looking forward to at your office?
We recently moved into brand new office space at the end of March. We purchased and renovated a 15,000-square-foot building in the Castlefield Design District, located in the northwest end of Toronto. It’s an amazing space—the firm is growing, and having sufficient space for our staff was paramount. We also try to encourage a healthy lifestyle for our staff, and have partnered with KX Gym to design a fitness center on-site and implement a weekly lunch program.
What do you find are the most challenging and exciting aspects of your job?
Travel, for me, is both a blessing and a curse. I travel a lot (for client meetings, pitches, project check-ins). I get so much exposure to design all over the world, and get the opportunity to examine what works from both a global and cultural perspective. I also love to study people and how they interact with different spaces. I then bring that knowledge and feedback to the studio and projects we are working on. Traveling as much as I do gives me an amazing opportunity to see the world; it’s impossible to see it from your desk! Being able to explore the world that way is awesome and inspiring, but being away from my family can be challenging.
What is the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant, both in terms of branding and interiors?
We put a lot of focus on how people are going to interact with the space and how it functions. Analyzing a restaurant’s mechanics and studying its operational system are critical for good design. Good design stems largely from combining aesthetics and functionality to elevate the guest experience. Atmosphere is important, but we also need to understand our clients and their menu program. What are they going to be cooking? Are there any special moments in the food preparation that should be showcased? For us, the success of a project is the most important thing: If our design complements the food and is paired with amazing service, that is what creates a memorable dining experience.
Is there an architect or designer you most admire?
This is a tough question, simply because I admire so many: Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, César Pelli, and Frank Lloyd Wright, to name a few.
What would your dream project be, and why?
Another tough question, because I find I’m constantly getting the opportunities I dream about … I guess I better be careful what I wish for!
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would that be?
Andrée Putman. Classic, timeless and elegant.
Where would you eat and what would you be having?
We would have Italian at my mother’s place. It would have to be on Sunday; she always cooks up a storm!
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
I’d probably be dead!