Ever since launching BOX Interior Design, managing partner and designer Cynthia Penner has worked on a slew of restaurants and hotels—many in her beloved home base of Vancouver. Here she talks about translating imagination, navigating varying points of view, and a penchant for the water.
Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?
I was always fascinated with the idea of transformation—the idea of ‘before and after’—so even from a young age my career aspirations ranged from fashion designer to plastic surgeon to interior designer.
What are some of your first memories of design?
As a kid I was impressed that instead of discussing the ‘dining room table,’ my mom and dad would say the ‘Duncan Phyfe.’ That furniture had names was like a secret language.
What about hospitality?
I think hospitality designers are born with a lust for life coupled with a desire to take care of people. My most vivid memory of really being aware of hospitality design was when I was about fourteen and my mom and I went to the big city—Vancouver—to meet my dad who was there on business. We went shopping and I bought my first pair of stilettos, which I wore to the most glamorous restaurant I had ever seen, Hy’s Steakhouse. It was all dark and wood-paneled, with uniformed waiters and starched linens, and when they served the baked potatoes they brought a special caddy of condiments you could choose from. It was an aha moment. This was living.
How did where you grew up influence your career paths?
I grew up in a rural, blue-collar, tourist town in British Columbia. I had very few pop culture influences, both because of the location (no cable TV, few neighbors) and my strict Mennonite heritage. What this gave me was a lot of time and room for imagination and creative pursuits.
Where did you go to college and what was your greatest lesson learned?
My BID came from the faculty of architecture at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. They taught us to dream wide and then edit, edit, edit.
Where did you work before starting your own firm?
Toronto was my starting city, and I worked with Cecconi Simone for a number of years. When I moved back to BC, I freelanced with a number of interior design and architecture companies doing all kinds of design from luxury residential to corporate to retail before starting on my own.
Why and how did you start your own firm?
Starting on my own was more of a reactionary response to Vancouver. When I arrived here, the culture of the city was still very small-town, and I could not find a firm that really wanted to push and be innovative and ambitious. My husband, who I met at university and who is also an interior designer, worked for a luxury residential and hotel designer who kindly referred his smaller clients to me to help start me on my way. After a couple years, my husband Jay Brooks joined me as a partner in BOX. Our hope is that BOX is where people will come to find thoughtful, unique, creative work absolutely customized for them and delivered by a team of talented, passionate, and personable people who love to serve.
What was your first reality check?
Well at BOX we’ve gone through 9/11, the dot–com crash, the global economy crash, and various other recessions and slowdowns. There has been a LOT of reality, including some odd and dodgy project interviews in those early days. We have always been cautious about staying tight and lean, but the year of learning card tricks while waiting for the phone to ring does linger in my memory.
Can you discuss some of your recent projects?
We are enjoying a terrific range of clients and projects:
Trump International Hotel & Residences is a new-build luxury property in downtown Vancouver and we are handling all aspects of the interiors. The building, a twisting tower, was the last project designed by architect Arthur Erickson before he passed away. Because of the building shape space planning was especially interesting for us: no suite, residential or hotel, is exactly the same. Set to open in early 2016, the aesthetic is to honor classic west coast modernism but with an eye to Vancouver as an emerging global city. We are working with the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena to create new, exciting food and beverage venues to greater enhance the sporting and concert experience. Glowbal Restaurant Group continues to grow its portfolio of restaurant properties and we are creating a casual Italian eatery for them as well as a large luxury dining experience in the heart of the city. Other recently completed projects we have worked together on include Black & Blue, a 10,000+ square-foot steakhouse, and Fish Shack, a rough and tumble seafood concept. This past year also saw the opening of Celebrities Nightclub, a 90,000-square-foot corporate head office, and a couple of luxury private residences.
Was there a challenging project that you are especially proud of?
Market by Jean-Georges at the Vancouver Shangri-La Hotel was a memorable project. The developer was an absolute architectural purist with modern sensibilities. The hotelier was an expressive traditionalist with a distinctly Asian perspective. The original brief was written from a Las Vegas point of view, and the chef group had its unique aesthetic as well as a feng shui master to appease. Ultimately, our synthesis of these many diverse points of view created a lovely and distinctive room.
What are you most looking forward to at the office?
I love our Monday morning staff meeting and our Friday afternoon bottle of wine—both are such terrific times to connect with the team on a more personal level, not fighting daily fires and talking the big picture.
What do you find the most challenging and exciting aspects of your job?
The most exciting part of my job is the drive back to the office from an introductory client meeting. I love the thrill of thinking what we can do and what the solution to their challenge can be. It is all I can do not to start drawing while driving. The most challenging part of the job is to get to know and understand the client and the team members as quickly as possible, so that you can communicate thoughtfully and effectively in a manner that resonates with them.
What is the most important thing to remember when designing a restaurant, both in terms of branding and interiors?
Remember the client and the guest. It is your clients’ restaurant. They know their business—listen and learn. Think of the guest: Why will they come the first time? Why will they come again? As a designer you are instrumental in creating this love affair between the client and their guest.
Is there an architect or designer you most admire? Why?
Andrée Putman was a real icon and inspiration to me. Both she and her work appeared incredibly powerful and strong but never unfeminine.
What would be your dream project and why?
I would love to design a small luxury waterfront resort where we could be involved in every detail, with a client equally committed to excellence and experience. My happiest days have always been associated with sun and water.
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would they be?
My fella. And if we were adding to the table, writers like William Gibson, John Irving, and Neal Stephenson.
Where would you eat, and what would you be having?
We would eat at a big wooden table on a roof deck starting at dusk, near enough to the sea to hear the waves. There would be lots of fresh shellfish, crusty bread, and many bottles of rosé.
Is there a chef who has recently caught your eye?
We just returned from a trip to Barcelona, and the young chefs there were so amazingly confident in their craft—outstanding technique and fresh thoughts on traditional themes.
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?