Q+A: Keith Rushbrook and Dan Menchions, II BY IV DESIGN

An interview with BD's Toronto-based Designers of the Year.

Penthouse Suite

How did you two first meet, and why did you decide to work together?

Rushbrook: We met through an industry rep who for years talked about how we should meet because our work was so complementary. Dan was offered a freelance project and asked me to help him. We sat at separate desks and when we went over our progress, the sketches were exactly the same—we had the same vision. When the recession hit in the early ’90s, we both lost our jobs and thought it was the perfect time to set up our own firm.

What’s the origin of the firm’s name?

Menchions: We knew right from the start that we didn’t want our names in the firm’s name. We wanted to build a business that was collaborative at its core—we foresaw a number of talented designers working in the studio on varied projects—and thought putting our names on the masthead seemed too proprietary to reflect what the firm was about.

II BY IV is a nod to the fundamental piece of construction lumber. In the early days we worked on a lot of nightclubs and loved the edgy look of the Roman numerals. However, at first, it was hard for people to find us because of the spelling.

What was II BY IV’s first project—and what lesson did you learn from it that sticks with you to this day?

Rushbrook: It was a karaoke bar called Sing Sing, for the owner of a popular comedy club franchise. What we learned was how to be innovative on a tight timeline and budget. The project got a tremendous response, was published and won our firm’s first awards. After that, we knew we could make this company work.

What’s currently on your boards?

Rushbrook: We’re working on many exciting hotel, cruise ship, food service, and new and re-imagined retail brand projects, as well as being at the forefront of Toronto’s booming multi-unit residential developments. While by contract we can’t name many current clients or particular projects, we are pleased to continue working with such companies as Centennial Hotels, Lindt, Virgin Mobile, Trump Hotel Collection, Thompson Hotels, Crystal Cruise Lines, Renaissance and Marriott.

Can you describe II BY IV’s basic design philosophy, and how it is reflected in the firm’s work?

 

Rushbrook: The philosophy is simple: Design, period. We want to design everything, whenever possible, so we’ve taken on very different projects with clients with very different visions. Sometimes the clients need help in articulating what it is they really want, and we pride ourselves on the ability to translate that want into words, images and finally, a tangible project. The firm doesn’t really have an aesthetic because our designs are so project-specific. That’s reflected by our portfolio: The only common element would be the quality.

How would you describe II BY IV’s corporate culture, and how do you work to cultivate/perpetuate it?

Menchions: We don’t have a mission statement or mantra. What we do have is a boardroom that everyone piles into to eat lunch together; dogs and cats in the office; music provided by rotating staff iPods; and weekly staff presentations about anything they find inspiring in the world of design, food, travel, etc. We’re a very cohesive team and you can quickly tell if someone fits in. Our staff members are very dedicated and have high standards, which means they push each other to innovate.

How did that approach influence the design of II BY IV’s offices?

Menchions: Since we always saw the firm as based on collaboration, we have very few walls and doors. Our studio is housed in a heritage building that was once a carpet factory that has a tremendous atmosphere, with exposed brick and solid wood beams. We have 14-ft. ceilings and a largely open studio space that’s predominantly white. Vitra workstations make up the majority of desks, and our own desks are also in the communal studio space, separated only by a half-wall so that the designers can feel free to wander back and meet with us whenever they need to.

What’s the current size and scope of the firm?

Menchions: We currently have 32 employees in our Toronto studio. We also opened a New York studio in 2011, and we’re slowly growing it. Keith and I are in N.Y. for about 3-4 days every 6 weeks, and we’re currently looking for a young, New York-based architecture firm with about 5-10 years experience to partner with us on certain projects.

You both travel a lot—can you quantify that?

Rushbook: Air Canada Super Elite Status. Need we say more?

What do you get out of all that travel?

Rushbrook: We are inspired, educated and kept current by our travels, which is why we also try to send each staff member to conferences and trade shows around the world. Here are some examples of how that travel has influenced the design of some of our projects:

Washington, D.C.: We were there when the cherry blossoms were in bloom and you can see that motif in the Trump International Hotel & Tower Toronto, from a monumental crystal branch at the reception area to the artwork above the beds.

Milan: This heavily influenced our design of Autostrada Restaurant, particularly in the Pirelli tire tread on the walls and doors.

London’s Bond Street and New York’s Fifth Avenue: These two locations were our direct inspiration when working on the Crystal Cruises ship Serenity. That very high level of curated elegance shows in penthouse detailing and the retail spaces.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen for interior designers as they go about their work?

Menchions: Obviously, technology has made the biggest changes in our day-to-day work experience. While the programs we use have been advantageous, they are becoming increasingly complex, and I think young designers are missing the advantages of low tech. They aren’t sketching anymore, which means they are limiting themselves to what the computer can accomplish and losing some conceptual skills that are shaped by free-hand drawing.

Is there a II BY IV project that you’re most proud of—and if so, why does it stand out?

Rushbrook: That’s an impossible question to answer! It changes over time. Today it’s one project, a month from now I’ll say it’s one from a decade ago. Honestly, it’s more like there are a thousand favorite bits of projects—put them all together and that would be our favorite.