Johnson Chou Inc.

Narrative Design

In 2001, Johnson Chou united his passion for art and design to form Johnson Chou Inc., an internationally recognized interdisciplinary design practice encompassing architecture and interiors, furniture, industrial and graphic design – a body of work characterized by conceptual explorations of narrative, transformation and multiplicity. While the search for the elemental is the defining aspect of the diverse, yet consistent body of work, elements of ritual, metaphor, drama and engagement – often in an interactive sense, exemplify the firm’s projects.

A graduate of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture, Johnson Chou was employed at many architectural firms during his internship and the mid-1990s he briefly deviated from his professional path to pursue that of the visual arts. In 1996, he co-founded Archive Inc. Gallery & Art Library located in the incipient Queen West Gallery District, which was recognized for its innovative group shows curated by writers, artists, designers and filmmakers.

Serendipitously, it was through the Gallery that purveyed Chou’s emerging design practice. His design for the spare, yet multi-functional gallery was recognized for its minimalist aesthetic and transformative spatial concepts. Chou’s first clients were the residences and offices for Archive’s art patrons.

“My work is often characterized as resolutely modernist,” Johnson Chou, Principal Designer, told The Canadian Business Journal. “When modernism is done well, it engages on a primal, subconscious level; it’s latent power is evoked by the abstraction of the first principles of architecture – movement, space, light and form. However, it’s not all about stripping down a space, but rather it’s about extracting and distilling the essential forms and essence of the space and then amplifying them,” says Chou.

“Too often modernism is mistakenly perceived simply as an exercise of subtraction, resulting in mute, blank spaces. Modernism that is done well engages you on intellectual and emotional levels of experience, it will be striking, lyrical and poetic – more abstract than literal. There is nothing more beautiful than rays of natural light streaming through carefully placed windows casting shadows defining the geometry of a space. We experience that in Romanesque cathedrals all over Europe.”

Johnson Chou approaches projects with a personal design methodology. “Our work is about developing narratives, compelling and specific stories about the client.” The hallmark of a Johnson Chou project is that it elevates the user experience through the conscious creation of architectural elements with forms and details that underscore the narrative. Distinct and unique to each client, narrative is created by the notion of ritual and metaphor. Ritual is manifested as a “scripting” of movement. It is intended to elevate the mundane or commonplace whereas metaphor is invoked as a means of generating form – to encourage one’s “reading” of a space.

For Chou the narrative created is “essentially a story we create inspired by the words of the client, a ‘narrative of inhabitation’. Be it about the idiosyncrasies of the client, the image they wish to project or even delved from a literary source, it is an interpretation of the client’s hopes, dreams and desires.”

“Our clients include many residential clients, but also retailers and ad agencies, and more recently condominium developers. These are all client groups that are highly aware of the power of the brand and the narrative that must be developed and conveyed. What our clients appreciate is our holistic or interdisciplinary approach to our projects and that we are able to successfully define their business from the many in their crowded markets. As a result we often create much custom work, from furniture, millwork, lighting, store fixtures and graphic identities, all to create a consistent and resonating message,” says Chou.
Interest in their custom work has evolved to partnerships with manufacturers and retailers. Johnson Chou Inc. is currently working product designs with companies such as Nienkamper, Aya Kitchens, Eurodesign and Eurolite, developing furniture, kitchen and lighting product lines.

Project Portfolio

In 2004 and 2006, Johnson Chou completed a two-phase design overhaul for Grip Limited, an advertising agency based in downtown Toronto. The idea was to create a clever interior design that matches the output and tastes of Grip Limited and the trendy feel of the Queen West district. Its interior concept exhibits pleasing elements that enhance both employee productivity and morale.

Covering more than 20,000 square feet, the renovated office combines functionality with engaging space, and overall, incorporates added fun into the work environment, from its hot tub-like meeting space to the prominent ‘big orange slide’ which glides employees from upper levels to the main floor.

“Our work with Grip Limited is a good example whereby the agency wanted a creative and inspirational space with lots of meeting rooms and managing areas to discuss ideas. Furthermore, they wanted us to create an ‘architectural brand’ whereby their clients would immediately understand what their organization is all about. They wanted a pervasive and memorable image,” Chou detailed. “Their work tends to be humorous and charming; and the task for us was to convey that in an architectural sense. Our objective was to create spaces that represents in built form their unique notion of wit and humour, and that the journey to be inspirational and fun.”

More recently, Johnson Chou worked alongside Red Bull Canada on a 17,000 square foot office space implemented in three phases. Also located on Queen St. W., this engaging space brings together a casual feel and unique appeal that is representative of the Red Bull brand. The end result is an inspiring work environment that captures the brand’s image – the transformation-like feel that comes when consuming Red Bull. The heart of its design incorporates and embraces key Johnson Chou concepts of narrative and modernism mixed with minimalism. The design is part of a visual narrative and an enriching experience. One example is the office boardroom, designed with a sauna-like feel representative of Canada’s natural landscape.

“We created a narrative that was based on the notion of a memento box, a container that captures one’s transformation over a lifetime. For example, all meetings rooms are vessel-like in form, like a box within a box,” Chou summarized. “You’re very conscious of being in a meeting room because that’s where ideas are exchanged and where one undergoes a personal transformative process.”

With an eye toward the future, Johnson Chou Inc. continues to develop inspirational designs and concepts across all facets, from retail, to office, to residential, and more, of Toronto’s rich urban landscape.