By Mitchell Freedland, Mitchell Freedland Design

I'd never planned to run my own business as an interior designer. So when I moved to Vancouver from Toronto back in 1989, I narrowed down my job search to three firms, with the thought of growing within the company. James Cheng’s architectural firm was one of the three, and luckily he hired me that day.

James Cheng
Credit: Tanya Goehring

The architect in his library, in 2016.

I enjoyed working there—I so appreciated what he was doing. He wasn’t working on the grand scale of projects he does now, but from the beginning he always had this incredible sensitivity in his aesthetic. He had a way of articulating space, shadow and light—and he knew how to manipulate those things to the best effect. That sensitivity is something he taught me well—if you walk into one of his projects today, you perceive these elements, as well as how every detail has been thought through. While his private residential work was always very client driven, it’s his impact on the city of Vancouver and its skyline—the Shangri-La, Harbour Green, the Fairmont Pacific Rim, Terminal City, the VPL conversion, Nordstrom and so many more—that will truly be his legacy.

james cheng
Credit: Jack Bryan / Western Living November 1980

From WL’s November 1980 issue, this Tsawwassen, B.C.-based home designed by James Cheng was made to orient the public spaces toward the water—and without window coverings to let the light shine in.

After I’d been working there for three years, I went to talk to him about compensation, as you do. Jim, being the savvy businessman, said, “I can’t afford to pay you more, but you could rent a desk here, and work on contract from my office.” And so, that day I went to City Hall to register as a sole proprietor.

James Cheng
Credit: Roger Brooks / Western Living September 1994

For this multi-generational house that appeared in the September ’94 issue, Cheng designed the home as a modest series of cubes to better integrate into a more traditional neighbourhood.

I was not a designer that had these dreams of owning my own firm, but it all happened because of Jim. It really was so generous of him to offer that—not a lot of people would be that supportive. And that day I didn’t get a raise was the beginning of a nearly 30-year career for me.

james cheng
Credit: Roger Brooks / Western Living September 1994

Another snapshot from the September '94 issue.

fairmont pacific rim

Cheng's impact on the skyline of the City of Vancouver is immeasurable, with designs that include Fairmont Pacific Rim (above), and the renovation of the former Sears building to become Nordstrom in 2017 (below).

nordstrom
Credit: Ema Peter

Nordstrom in Downtown Vancouver.

Ema Peter on James Cheng

Jim’s an accomplished photographer himself, and we’ve had many long conversations about the art of capturing a great photo. He’d hired me to photograph Nordstrom in downtown Vancouver, after his team had renovated it back in 2017, and so I was down there late at night to capture the right light. I’d found the perfect angle, but was frustrated to see a man right in the way of my line of sight, ruining my shot. I went up to him—only to discover it was Jim himself, photographing the building at the same perfect angle. Of course! —Ema Peter, photographer

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