Our Interior Designers of the Year aren’t what you might think of as a typical interior design firm—a thought that comes into focus when stepping into their petite office on Vancouver’s Alberta Street. The back wall is lined in boldly coloured concert posters (I do remember that Blue Rodeo gig at Malkin Bowl, and how I wish I had caught Concrete Blonde back in the day); beer bottles cover bookshelves. But it’s not dorm-room decor: Evoke International Design’s branding business is one taken as seriously as its modernist interior design work. (Those concert posters and beer label designs were, of course, both produced right out of this office.)
Photo by Carlo Ricci.Designer David Nicolay is photographed in an Evoke design on the waterfront in Vancouver. The homeowner wanted the formerly dark and carved-up home shot through with light, and so a pair of 16-foot-long skylights were installed, and the main floor entirely opened up. It’s now possible to see views of English Bay from the moment you walk into the home.
“The original intent was to be a branding company who happened to do some interior design, more for restaurants and retail groups,” says founding partner and architectural designer David Nicolay, who created the business with graphic designer Rob Edmonds in 2000. “But it didn’t take us many years to figure out that it wasn’t a fit for everybody.” Some partners had one aspect covered, some the other, and so the business grew in two distinct directions: one for the interior design of businesses like Kit and Ace and Pixar Studios, or restaurants like Heirloom, and another for graphic design (Live Nation, Temper Chocolates). And by 2005, Nicolay and Edmonds would get into another business, too: hospitality. (They own a stake in the Cascade Company, which includes the Union, Cascade and El Camino restaurants in Vancouver, along with the Main Street Brewing Company.)
Photo by Janis Nicolay. For their home in Point Grey, they designed a three-metre-wide, glass-topped void in the middle of the home to let in light; the entire home opens out to the backyard.Photo by Janis Nicolay.
Evoke is a team of 16 now, and though restaurant and retail design continue to be a core business, about a decade ago the calls started coming in for more residential designs. Nicolay had worked under lauded architect Josh Schweitzer in California before he started Evoke, and houses had always been a passion (he has a master of architecture from Dalhousie), and so he found himself drawn back to that business. “I’d always really liked doing houses, and it’s become my focus over the last 10 years,” he says.
Evoke’s practice in this area is holistic: each project tackles both the architecture of the building and the interior design as a whole. (Their work also captured our judges’ attention in our inaugural Designers of the Year Awards, in 2008, when the team was named our first Interior Designers of the Year.)
And so, for a project like their Point Grey house, a three-metre-wide void in the middle of the home, equipped with a glass roof to allow light to penetrate deep into the space, is paired with highly contrasting interior finishes that can easily handle the bright light: rich walnut, white marble and dark grey basalt. The entire backside of the home opens out to the backyard, with that basalt flooring inside transitioning out to a hammered finish on the same stone around the pool deck.
Photo by Janis Nicolay. To get light into the basement of their Marine Crescent home, the team created a big cut-out in the house‚ essentially a central courtyard planted with Japanese maples.Photo by Janis Nicolay.Photo by Janis Nicolay.
The space is designed to feel intimate and family-friendly, despite its 12,000-square-foot size. Upstairs, a two-person shower feels both grand and accessible: a low marble wall provides visual interest on the shower side, and supports the soaker tub on the opposite. “Evoke has a wonderful talent of really distilling a floor plan and making the entire home look so easy to live in,” says judge and interior designer Kelly Deck. “They take their clients’ lifestyles to heart, and somehow they bridge a nice gap between minimalism and the expression of the personalities of the homeowners.”
On another project in Whistler, a family that had relocated to live in the resort town year-round was looking for a design that recalled the cabin aesthetic while maintaining a modernist spirit. Whitewashed oak lines both the floors and the ceiling, along with some wall surfaces; a millworker matched its warm, knotty design on all of the cabinetry. The home layout is flipped from a traditional design: the living room and kitchen are on the top floor, better suited to capture views of the mountains. “It’s about changing people’s perceptions of what a house is supposed to be,” says Nicolay, “and how it’s supposed to be laid out. The first question is always, if you put the living room on the top, is that too far away? But you can’t not have it up there—all of the views are up there.” The open kitchen, living and dining spaces take in mountain views to the east, while sliding glass doors provide access to a roof garden.
Photo by Janis Nicolay. Evoke partners David Nicolay and Rob Edmonds have managed to disprove the claim that you shouldn’t get into business with family. They’re brothers-in-law (Edmonds is married to Nicolay’s sister Janis, who photographs many of the homes in Western Living). Meanwhile, Nicolay’s sister Wendy runs the Cascade Company with their brother-in-law Nigel Pike, who’s married to another Nicolay sister, Karen. Draw that family tree.Photo by Janis Nicolay.This Whistler home recalls a classic classic cabin aesthetic—knotty oak on the cabinetry, wood-fired stove in the living room—with a decidedly modern aesthetic. Even the perfectly framed birch trees outside the office window contribute to the straight-line
design.Photo by Janis Nicolay
Even upslope views are carefully framed with floor-to-ceiling glazing in the home office, the white birch trees just outside providing almost too-perfect modern lines. It’s intentionally so—the interiors here are at once quiet and striking, and ultimately livable, and the business that designs them is anything but average. “It’s a pure aesthetic,” says interior designer and judge Paul Lavoie, commending Evoke’s entry. “The perfect combination of design and fashion.”
Photo by Janis NicolayPhoto by Carlo Ricci
Q&A with David Nicolay of Evoke International Design
What was your first design project?
Spectus Eyewear in Kitsilano, in 1994.
Who do you admire most as a designer?
John Pawson, Fran Silvestre and Marcio Kogan.
What’s your go-to material of choice?
Basic natural materials: wood and stone and concrete (which is sort of natural!).
Metric or imperial?
I prefer metric, but the construction industry still seems to tie us to imperial.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.
What do you think is the most perfectly designed object?
The Eames lounge and ottoman (1956).
Is there a famous project or object you wish you’d designed?
Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier.
If you weren’t a designer, what job would you be doing?
I wasn’t good enough to be a pro hockey player, so this will have to do.