Western Living Magazine
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Introducing Western Living’s 2023 Designers of the Year Award Winners
WL Architectural Designer of the Year 2023: SMStudio
An ascendant firm snags their second award in three years.
You’d be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu when reading that Donohoe Living Landscapes is the winner of this year’s Landscape Designers of the Year award. It was only two years ago that the firm received the same accolade, but the fact that they’re back on top in such a short period of time—winning with an entirely new slate of judge-wowing projects—speaks not only to how hard they’ve been working over the past 24 months, but also to the commitment that principals Ryan Donohoe and Jessica Oakes have invested into expanding the reach of their artistic vision.
Until 2016, Donohoe crafted many of his winning designs from his East Vancouver home. Fast forward to 2023, and a team of nine are now ensconced in a historic Gastown loft, working on designs for clients from across the Lower Mainland, Whistler and the Okanagan, along with projects in Maui and California. Ultimately, as the team continues its growth, they envision having offices not just in Vancouver but also in the United States and Europe.
And while the size of the team has changed, the overall commitment to holistic, client-driven design has only grown stronger. Take, for example, the Crescent Beach project, a multi-year undertaking situated on a prime piece of oceanfront property south of Vancouver. The obvious angle would be to orient everything toward the (multi) million-dollar view—and while the design does celebrate the fantastic vista (there’s a jaw-dropper of a cantilevered platform to take in the seascape), there are also moments of quiet contemplation anchored in the lush plantings, along with spots to reflect back on the garden itself.
A little further north sits their Steveston project. And while the scale here may be smaller, there are still hallmarks of the team’s ingenuity when it comes to meeting their clients’ wishes. Hedging creates a sense of privacy within a standard lot size, and the property includes a beautiful contemporary swimming pool—complete with a cover that retracts seamlessly (and ingeniously) under the purpose-built angular deck, à la James Bond.
In their Shaughnessy project, the team made sure that their approach to the house’s front facade was classical, with clipped box hedging (both Donohoe and Oakes did their schooling in the U.K.—a possible influence here) in keeping with the visual character of the traditional neighbourhood. But when it came to the private backyard, those rigours were relaxed: the design embraces an inside-outside ethos with a perfectly inviting space that includes an outdoor kitchen, pool and cabana to suit the family’s entertaining needs.
And to round out their entry, a design curveball: not only did the Donohoe team design the central bar/lounge for IDS Vancouver at the Vancouver Convention Centre, they did it on just a few months’ notice, knowing that the entire creative community would be there to take note. The result is a triumph of bringing the outdoors in, with 1,000 pots strung from overhead cables and 1,500 plants temporarily planted in the surrounding beds. “It was incredibly stressful, incredibly expensive and incredibly fun,” laughs Donohoe of the high-profile gig. But it also perfectly highlights the central ideology that drives the team: landscape as art—a sentiment that our judges wholeheartedly endorsed.
RD & JO: We recently purchased a 1991 Westfalia camper. It’s astounding how every square inch was impeccably planned to be functional as a van and as a camper. There’s a reason why these vans are in such high demand even today.
RD & JO: Our collective dream would be to own and run a vineyard in the Mediterranean.
RD & JO: We’ve always been obsessed with The National and their offshoot projects, but recently seeing them in concert has put them back at the top of the playlist.
RD: They don’t let their pen do the thinking and they get stuck in their functional mindset. To be creative you must have the courage to let your mind and your thoughts be free to form ideas without restrictions and without worry of failure.
Get Your Ticket to This Year’s Western Living Designers of the Year Awards Here.
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