When the Fogo Island Inn opened in 2013, led by the island’s Zita Cobb and designed by Newfoundland architect Todd Saunders, it propelled Canadian accommodation and design onto the international stage.
Inspired by the fishing stages of the island’s small ports – wooden buildings on platforms above the water, supported by stilts due to the rugged terrain of the seabed – it generated enthusiasm people at home and abroad for Canadian design and the potential to share the look of local architecture and interiors with visitors from around the world.
For a moment, Fogo seemed like an isolated case. But now, a boutique lodging boom reverberating in communities across the country is presenting travelers with a strong portfolio of made-in-Canada design. These hotels and motels welcome customers into worlds where, for a few nights, they can live in a decidedly Canadian style. Many properties enjoy international renown. Wander, from Prince Edward County, Ontario, is a darling of the design press in France. The June Motel expansion in Sauble Beach, Ontario was the subject of a six-part Netflix series, Motel makeover. And Kitoki Inn, on Bowen Island in British Columbia, has been featured in Vogue.
With the easing of border restrictions, these properties are poised to welcome international visitors as well as locals, introducing them to the country’s aesthetic diversity and the challenges of finding a succinct definition of “Canadian design.”
“I think the diversity within Canadian design, in a weird way, is what makes it Canadian,” says Anwar Mekhayech, co-founder of Canadian firm Design Agency. He says that in countries like Brazil, Spain or France, which have centuries-old design traditions, it’s much easier to pinpoint what makes their look unique, which is less obvious in Canada.
“Whether it’s Vancouver or Halifax, Toronto or Montreal, in one country, we really have a massively international perspective on design,” he says.
While there may not be a definitive style among them, what unites the new generation of boutique accommodations in Canada is a sensibility. They’re designed in such a way that travelers feel like these places are their second homes (all the better since they don’t have to make their beds).
Hotel St-Thomas, which opened in Montreal last year between the Quartier des Spectacles, Gay Village and Plateau Mont-Royal, is a mix of old and new that mimics the city itself . The 23-room boutique hotel is split between Maison François de Martigny, named after the building’s original owner, and an elegant seven-story black aluminum building behind the historic stone house. “It’s the same inside, where you have a mixture of old architecture – with the herringbone flooring, marble and gold – but then we modernize it with black steel,” says Jennifer Nguyen, co-owner of the hotel with her husband.
Nguyen says they designed the hotel to appeal to travelers like them: socialites, creatives – and parents. Many rooms have furnished balconies that allow guests to relax while admiring the neighborhood of townhouses and low-rise buildings, and interior design choices are ultra-local: plants, coffee, and treats mini bar are all from nearby stores. “The common point of all clienteles is that they are looking for a local experience. They want that human touch,” she says.
Similarly, Shannon Hunter, owner of Wander, says the primary driver behind all design decisions for the resort in Bloomfield, Ontario, which also opened in 2021, was “experience.” “It was like, how do we want our customers to feel when they’re in our spaces? Let’s not talk about color palette or start looking at tile swatches until we’ve really defined what we want that feeling to be,” she says. “What stays with you, that makes you want to come back, that makes you think fondly of your stay here in five years? This is probably not what the tile looks like.
Wander’s airy cabins have a refined yet airy vibe. The lounge seats covered in inviting cushions encourage naps and the bath towels have a wonderful texture that makes hand-washing a treat.
Penny’s Motel, which opened last year in Thornbury, Ont., has coolers outside each of its 13 rooms, giving guests a reason to hang out on what is effectively their porch. In the lobby lounge of the recently opened modern wing of Toronto’s Drake Hotel, designed by Design Agency, guests are likely to quickly identify their favorite chair among the eclectic seating options.
Markus Schreyer, who works in the hotel industry and lives in New York, recently stayed at the Drake while visiting Toronto. He calls the hotel not just a home away from home, but “a destination itself.” He says he likes the new approach to Canadian design aesthetics because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
“Canada’s lifestyle boutique hotel landscape offers exactly that: candid, unrefined experiences that match travelers’ desire for a different, honest aesthetic,” Schreyer said. “For me, as a traveler, I want to stay in a place that gives me a new perspective, that lasts beyond the trip.
It’s this kind of connection that the contemporary Canadian hotel scene has so well engineered. The metaphorical rugs at the front door don’t just say welcome, they say welcome.
As part of The Globe and Mail Saturday April 9 at the Interior Design Show in Toronto, contributor Maryam Siddiqi is hosting the talk, Destination Chic: The Influence of Canada’s Boutique Hotel Boom on our Living Spaces. Panelists include The Drake Hotel Creative Director, Joyce Lo; Wander The Resort founder Shannon Hunter; Alongside co-founder and chief creative officer Eliane Cadieux; and June Motel co-founder Sarah Sklash. For more information, visit interiordesignshow.com.