Stonemasonry is the craft of shaping rough pieces of rock into accurate geometrical shapes, mostly simple, but some of considerable complexity, and then arranging the resulting stones, often with mortar, to form structures.
This exact definition could be applied almost directly to the business model of newly established Toronto design firm Mason and, more importantly, to the puppet-masters behind it. This became vastly apparent when I sat down with the duo responsible to discuss everything this multi-disciplinary design house has to offer.
It’s 10:01am on Monday morning when I arrive at my local coffee joint to meet with Ashley Rumsey and Stanley Sun: “Stan,” affectionately. I notice them almost instantly; they stick-out like design-thumbs amongst a sea of crying babies, sleepy Grandmas eating carrot muffins and an overwhelming selection of Bodums for sale. It might also be that we’ve met before: a month prior, to be exact, to discuss their first ever Show Off street festival hosted in Toronto’s design-centric Junction neighborhood.
As I order my highly-overpriced-but-decidedly-necessary-latte, I glance over at them. Sitting there, just so. There’s Stan, with his dark, perfectly coiffed hair and thick-rimmed glasses that appear to be a rite of passage in the design community. Adjacent to him is Ashley, a perfect contrast to Stan, with alabaster skin and a shock of red hair. She’s a modern-day Anne of Green Gables, if Anne knew how to use AutoCAD. An overwhelming air of professionalism exudes from them, as I hunker-down in the seat next to them to start chatting.
“Mason is actually quite new,” starts Sun. “We’ve been in operation for just under a year now, but Ashley and I have been working together for over six.” He goes on to discuss how their partnership was something they both knew would work from the get-go. It was a second-year project at Ryerson’s School of Interior Design that clinched it for them. They attribute this to their shared level of leadership and ambition and similar aesthetic: qualities that made it apparent that theirs was a partnership that would translate well to a business. Professional kindred-spirits, so to speak.
However, Mason wasn’t just born overnight. It’s been a long road, at times steering the two in different directions. During his third year at Ryerson, Sun was offered an exchange program to Hong Kong. Then, without hesitation, he moved to London, England and started working with award-winning architecture and design firm Jump Studios for three years.
Back home in Toronto, Rumsey was also hard at work, obtaining lots of professional experience for some of the world’s best design firms. She worked for the likes of Quadrangle, KPMB Architects and more recently, a 3-year stint with Toronto based design-royalty Yabu Pushelberg.
But that wasn’t enough for Miss. Rumsey or Mr. Sun; they had bigger dreams for themselves. Even though they were in different parts of the world, they were both still clinging to the distant hope that the two of them might start their own firm right here in good-ol’ Toronto. They sought to combine their super-design-forces, like some design-themed-superhero-duo, fighting against bad-design-crime one immaculately curated space at a time!
“It was always sort of a joke,” laughs Rumsey. “Like, hey Stan, are you bored over there yet [in London, England]? We miss you, Stan! Come home!” He obviously wouldn’t tire of the U.K., because who would?! While on holiday in Europe, in the fall of 2009, Ashley visited Stan in London. From that point on, they were hard at work fine-tuning a cohesive business model for what was soon to become Mason: a name that took them upwards of six months to conceive. “Well, Stan’s dad was a stone-mason and my grandfather was also a stone mason, so the name just fell into place,” explained Rumsey.
Mason takes what they refer to as a “holistic” approach to design. “It’s more of an experience of the overall brand, rather than focusing on just the interior,” states Sun, a.k.a. “environmental design”, a phrase they throw around like I know what they’re talking about. So I ask them to break it down in layman’s terms.
“We break our practice down into three components,” starts Rumsey.
“First, we approach the ‘Environmental Design,’ meaning the actual interior environment of the space: the layout, the furniture, finishes, etc. Second, we approach the ‘Communication Design,’ which refers to the signage, graphic identity, packaging and all other print documents like menus or even bathroom signs! We need to make sure that all print aspects of the business are cohesive. Last, we approach the ‘Interactive Design,’ meaning the multi-media or web-based designs.” With Rumsey and Sun being experts in the field of interior design only, as they are quick to clarify, the pair hire experts in various other design-affiliated fields (like interactive or web-designers) on a client-to-client basis.
Despite their jet-setting ways and international following, they always come back to this idea of Toronto being a great community for young entrepreneurs, especially in the design community. “One thing that defines us is our practice of always letting our clients know we are from Canada. We are distinctly Canadian and we’re really proud of that,” states Sun.
“We created Mason together, which allowed us the opportunity to create something that’s rooted here and pull in other artists and designers who are Canadian to create projects that are distinctly Canadian, or what we’re trying to define as Canadian design,” adds Rumsey.
What they’ve both come to realize is that Canadian design can’t be defined by a specific aesthetic, but that it’s our approach to design that defines us. However, if Mason has anything to do with helping to carve out a distinct definition of Canadian design, I’d say we’re in pretty good hands.