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Meet the Minds – Navigate

February 7, 2018
Ken Lam and Maher Murshed

Photos: Recent Projects

 Ken Lam and Maher Murshed knew they were meant to be in a creative industry from an early age. “I loved to draw ever since I was a kid,” says Lam, while Murshed began his career in design when he was 18. “I haven’t stopped since,” he adds. Lam graduated from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada with an electrical engineering degree and cut his teeth at a local residential firm and HOK where he learned two important lessons: “Work very hard and be very resilient to the demands of the industry, which can sometimes be quite hectic, and aesthetics is only a quarter of the design, execution is the rest.” Meanwhile, Murshed grew up all over the world and applied what he learned from Asian, Arab, and European cultures into his design aesthetic. After meeting through a third party, Lam and Murshed started Navigate. Here, the cofounders of the Toronto and New York-based firm talk about their earliest design memories, taking risks and striking out on their own, and their passion for hospitality.

What are some of your first memories of design?
KL: In grade six, one of my classmates lured me to draw a 20-story service apartment, complete with amenities, retail shops, a grocery store, and a restaurant below, which was one of our class projects at the time. I would draw people and furniture in each unit and stylize them. He would sell these drawings to our classmates for $2 a piece, and they would sign their name on them and hand them in. Problem was, he was the one collecting the money, and only paying me with [soda]. This taught me I was meant to be an interior designer, but had some learning to do when it came to running a business.

MM: I was always inspired by architecture and the buildings around me. I didn’t know it when I was young, but modernist design always caught my eye, and it is still what I gravitate towards.

Did where you grew up influence your career path?
KL: I grew up in Hong Kong where space is very limited, so instinctively I was brought up to utilize every inch of a space, whether it’s my room or my desk. In school, I became very drawn to mathematics, particularly in geometry and trigonometry, which helps me with spatial awareness. The math part got me into engineering but also got me into design.

MM: I lived in a lot of different countries growing up, so I was fortunate to see many different cities and cultures. Singapore always stands out to me, as modernism is so significant there. A lot of the aesthetic I bring into my work has been picked up from Southeast Asia. It definitely fueled my interest in design.

Why and how did you start your own firm?
KL: I felt it was the right time in my career to take a bigger risk. It was big leap of faith; I quit my job with no backup plan. I met Maher through a third-party introduction and felt collectively we had a good common vision. Our different strengths complemented each other, and gave us the ability to do something different in the design industry. Six months later, we started Navigate, which at the time was just the two of us and one staff.

Can you discuss some of your recent projects?
KL: Sweet Salvation just opened two weeks ago in Dubai. This is a flagship store for a Toronto creative ice cream brand called Sweet Jesua. We are the agency of record to roll out all stores globally. We are also working toward the opening of Mira, an edgy Peruvian concept due to open in the New Year. Celino Hotel on South Beach, Miami is also well underway, with 132 rooms and two restaurants.

Is there a challenging project that you are especially proud of?
KL: Weslodge Dubai, as it was the first out-of-country project I worked on. It was both challenging and satisfying. We had to learn all the cultural and local constraints as well as catering to multiple owners spanning from Toronto to Dubai. Other challenges included the footprint of the space, which resembles a pecan; the wiring (no gas in the kitchen); the size of the freight elevator (so items had to be extremely modular); and the fact we were 68 floors up.

MM: I am very interested in the 360-degree approach to design. Beyond the interior, looking at branding, artwork, and the entire concept from start to finish. We are working on a Peruvian restaurant right now, and I love the way we found balance between Peru and Toronto in not only the space but also the menu. It’s the fusing of cultures.

What is the most important thing to remember when designing a project, including restaurants—both in terms of branding and interiors??
KL: We are designing for the client, but also for the clients’ clients. This is where branding is extremely important to research the target market and execute on both visual graphics and interiors. Our goal is not just aesthetics, but to focus on helping client have the highest return on investment and make them look good along the way.

MM: Flow is the single most important thing in a restaurant, and right now the bar has evolved into the life of the restaurant. The bar and dining room now work together to create a cohesive space that is critical for restaurant design. 
For branding, it’s all about digital right now. Customers are likely interacting with your brand before they even come to the restaurant. Because of this, you need integration between the digital and the physical.

What about for hotels?
KL: When designing a hotel, it is more important to figure out how the guest is going to use the space. Details such as convenient outlets and bedside charging station, for example, need to be considered. Lighting levels in the room and common areas sets the tone and theme for the hotel.

MM: It’s gotten to a point where the F&B offerings are the selling points of the hotel. Before you would use a hotel as a place to check in, drop your bags, and sleep. Now, hotels are creating entire hospitality experiences. Guests expect vibrancy, activations, and energy when they walk through the doors, and F&B offerings are the best way to do this. Before hotels were typically seeing out-of-town customers, but now they’re catering to the people who live in that city. It’s no surprise you see the top restaurants and bars in hotels in cities like New York and Miami.

Is there an architect or designer you most admire? Why?
KL: Joseph Dirand. I admire his talent in curating the best sophistication and details in design. His designs are clean but not cold. They are luxurious, personal, intimate, creative, and there is always some surprise element for you to discover.

MM: Frank Gehry is a big inspiration of mine, and most notably his project 8 Spruce Street in New York. I find it to be one of the most groundbreaking and stunning structures I have ever seen. It just cascades over the city. I love it.

What would be your dream project and why?
KL: A Soho House-type project in Japan, with an Old World cigar and whiskey lounge underground. I just love the members only-type vibe, and I love Japan, cigars, and whiskey. You can really curate the experience in detail.

MM: I would love to design a hotel in a large urban center that is beginning to gentrify. I picture taking a large industrial complex in a quieter part of town and repurposing it into a hotel—give it life again.

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
KL: [Chef and author] Anthony Bourdain

MM: I’m happy with the people I am having dinner with now.

Where would you eat and what would you be having?
KL: In Miraflores, Peru, eating ceviche and sipping pisco sours.

MM: I would love to be in Tokyo, exploring the city streets and getting an authentic taste of what the city has to offer.

If you weren’t a designer, what would you be?
KL: A software developer.

MM: Someone in the hospitality industry. It’s my passion.