Bridging The Urban And Rural: +tongtong’s Drake Devonshire Inn

The winner of multiple awards, including a Best Of Canada Design Award, several HD awards, and honours from enRoute Magazine, the Drake Devonshire Inn is the architectural gem of Ontario’s Prince Edward County. Designed by John Tong of +tongtong, in collaboration with ERA Architects and Carlo Colacci (the in-house stylist and general buyer for the Drake Hotel and Drake General Store in Toronto), it’s a project as varied and eclectic as the range of voices involved.

Nestled on the shores of Lake Ontario, cantilevered over the mouth of a creek that feeds into the Lake, the Drake Devonshire Inn makes every use of its natural surroundings to form a retreat that offers tranquility with a healthy dose of quirk.

We recently spoke with John Tong about the design process.

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Tong had designed the original Drake Hotel on Toronto’s Queen Street West, and was brought onboard to help ensure that the voice of the brand would remain the same, despite the difference in location (the Devonshire is located about two and a half hours away). The process of collaboration comes naturally to Tong, thanks in part to his diverse background in the design field; he originally trained as an architect at the University of Toronto before moving on to a career that focuses largely on interiors and furniture. “There’s this kind of language that I speak that is a crossover from architecture to interior space and how we occupy those spaces,” he says.

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According to Tong, everyone has an idea of what it might be like to experience a cottage or inn in a rural setting. “I think we played a lot on the tactile aspects of that,” he says. As a team, they endeavoured to make the dining room, bar, and restaurant feel as spacious and communal as possible. Tong found inspiration in his own experiences attending summer camp as a child, playing up the idyllic qualities of a dining hall and its typical features — a piano in the corner, rafters exposed, banquet seating.

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The materials and details used in this space were chosen to find a balance between industrial and nautical motifs, exemplified especially in the lighting around the perimeter. “I like splashes of contrasting elements,” says Tong. The white floor has a natural patina, and a concrete tile with a natural embedded pattern was used as a kind of decorative motif. Pops of bright yellow were added to brighten the room, a splash of colour that Tong likens to a lemon squeezed over food; here those citrus notes awaken the visual palette.

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Reflecting on the eclectic nature of the design choices, Tong shares that it wasn’t always easy for those involved to understand how so many contrasting elements could eventually form a cohesive whole. And for the longest time, Tong confesses that he couldn’t always communicate exactly how he would achieve this — simply that he would. “It’s like a chef – how much salt do you put in before it’s too much?” he says. Fortunately, the owner of the Drake has an appreciation for a similar eclectic character.

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During the design process, Tong and Colacci travelled to antique shows throughout North America, selecting unique furniture pieces that were then reupholstered and refurbished. Tong believes furniture to be an instrument that serves to support how a space is used; for instance, some pieces invite the user to sink into them and lounge, whereas firmer couches or tables can be more conducive to working.

A signature creation of Tong’s at the Drake’s Toronto location, the One Arm Stool, makes a reappearance in the Devonshire. “The One Arm Stool was a kind of study of a social condition,” Tong explains. “The stool was devised in such a way that people were forced to engage with each other; when a bar is crowded, it would force you to engage with the person beside you. Body language affects how you use a piece of furniture and how you position yourself in a space…It’s really about an expression of craft and communicating to its user how they might use it. Sometimes we leave it so open that it needs to be interpreted.”

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While Tong did not specifically have a hand in the purchasing of the art, he did work with the project’s art curator to construct a visual language. Personally, he is drawn to the kind of art that is not necessarily meant to exist as a framed entity, but rather engages with the space and the building itself.

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“The approach to the Drake, for me, was always one where diversity allows more freedom,” says Tong. “Once there’s a motif, there’s a kind of restraint; it restrains you to a certain kind of work.”

During his work on the Toronto location, Tong and the team of architects liked to set very clear guidelines and rules that guided decisions in the project – and then these were promptly broken. And because they have established a visual identity with both locations for breaking rules, it encourages others to do the same, allowing people to change and evolve a space without viewing it as overly precious and static. “We like the idea of a space evolving — every time you come, it’s different.”

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Compared to the remainder of the Inn, the Glass Box – a common area for entertainment — is relatively minimal. This served to satisfy a contemporary twist on the more traditional bones of the structure. As with all of Tong’s work, it is firmly planted in acknowledgement and respect for the past, but at the same time is ready to “run and do new things.” The Devonshire historical building was once the Wellington Iron Foundry, built in 1860 and converted to a private home roughly forty years later. It operated as a nursing home in the 1970s before becoming a bed and breakfast. This rich history, he says, inspired all of the various editions that were added. “As they were put in place, we felt as though we’d payed respect to those elements — what could we do to take it to the next step?”

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Tong and his team are currently working on an addition to the Drake Devonshire: a spa. The design of this space, like the Glass Box, will have a more contemporary approach in terms of its architecture, using materials in innovative ways. “We don’t want to get trapped,” says Tong. “We’ll break our own rules. Something old, something new, something borrowed…”

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The Inn offers eleven rooms, each of which is unique and caters to different sensibilities, from views of the serene landscape to unique artwork. The rooms are named for either their historical or geographical offerings: Creekside, Courtyard, Stargazer, Foundry. Each room houses artisanal handmade dolls.

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Perhaps the Drake Devonshire’s pièce de résistance, the Owner’s Suite, is a room toted by the Inn as “perfect for the tastemaker and frequent traveller.” This A-Frame room comes with its own private patio.

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As for whether Tong has a favorite room or element of the project, he shares that he is less attached to any particular piece than he is drawn to a particular experience. Here he enjoys the experience of using the front entrance and following a pathway to the dining room. “That sequence is kind of choreographed,” says Tong. Guests walk through the front door and find themselves in a lobby, and then venture down a hallway that was designed to be a low space that draws the eye to the lake at the end of the corridor, where the huge glass windows of the lofty dining room await.

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Another experience he enjoys is the transition from the old building to the newer additions. The old building features a great deal of colour, mixed patterns, and loud tiles, and many of these have been chosen for their clash. In the newer spaces, however, things get more pared down and refined. “The palette gets cleaner,” Tong explains. “It’s still sprinkled with colour, but it’s a lot calmer in the way the colors are displayed, and it’s less about the pattern.”

This is especially true in the Inn’s use of wallpaper; in the old building it’s used in a traditional way, but in the newer building, it’s used in unconventional strips contrasted with boards.

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The inspiration for the mismatched tile came from the experience of renovating old houses. The process of stripping away flooring and discovering the layers of flooring from previous owners is one that Tong likens metaphorically to the unravelling of time. Here, the clashing of tiles and different patterns is meant to evoke that feeling of layers being stripped away.

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While there are many impressive aspects of the Drake Devonshire Inn, perhaps one of its most excellent achievements is endearing itself not only to tourists, but to locals. “We’re really pleased with how people have reacted to it,” says Tong. “We’re even more pleased that the people in the town have embraced it. It bridges the urban and the rural.”

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