Design Diary

A personal review of design creations.

Bigwin Island Club Cabins


Land of indigenous population for centuries, developed as luxury retreat since 1922, the Bigwin Island hosts now brand new club cabins by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects.

Nestled among maple, pine and ash trees, the first three cabins of a planned community of 40 have a sweeping view, down to the golf course and the lake beyond.


The 40 cabins will follow three design templates, each inspired by a different type of landscape found on the island: linear on the lake, courtyard in the woods, and pinwheel on the meadow. 

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects’ design process begins by listening to the land. The cabins stand on storied ground. Named after Ojibway Chief John Bigwin, the island was historically a home to sacred spaces, a place of significance to the region’s Indigenous population. The first golf course on Bigwin Island was built in 1922, and for decades the island was the site of a glittering luxury resort — the summer home of Canadian industrial titans, Hollywood stars, and even the Dutch royal family.


This development is part of property owner Jack Wadsworth’s plan for the island’s revitalisation. Wadsworth nixed a proposed 150-room hotel in favour of 40 guest houses, ranging from 114 to 125 square metre each, and launched a design competition for the project. The brief was a project that would respect the island’s history, the Muskoka region’s distinctive architectural aesthetic, and the environment, employing practical construction techniques and maximizing energy efficiency and sustainability.

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects won the competition with a project that expresses archetypal concepts. Exquisitely crafted from natural materials, with a quietly assertive design, the cabins reference the big, sheltering roofs of Muskoka’s historic cottages and boathouses, and even evoke the interior of a canoe. Each cabin is assembled from a simple kit of parts: a screened-in porch, a deck, a hearth, a great room, a sleeping box, and a roof, all fitted seamlessly together.


An extruded box, clad in shiplapped wood, adjoins a glass pavilion holding an open plan living and dining space, which is topped by a deep hip roof, clad with cedar shingles. The exterior is understated, and the interior is dramatic, airy, and gracious — the main living space of the pavilion rises to a peak. Shiplapped wood also lines the interior of the bed box and hearth, enhancing the seamlessness between indoors and out. The room is naturally lit from above via a periscope window in the gable. The bedrooms and bathrooms (two of each) are spare and elegant. 


Although sophisticated in appearance, the buildings employ practical construction techniques. The roof structure is made from ordinary engineered trusses, elevated through meticulous design into something beautiful. An important principle in practice for MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple is to touch the land lightly, to minimize disruption of the landscape. This simplicity of craft is, in part, a response to the significant challenges of building on an island during the short cold period between the fall and spring golf seasons. Environmental sustainability is also built into their construction. Materials and labour were locally sourced. The geothermal heating system harvests heat from the lake and radiates it from the floors. In the summer, a natural, passive ventilation system channels hot air up and away through the peaked roof. 


The ambition of this project transcends the individual guesthouses; Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple is bringing to Bigwin Island a vision of community. The buildings engage not only with the landscape, but with each other. They are sited in clusters, where their transparency and openness put them in conversational relationships. The spaces between them are small enough to allow neighbours to wave each other over; some will encircle meadows ideally sized for cookouts and children’s games.


At once familiar and experimental, respectful and assertive, and durable enough to stand up to the demanding climate of their location while elegantly referencing its layered heritage and beauty, the Bigwin Island cabins offer a balanced, inventive and sustainable response to a complex architectural challenge.

Pictures by Doublespace Photography.

The Yule Mountain Boutique Hotel

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In the Chinese province of Hangzhou, a modest farmhouse went through a complex transformation over two years to become a contemporary boutique hotel.

In the small village of Baisha, by the Taihuyuan creek surrounded by Tianmu Mountains, the original 4-storey was facing south and against the mountains. The building was using an imitation of blue brick veneers, flush gable roofs and exquisitely carved timber doors and windows, forming the 'traditional Chinese' farmhouse style. The night was at 200 Yuan per person. The courtyard was located at the north side of the main with a bamboo forest separating it from the neighbours.

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The development of tourism has pushed the owners of this humble farmhouse to totally transform the property into the Yule Mountain Boutique Hotel.

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Continuation Studio was asked to renovate the site with architecture and interior design. The first challenge was “reunite with landscape” by combining an exclusive location with the benefits of the surrounding nature and avoid somehow the very noisy road just nearby. 

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Landscape, as spiritual and physical sustenance of Chinese people, is the everlasting spatial subject for space creators to borrow ideas from. Gardens located in the southern urban realm, always have sublime landscape inside, separating itself with the exterior carnal world. 

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Therefore, it was needed to build the boutique hotel into a "small universe" which is independent of external world. Guests need to walk through a deep entrance to get there, after which landscape would be the only thing you live with.

Following the existing height of the terrain, the studio divided the original external space into three parts: the external provincial road, the inner courtyard and the mountains on the slope.

The outermost part includes provincial road, the entrance and parking lot. The raised terrace, as the guiding space for entering the site, isolated site with external world. The inner courtyard which faces the main building is the significant place for creating the living atmosphere.

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The circulation of the original entrance was very straight. Guests would cross the provincial road directly to the inner courtyard, piercing the main landscape of the lobby. The process of entering the inner space from the external noisy highway is lack of buffering as well, making it is difficult to quickly involve into the peaceful atmosphere of the boutique hotel.

The shallow pool in front of the lobby forms the main part of the inner courtyard. It explains the 'Emptiness’, meaning Close to nothing in Zenism, and also reflects the mountain and sky in distance. 

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The circulation in the inner courtyard is set around the pool. The bluestone paved platform is set below the porch of the main building, where the circulation starts and enters the rightward to the tea pavilion which has fine wood grille façade and sloping eaves. 

 The tea pavilion on the waterfront, the veranda, the sky and mountains are reflected in the water. The horizontal volume obstructs the external interference and cooperates with the view of the distant forest.

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The number of rooms reduced from 30 to 15 and the reconfiguration of the plan makes each bathroom has landscape viewing. 


The renovation of Yule mountain boutique hotel took more than 2 years from the design to the formal operation. 


Pictures by Yilong Zhao, Jiujiang Fan, Hongfei Zhao

Saint George Hotel: Toronto’s untold story


In the heart of Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, the Saint George Hotel mixes local heritage with a tasteful contemporary flavour.

The interior design of the Saint George Hotel communicates a narrative of local pride, diverse heritage and contemporary culture to create a hotel experience that celebrates Toronto’s layered history and sensibilities. The 14-story hotel integrates elements of Toronto’s culture and personality, giving guests a distinct sense of place. The experience of being a guest in their own well-appointed apartment. With 188 guest rooms and suites, a fitness centre, meeting and event space, the property provides unique guest accommodations within a neighbourhood setting.


Guests initial experience with the hotel comes via an exterior black wood awning at the main entry, giving the hotel street presence and welcoming guests for their stay. The lighting is a subtle nod to the iconic marquee signs that once occupied the neighbourhood.

The most visually striking element on the exterior is the 10-storey high hand-painted mural on the west-facing facade of the building. Mason Studio commissioned well-known street artist BirdO to create a surreal geometric bird that continues the narrative of the interior experience to the exterior.

Upon entry, the reception area features a marble desk framed with wooden arches, back dropped by a hand painted mural of a misty Toronto-inspired scene. Adjacent to reception is a guest lounge, designed to feel like a living room. The space is a collection of bespoke furniture, artwork, lighting and objects, many crafted by local makers that continue to tell the story of local culture and design.  


Arches are used throughout the hotel as a physical indicator of moving from one experience to another. They visually guide guests throughout the space while paying homage to Toronto’s diverse architectural style and eras.


A 40-sqm lounge situated on the main floor, just outside the meeting room is realised in darker, more saturated tones to convey a feeling of intimacy. A custom bar and beverage area offer the opportunity for guests to relax before entering the meeting room.


On the guestroom levels, a collection of original, small vintage black-and-white photographs from a couple’s vacation to Toronto appear at each guest entry. These images tell an intimate story of early post-war vacationers discovering the city.

The suites are a continuation of the nostalgic nod to the layered heritage of the neighbourhood. The rooms are designed with a residential approach by housing a collection of art and custom designed furniture and lighting that is seemingly collected over time.

Every element in the suites is carefully designed to provide guests with an experience parallel to a well-appointed apartment in the neighbourhood, offering guests with an alternative to more traditional hotel accommodations.


Photography: Naomi Finlay

Middle Eastern Salone 2019: The Ramel Collection revisits An Arabian Hospitality Tradition

Coffee and dates are the base of Arabian hospitality. They are offered to honour the guest as a symbol of peace. The Foundry by Tinkah works around the desert sand for a collection of contemporary coffee cups.

Ramel is the Arabic word for sand. In the United Arab Emirates, the ever shifting dunes have inspired The Foundry by Tinkah to develop a material that tames the characteristics of desert sand into a moldable medium. “Ramel” has the ability to shift shape into functional and aesthetic products that emerge from their environment rather than adopting their surrounding. As homage to a global culture, The Foundry has designed and produced the humble coffee cup using sand.


The Foundry is an inventive creative space set up by Tinkah*. With experimental exploration at its core, The Foundry allows Tinkah’s artists, designers, writers, creatives the dedicated environment to defy the monotony of commercial design. Organically emerging from Dubai, the creative practice draws inspiration from its immediate environment. For this particular design they looked at the most abundant and unused natural resource in the UAE, they set out with the aim to utilise sand into a reproducible product. 

With focus on a scalable manufacturing process, they proceeded to create a composite material the combines the visual, tactile and heat insulative properties of sand with the castability of slip ceramic. Plan in hand, they loaded up the pickup and set out into the UAE desert to collect different colored sand samples.

This endeavour quickly morphed into a material science challenge with trial and error driving every decision. Iron, calcium, silica, aluminum and magnesium are just a few of the elements found in desert sand, each sample varied in composition. With the process of elimination and continued experimentation they were able to achieve promising results. Following multiple casting attempts, it was instantly apparent that traditional slip casting techniques, mixtures and firing temperatures have to be re-explored and adjusted. 

With months worth of R&D behind them, The Foundry moved along to design the first product that will bare the newly developed material. A transglobal culture, coffee and coffee drinkware was the way forward. The studio reimagined the traditional bedouin coffee cup into one that feels right at home serving espresso in Milan or Arabic coffee in Cairo.


*In Arabic, Tinkah translates to “tin container”. In specific, one that is used by bedouins to protect their most prized possessions. Building on this story, our practice leads the creation of objects and experiences that resonate with our collective cultural memory. Beyond function, bedouin Coffee culture was a strong driving force in guiding the cup’s form factor. Traditionally, a guest and host might perform subtle cues with the drinkware to nonverbally communicate. To honour a guest, the host presents the cup scooped up from the bottom with their fingers, the conical shape of the cup allows that to be done with ease.  Once the guest is done drinking, the guest lightly wiggles the cup while holding it from the rim to convey that they have had enough. Left untextured, the clear rim acts as a visual indication to this unique tradition. Although absent from bedouin cup design, the addition of a handle prevents the cup from falling over as well as a reaching hand to contemporary coffee drinking convention.

The Ramel Collection is part of Meet My Project located at Next Agency, via Varese 18, Brera, Milan. Open from April 9th until 13th.