Gary Marshall – Founder & Managing Director, Tonik Associates
Sophie Harper talks to Gary Marshall about the challenges of modern design and how his team’s ethos is just the ‘tonik’.
Industries are merging more and more these days; from hospitality to retail, residential to commercial, where lines are being blurred and we’re trying to make sense of new markets and consumer demand.
Since graduating in 1986, Gary Marshall has lived and breathed design. Having done a placement year at Fitch (as it was at the time), Gary became immersed in retail design. “On the back of the retail boom of that period I got involved in some really cool high street and retail projects. I went back to Fitch after graduating before joining a Canadian-based group called IDG, which was focusing less on high street and more on shopping malls. This was at the end of the eighties, so they were booming in those days. I moved into retail catering and food court design – at the time it was quite exciting because it was something new.”
IDG closed down in the early nineties but rather than looking for work at other studios, Gary decided to launch his own business, Matrix Design. “I was around 28, 29 years old and I knew I wanted to do my own thing even though I was quite young. I had some clients who I took with me and simply carried on as I had been doing before. After a couple of years I got some backing from a facility management company but they wanted to sell out to Tarmac – the road builders and construction company. Anyway, they convinced me it was a good idea and at the time Tarmac was forming a professional services company focusing on architecture and engineering, and they were looking for boutique design businesses to come in and give them a creative edge. My little business fit in perfectly with that, so I joined them – effectively selling the business before it was worth anything – to be part of a bigger company.”
Gary was MD for the company for five years before he was head-hunted by Mohamed Al-Fayed, who was looking for a director of design for Harrods. “I sat on the board for three years looking after all things Harrods, which started as looking after projects in-store and ended up with me looking after everything really, from the food halls and men’s fashion to window displays and interior design and looking after a team of 250 people – it was an amazing time. Mohamed Al-Fayed introduced me to the crowned prince of Thailand at the time, whose royal palace we styled. That prince is now the king of Thailand – so I peaked quite early on in my career!”
In 1999 Gary wanted to make a return to running his own business and founded Tonik, but realised rather quickly that the design market wasn’t exactly as he’d remembered. “When I came back to the industry everything had changed, so I had to start from scratch.” So he learned to become adaptable. “The business has expanded and contracted over the last 20 years and the model that we operate now is that we work across all sectors. I think as the market changes that becomes more valuable, more interesting, because the sectors are merging so our experience in retail or residential can dovetail into hospitality and everything else now.”
The last couple of years has brought more change to the company, unphased, Gary and his team are now masters at moving with the times. “Since the pandemic we’ve gone from being a service provider to being a solution provider,” he says. “During various lockdowns we’ve made sure we’ve kept a sense of togetherness and so the team would meet each morning online and we’d invent these projects – like turning empty restaurant spaces into cool co-working hubs or working out what could be done with empty department stores and coming up with creative solutions – it’s been invigorating.”
The team’s approach to any new project through is always the same – with one main objective in mind. “The first question we ask when approaching any project is ‘who’s your guest?’. We need to establish who the target market is and what the differentiator will be between this hotel and ten others in the surrounding area. That’s the essence of what we do. You can’t be creative if that’s not clear because we’re not designing for ourselves, we’re designing for a particular market, so the end user is key.”
Discussing recently completed hotel projects, Gary says that the two hotels they designed for Shiva are particularly good examples of this. “The Guardsman and Middle Eight were both are five-star projects, both luxury lifestyle – and we debated lots about what luxury and what lifestyle meant to the nth degree – but they both have quite different clientele. This is for lots of reasons really: location, number of rooms, the opportunity for additional facilities, size of room, there were lots of different factors thrown into the mix. We realised early on that The Guardsman, because of the size and space available, had to be intimate, it had to be club-like, it had to be a home from home. We had to create a feeling of luxury without the luxury of having lots of space, so we had to think about the sort of guest that would choose a 50-room boutique hotel in that part of town, who was happy with just one on-site restaurant and bar. Middle Eight by contrast is right in the heart of the West End and had the option of having a couple of bars and restaurants and it has a completely different vibe but on face value the brief was very similar. The Guardsman is a newbuild, Middle Eight was a refurb – Middle Eight was quite objective in terms of working out with the developer how to increase room rate, with design following on from that, whereas The Guardsman was planned from scratch so then it was about thinking how many rooms we could get out of the space.”
Once they’ve worked out the market and the logistics of fitting everything into the space they have to work with, the design team builds a story for each project. “Clearly destination is key because that underlines whether something’s an urban hotel, a country house hotel, a boutique, so that’s always a good starting point. We’ll look at the values of the client, we’ll look at what messages they’re trying to get across, we’ll research the history of the building, and then we try to put our own twist on that. With The Guardsman we wanted to make it so boutique that every room felt different, so we came up with different back stories for the rooms on each floor and alternated them across the hotel so that they did all feel very different. Then the residences took on the personalities of different women in politics – the stories became very holistic and that carried on throughout the rest of the hotel. Ideally the story feels organic but isn’t obvious. Storytelling is about creating a story around a property that resonates with the guest it’s marketed towards. We’re a more discerning market these days – it’s about buying into values rather than value. There are a lot of similarities now between hospitality and retail – it’s about getting to know your customer and offering a more bespoke service – and that doesn’t just apply to the luxury market, that’s across all sectors.”
Gary tells me his team is behind the studio’s success and that he feels very fortunate to have such a strong group of people behind the Tonik brand and that as a result, he doesn’t need to get involved with every single detail on a project. “I like to think of myself as more of a mentor these days – I’m like the conduit between the client and the creatives. On the larger projects I probably bring a well-rounded client-side view of what we should be doing and how it should be working, but I’ve got some really great visionary creatives in the business that have been with us for a long time and so I don’t need to worry too much about the details myself.” He adds: “I surround myself with good people and I have an amazing team. They challenge me and I challenge them, and it just works. A lot of them are young, and that’s what you need – for new ideas, we exist because of our thinking and our ideas, so I’m always pushing for research and development because things are changing constantly. I think I’m probably as annoying as I am valuable to my team!”
Being so multi-faceted as a design studio is a plus nowadays, but Gary says there’s still progress to be made; “It’s difficult sometimes as designers – you get pigeon-holed. If you do a couple of Four Seasons hotels you’ll be labelled as luxury designers and people won’t come near you to do a smaller boutique project. I’d like to break that concept apart and change the way people think. Our mission is to unlock potential through design.” And actually, that’s exactly what they’re doing. With a number of exciting projects in the pipeline, Gary tells me how he’s looking forward to working with forward-thinking clients on everything from cruise ships to boutique hotels. “We’re currently working on this amazing water-based wellness concept, we’re also working with a new hospitality client based out of Malta who are looking for a hotel and restaurant site in London, then there’s this amazing ship project which is being converted to make it hydrogen-powered, which is going to be a massive flagship for sustainable luxury – it’s a long-term project but it’s really really exciting, and we’re just about to sign a deal with an international fashion brand to develop a hotel and residences.”