For the past three decades, UNION31 has created beautiful interiors for condos, offices, stores, and homes in Toronto and abroad. Over the past several years UrbanToronto has reported on many of the buildings that the interior design firm has brought its refined look to. In that time, Alex Chapman has been the guiding light, but Chapman has decided it's time for the company to be led by a new team which has been groomed to take the company into the future, and time for him to relax a little more.

On the occasion of his retirement, UrbanToronto recently had the opportunity to chat with Alex Chapman about Chapman Design and UNION31's formation, the company's legacy, and what the future holds for the company. 

Alex Chapman, image courtesy of Union31

Alex began his career in Europe in the early '70s working for a company designing hotels in England and France.  At the beginning the hotel industry in Europe was booming, but suddenly the British economy crashed and the boom was over. It did not look like the economy was going to pick up again anytime soon, so Alex started looking for opportunities elsewhere which eventually led him to Toronto. Crossing the Atlantic by boat in 1976, arriving in Toronto on a Friday and starting work the following Monday, Chapman’s design career has successfully spanned several decades. 

After working in Toronto for others for a three years, Alex went out on his own and formed Chapman Design Ltd. in late 1979.

The big break came for Chapman Design when they landed a large project working with Olympia & York. The developer had purchased a former refrigeration plant on Queens Quay in the Harbourfront area, which at that time was considered a wasteland. They were planning an innovative development — Queens Quay Terminal — that was way ahead of its time, one of the first mixed-use retail-office-condo developments in Toronto, and built into a huge heritage warehouse to complicate it all. Chapman Design's primary focus was making the retail, commercial and residential all work together, and on their own. 

Queens Quay Terminal's success helped launch Chapman Design into other international projects, as developers from abroad were coming to Toronto to examine it. One of the exciting results was with a residential developer from Manhattan who hired Chapman Design to create the interiors of their Upper East Side Sutton 57 development. This project launched a natural progression that led Chapman to designing residential projects, sales centres and model suites, and by the end of the late '80s, they were working on common areas and amenity spaces too. Some early projects included Polo Club Phase II at Bay and St. Joseph, and Hazelton Lanes Phase II in Yorkville. Both these buildings were launched prior to the crash of 1988/89 and sold instantly.

Hazelton Lanes Phase II, image courtesy of Union31

After surviving the storm of the recession of the late '80s, the early '90s brought a new concept into play when Faith Popcorn identified the cocooning trend. People began to nest more, the working from home trend began, offices became less corporate, and workplaces became more flexible. In conjunction with the advent of the internet, people began taking more control of their lives and the spaces they inhabited.

From a design point of view, people started to become more sophisticated, and the role and function of designers became more important to developers. People were traveling more, reading more, and subsequently putting much more focus on design. The development industry went from hiding their design teams to featuring the names of the architects and interior designers who were becoming known quantities. People were now buying expertise and knowledge. The increased expectations allowed everyone involved to interact more and everyone got more professional.

Lobby of Parc Somerset House in Chevy Chase Maryland, image courtesy of Union31

Over the years, Chapman Design kept growing as they worked on individual residential and multi-unit development projects. One of Chapman's most memorable projects was a home they designed the interiors for in the West Indies, which at 30,000 square feet, was beyond what you would even consider a mansion. Chapman found the project both rewarding and challenging; rewarding in that the client gave them a lot of power to resolve architectural details, and challenging in that they had to supply, ship and install all the furniture and accessories from abroad. By the end of it, the home had the feel of a fabulous private hotel.

Private Home in the West Indies, image courtesy of Union31

Three years ago Chapman Design became UNION31, forming a new company along with the name change. The name connotes;

  • Union in the sense of partners coming together
  • The number 3 is symbolic to the 3 partners
  • The number 1 is symbolic of Alex
  • 31 also refers to the age of the previous company.

So, who are UNION31 now that Chapman is letting go? The three partners are now…

Nancy Dyson, Alex Chapman, Kelly Cray & Neil Jonsohn, image courtesy of Union31

Nancy Dyson, with the company since 1982. Nancy is in charge of the financial end of company, and has overseen the its growth over the years. 

Nancy Dyson of Union31, image courtesy of Union31

Kelly Cray joined the company at the end of the '90s. Kelly's focus is more toward the developer projects.

Kelly Cray of Union31, image courtesy of Union31

Neil Jonsohn has also been with the company since the end of the '90s. Neil’s focus is more on individual residences the company deisgns.

Neil Jonsohn of Union31, image courtesy of Union31

The three partners have worked together for approximately 13 years. They have their own visions of what they want to do with the company and Alex is excited to see where they will take UNION31 in the future. 

The list of projects, past and present, by Chapman's companies is a lengthy oneUrbanToronto's dataBase file for the company includes just a few of the many projects designed by UNION31 which UrbanToronto has covered. The list includes Tridel's recently completed 300 Front Street West and upcoming 101 Erskine projects, Monarch and Goldman's Picasso, and lots more. Some other well known projects Union31 have done the interior design for include…

1 King West,

Photo of 1 King West Penthouse Model, image courtesy of Union31

85 Bloor East,

Rendering of 85 Bloor Sales Office, image courtesy of Union31

and Alterra and Zinc's luxury boutique condo 36Hazelton, currently under construction in Yorkville.

Rendering of 36 Hazelton Townhome, image courtesy of Union31

When speaking with Alex about his retirement, he's excited to see where life will take him next. Chapman is looking forward to travelling for the next six months across Europe, the Far East, and Australia. He will wait to see what his plans are when he returns to Toronto, but says he will always be available to give the partners support.   We look forward to catching up with him again in the future to see which journey his life takes him to next. In the meantime we know that UNION31 will aim to make the world more beautiful one interior design project at a time. 

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