In Residence with Ricky Alvarez
He is a creative force who defies labels.
We gave him one anyway. The resident artist’s most recent work is on display in downtown Toronto at Walrus Pub & Beer hall, Donnelly Group’s most ambitious property yet.
Put Ricky Alvarez in a box and he’ll design a way out before he’s had time to get bored. Then he’ll sit next to it while people inspect it and then ask how to get inside. At Donnelly Group, the 37-year-old has been given the designation of resident artist, but most labels slide off him like sunglasses off a sweaty nose. His work is physical, commanding, but raking his skills into a neat and tidy pile, even a multi-hyphenated one, is slippery business.
The son of a Mexican architect and Canadian foreign service worker, Alvarez was raised a dual citizen.
“There were always drafting tables in the house,” he says. “My brother and I were encouraged to express ourselves… But it’s funny, because I don’t consider myself an artist, and I don’t consider myself a designer either.”
After a lifetime of tinkering and building, followed by a period as a freelance window dresser, Alvarez launched his own design studio, Tinto Creative, which he maintains today as a laboratory for his mad science design experiments, melting metals, deconstructing and reimaging objects and collaborating with other artists.
Similarly reluctant to be categorized is the location of much of Alvarez’s recent efforts, Walrus Pub & Beer Hall. It is a multifaceted, multisensory graduation of the traditional pub, ripped from his and Donnelly Group’s other chaotic minds, complete with an open-air pub with high ceilings and custom hanging brass lights, a satellite martini bar, a greenhouse atrium containing multiple custom shuffleboards and entrance to the 150-seat outdoor patio, as well as a beer hall with ping pong tables, barbershop and European-style café underground off the PATH system.
“I like to take risks,” says Alvarez. “Growing up, I was always breaking things apart to see what was inside. I’ve spent the last 15 years failing often—like, a lot of pieces just didn’t work out, a lot of sculptures didn’t really hit the mark. But every single project was a stepping stone to the next thing.”
In Walrus, Alvarez and the team were very much after that “next thing.” Bay St in downtown Toronto is the financial nucleus of the nation, and as such, a bold location for an experimental property.
Access via the subterranean PATH provides sightlines uncharacteristic of the city centre’s right-angled grid. The three joint businesses—Lovejoy Café, Pong and Barber & Co.—create a sense of flow, a walk-through experience with portholes that peer from one room to the next and a lack of structural columns or obstructive lighting in Lovejoy that leaves the view unspoiled. In Barber & Co., a mosaic of mirrors along one wall reflects light and bounces fragmented images of barbers and baristas back at themselves.
“It’s a bit intense,” admits Alvarez. “But we wanted to create a really impactful first experience.”
Upstairs, the experience continues, with unique design elements like a flock of stuffed birds, mounted on rotating mobiles within a glass case in the middle of the main hall. Their beady eyes provide a satirical take on the hierarchical pecking order that dominates the business world outside. Alvarez’s handiwork.
Still, within all the wonderful strangeness, there’s a strange familiarity. The space remains approachable, true to its publican roots with craft beer on tap, pool tables and classic pub food. As Alvarez puts it, “there’s an honesty to the space.”
Honest, like a box with an intriguing exit. Or is it an entrance? You’ll have to climb in to Ricky Alvarez’ world to find out.