Is it possible to live and work together? A Vancouver couple says ‘yes!’ — and tells us how.
Relationships are tricky business at best, let alone combining marriage with running a successful architectural firm, and keeping both intact.
Vancouver architect John Henshaw and interior designer Joy Chao may well be the poster couple for striking that fine balance, but not without many years behind them of sorting out what works for them professionally, and personally.
After graduating from Carleton University in Ottawa, Henshaw eventually started up his own firm in Vancouver in 1989. “Joy’s dad was one of my clients,” he says. “I did a number of projects for her family.” The two met when Chao acted as translator for her Taiwanese father, who was a developer in the construction industry.
The couple built a friendship, and “John asked me to help out part-time with the books at his firm, since he had a few Asian clients,” says Chao. “I was still in university — studying creative writing, and eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The University of British Columbia. However, John thought I had an eye for design, and encouraged me to go back to school to study interior design.”
In 2001, Chao officially joined Henshaw’s firm, and by then the couple’s friendship had blossomed into romance. Has it been smooth sailing ever since?
“The downfall with working and living together means you really don’t have time to be apart,” she says. “You have to separate work and life. There are times where John has to say, OK, we have to stop talking about work now.” Chao laughs. “We learned slowly to draw that line, so we have time to ourselves,” she adds.
A separation of workload is a key secret to their success. Joy has taken on the role of manager, while John focuses on the design. But there are challenges when it comes to their personalities clashing in business. Henshaw laughs and begins,“We are two Type A’s, so there has been some head butting.” Chao adds, “You have to learn to give, and to compromise. There are still days where we think, oh my, what have we done?” she says, throwing her head back. But she rights herself and smiles at him with open affection. Clearly, with 16 years behind them, with both residential and commercial clients, they are certainly doing something right.
As a team, their design philosophy is simple. “We try to find the essence of each project, to create functionality,” says Henshaw. “We look for the unique side of it. I prefer functional, livable spaces — it’s incredibly important to me.” Joy agrees and adds, “The fun part for us is that each project is always new. We look for something that lasts, design that doesn’t date quickly.”
Has the couples’ differing cultures affected their business or personal lives? Chao says, “from a design perspective, Chinese clients are always worried about the Feng Shui. But they love our westernized design. John probably understands Chinese idiosyncrasies better than I do, because he started working with Asian clients in the 80s. I moved to North America when I was 15, and my grandfather and my dad were not very traditional, both quite westernized.”
John and Joy feel that Canadian clients are straightforward. “If they don’t like something, they say so. Some of the Chinese would rather not say if they do not like something, so they don’t offend us,” says Chao. The design team makes a point with potential clients: “We ask them to not go around in circles, and just flat out tell us if they don’t like it,” she says.
“John probably reads our Asian clients better than I do,” Chao says. “He is observant, and watches body language. I am often too busy translating, and don’t have that luxury. We try to compensate for each other.” And she adds with a chuckle, “he even uses chopsticks better than I do, and our clients notice.”
In their private life, John noticed early in the marriage that his wife’s Chinese family communicated differently than his. Joy remembers her husband telling her, “your family is like a sitcom, you blow up, get over it quickly and then everything is fine.” John’s background is English, “more reserved, more of a slow simmer,” says Chao.
“Like any marriage, you kind of learn as you go along,” says Chao. “I think any couples who come from two different backgrounds should keep an open mind. I’m more extroverted, John is more introverted, but it works.”
After years in the industry, surely there are projects both rewarding, and challenging, for the couple. When asked what he feels is the most rewarding from his body of work, Henshaw laughs, saying “the next project!”
Chao adds with a warm smile, “When a client comes back, to work with us again, it is incredibly rewarding. Or if they become our friends, inviting John and I back to their homes after they have settled in, and we see how comfortable they are living there, that is just great.”
As far as challenging projects go, the couple are presently working on an office building in China, which will likely involve them for two years. However, what was difficult before is now much easier due to email and digital photography. Working remotely on huge projects is no longer as daunting a task.
When the Henshaws call it a day, and kick back at home, they do so in their 1,400 square foot Gastown loft, in Vancouver’s old Koret building. “It’s big and white. We kept it very simple to clear our sight lines and minds after a busy day. It has a great outdoor space, with a wrap around balcony.” “But not cocktail service,” Chao adds with a wink. The couple takes full advantage of living in Gastown, listing L’Abbatoir and Chill Winston as their favorite hangouts.
A mutual love of travel keeps this couple connected, with Montreal being a favorite destination. “We love the architecture, the food, the fashion — and we love the city in the fall,” Joy says. When it comes to slowing it down with a beach vacation, Joy’s nose is usually buried in a historical novel, while John learns to play a new song on his guitar. But pretty soon it’s time to put those intertwining minds to work once more.