ARIDO Award Winner: McMichael Canadian Art Collection Cafe

ARIDO Award Winner: McMichael Canadian Art Collection Cafe

Growing up in the surrounding region, we have fond memories of visiting the McMichael Canadian Art Collection on school trips. My great grandfather studied painting under Group of Seven artist A.J. Casson; which provided a personal connection to the Gallery’s original focus. This emotional investment was the departure point to redesign the café into a meaningful, empathetic space.

Category: EAT STAY

Interior Designer: Dyonne Fashina, ARIDO
Design Firm: Denizens Of Design Inc.

Photographer: Scott Norsworthy

What are empathetic spaces? It’s partly about being empathetic to the space in the way we redesign; while renewing the space in a way that makes it empathetic to its intended users. Reinventing the café space at the hearth of the Gallery’s entrance hall required a respectful and deeply researched approach; considerate of the heritage architecture and mindful of the indigenous land it sits on. Rejecting the Eurocentric preferences among global design elite, the space is a showcase of Canadian-made products; celebrating Canadian craftsmanship, local materials, and time-honoured tradition.

A painting in the Woodland style sits over the Corian clad reception desk at the entrance of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

The design solution is characterized by the legacy of the Gallery’s original founders, Signe and Robert McMichael. The building itself literally grew out of their home and personal art collection. The heritage architecture remains untouched, while new pieces are integrated into the design to give the feeling of a fixed-in place restaurant and the flexibility of a multi-purpose space.

Inspired by the founder’s vision, the interior design takes inspiration from the artwork inside and outside the gallery. Prior to the renovation, the café space felt like an afterthought; with worn out tables and chairs that were only useful during restaurant service. The new design considered the vast expanse of hard surfaces within the gallery, integrating flexible soft seating and modular felt partitions to divide the space into zones and address acoustic comfort. In the restaurant configuration, the space has a clearly defined boundary through the positioning of the banquettes and divider screens; allowing visibility from within the café to the rest of the gallery, but defining a path for traffic through it, as to not disturb restaurant guests.

The modularity of the individual elements is aesthetically appealing and useful for event setup; creating a new revenue stream for the gallery. Prior to the renovation, third-party rental companies outfitted events. Furnished with a new kit of parts, the gallery will be able to benefit from the ease of turning over the space between services and an increased venue fee, accommodating in-house rentals, which will provide additional funds after renovation costs are recuperated. The increase also benefits the patron who will no longer have to pay double for outside furnishings. Once events can pick up again, they will see the profitability benefits of the design; in the meantime, the flexibility has come in handy with pandemic uncertainty and the ability to reconfigure on the fly.

Demonstration of cafe breakdown process.

The kit of parts includes Canadian-made modular furniture and moveable screens. The existing Corian counter, was re-clad in walnut and white oak and then expanded with two new modular service bars that can be used together as one continuous service counter for the restaurant; or individually as three separate food and drink stations for events.

It was very important for this project to celebrate the traditions of Canadian craftsmanship by focusing on local makers, products, and materials. The slatted divider screens are inspired by Indigenous architecture, gathering circles, and the concept of placemaking. Their undulating inner layers incorporate felt design that references the artistic language seen in Group of Seven landscapes. Each piece has a different maker, and each bringing the maker’s individual story to the design intent. The idea was to create a collection of Canadian-made objects that are independently beautiful but collectively meaningful.

The cafe at the McMichael Canadian Art collection has several seating options with pale wood tables and white chairs.

Prior to the renovation, the space was completely open; set up with individual chairs and tables set on a diagonal. It created a large area with no defined pathways for diners, staff, or gallery visitors. The new design uses modular furniture, positioned carefully to offer glimpses of the gallery’s collection while providing a physical barrier to define boundaries without impacting the views and vistas through the space. The divider screens have a slatted structure with the top portion remaining open so that visitors can see through at standing height, but diners can benefit from some privacy at seated height.

Two screens demarcate space in the cafe area at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

A mix of dining tables, lounge seating, and bar height furnishings create different zones to accommodate more patrons. At the front of the restaurant, bar seating is useful for patrons that just want a quick coffee and pastry; while still providing views outside, over the heads of full-service diners seated closer to the windows. Most importantly, these pieces give the appearance of a permanent restaurant but are creatively designed to quickly reconfigure in various event setups. This is the unique approach to the space, in that nothing is completely fixed to the structure; and the space can evolve as needed.

Two staff members roll the moveable screen into place at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

For this project, like all of our projects, we start with empathy. Empathy for the users, the staff, the stakeholders, and empathy for the physical structure (its past, its founders, and the indigenous people who had inhabited the land). We worked with the gallery team to ensure the space was welcoming and accessible for its members, many of whom are older adults.

As mentioned, the divider screens were a key element of the design, they define the boundaries of the café space, but remain open both in position and in the slatted structure, to create definition without being oppressive. They offer privacy within the space, while their inner layers of felt dampen sounds bouncing. But most importantly, their form and positioning reflects indigenous placemaking structures of the past, to respectfully acknowledge the design ideals of the Ojibwe Anishinaabe people and their land on which the gallery sits. Unlike many restaurants that cram seats in, the space has large tables and a wide central path of travel with furniture that can easily adapt to patrons with mobility aids, giving them opportunity to sit in multiple locations within the space and not relegating them to a hidden or forgotten area.

By working with local suppliers from small-batch furniture makers to large Canadian manufacturers, we not only celebrate the vast talent our country has to offer; but we also reduce the environmental impact of transporting items from overseas. Many of the pieces were made from locally sourced materials, such as wood products native to the area, including a tree felled just outside the property.

Two wood chairs opposite a wood slat bench at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

In today’s world, the meaning of wellness has expanded to include concepts of identity, cultural sensitivity, and inclusivity. The new McMichael café embodies empathy for the comfort of its users, consideration for the heritage architecture, and remains mindful of the indigenous land it sits on. We took great care to ensure the new design offered views from all vantage points within the cafe to both the landscape outside and the Gallery’s collection of Canadian art inside.

Wooden chairs are placed opposite blue sofas in the cafe of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

In a statement from Ian Dejardin, the Executive Director indicated, “The McMichael Canadian Art Collection markets itself as ‘Home to the Art of Canada’, a phrase that we feel captures a dual truth about the place: on the one hand, it is literally the only major museum mandated to celebrate solely Canadian art, and on the other, the building grew out of, and retains much of the feel of, the home of its founders, Robert and Signe McMichael. And not just any home – the Gallery is a huge statement about Canada in itself, a vast modernist take on the log cabin idea built of huge recycled logs and fieldstone, with direct views of the unspoiled Humber River with its 12,000 years of history as the location of the Carrying Place Trail. Designing a café for such a place, in the Gallery’s massive and imposing Entrance Hall, had to reflect all of that. The design team came up with the perfect response, a mix of natural materials, blending tradition, comfort, and modernity. Carefully avoiding a mass-produced, one-size-fits-all approach, they instead commissioned individual and brilliant Canadian artisans to design to produce a series of beautiful one-off pieces of furniture in natural wood in a layout that is welcoming, with home-like touches, and comfortable for our visitors, while also being clean-lined and modern in feel. The McMichaels would have been proud – and we are delighted.”

Project Details:

Project Location: Kleinburg, ON
Project Completion Date: September 2020
Project Square Footage: 2,000 square foot restaurant setup; 5,000 square foot event setup

Dyonne Fashina

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Dyonne Fashina

Denizens of Design Inc.

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