Toronto’s Albion Library turns the page on dated institutional design

With a vibrant façade and a warm, light-filled interior, this revitalized Toronto Public Library branch is one for the books. Albion Library is much more than a place to house reading material. Located in Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood, the library functions as a social epicentre for the surrounding community. Albion Library provides a broad range of services for a diverse demographic, including many recent immigrants, in one of Toronto’s Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. 

Interior Designer(s): Joanne D’Silva

Design Firm: Perkins and Will

Photographer: Doublespace; Rodrigo Chavez; Toronto Public Library Staff

When we took on the project, it was apparent that the branch required a major upgrade. The ageing building (which dated back to 1971) was run-down and far from meeting the community’s growing needs. Our design solution needed to address deficiencies in the existing building and the community’s concerns around inclusivity, accessibility, wayfinding, public safety, and access to light and nature. 

While our initial plan called for an addition to the existing branch, community consultation quickly revealed that the proposed two-year closure would negatively impact the Rexdale community. In response, our design team worked with Toronto Public Library to develop a different approach. Designing a new library on the adjacent, underutilized parking lot allowed the existing facility to remain open during construction. When the new library opened, the pre-existing library was demolished and a multipurpose urban plaza for community events, markets, and visitor parking was created in its place.

Programmatically, Albion offers neighbours and patrons a wide range of services that go far beyond lending books. The library serves the surrounding area by facilitating programs related to cultural orientation, social integration, and employment skills (as well as providing access to technology and knowledge). For the Toronto Public Library, success is measured by the degree to which they can meet and respond to the changing and unique needs of their communities while innovating their services. As a space that puts users first, Albion Library has become a place of transition for newcomers and a haven for the community at large.

Inspired by the aspirations of the community, we used the concept of a walled garden to address the need for a safe space and respite from the car-dominated context. A coloured scrim of terracotta ribs wraps the building, evoking a garden in bloom and mirroring the diversity of the community. The scrim lifts to articulate the entry, creating a colourful and dynamic form that ushers visitors inside the cheerful space. The building also includes three landscaped courtyards which subdivide the large 2,694 square meter plan into distinct program zones, providing acoustic separation and the programming of different activities. 

Internally, the library is dominated by a folding timber roof that slopes towards the courtyards. The warmth of the wood structure plays off the lush texture of the courtyards—which are visible from every corner of the building. The neutral backdrop (cultivated, in part, by dark carpet and white oak millwork) highlights colourful and playful furniture items, light fixtures, and a striking mural by Jacob Hashimoto at the front service desk. High-level sustainable design features include a rooftop photovoltaic array, sloping green roof, daylight harvesting, and the selection of healthy materials. Occupant well-being is supported by proximity to nature and abundant access to light and views. 

We can’t wait to see what’s in store for the Rexdale community as they venture into this new chapter at Albion Library. 

Turning a Garage into Gallery

Established in 2004, the Nicholas Metivier Gallery has become one of Canada’s most distinguished contemporary art vendors. With business growth, the Gallery required a significantly larger display space and the opportunity to host more than one exhibition at a time. The design challenge, however, was to transform a derelict auto shop into an evocative spatial experience. This project was completed in 2018.

Interior Designer: Stella McTernan, ARIDO

Design Firm: McTernan Design Associates

Photographer: A-Frame Inc.

The interplay of the building’s perimeter glazing and interior structural grid ultimately informed the layout. The original overhead garage doors were removed and replaced with new windows, consisting of a central clear glass panel, flanked by two slender translucent side panels that obscure the view directly in and out of the Gallery while leaving intriguing oblique views. Floating drywall panels mirror the centre windows and establish a unique display opportunity that connects the street and gallery environments, and diffuses natural lighting throughout the gallery interior. The formal symmetry of the gallery space gains a relaxed edge from the gritty characteristic markings of the original concrete floor, a patina now activated by a polished finish. 

Fire-rated structural columns and overhead trusses, remnants of the garage structure, are embedded within the walls, which informs a sense of flow and creates three distinct yet interdependent gallery areas. Taking advantage of the depth of these walls, the design team saw an opportunity to add concealed storage spaces at each end. A recessed track and rod hanging system, which permits sleek staging of exhibitions, creates a greater range of adaptability within the Gallery space. A track lighting system with exceptional colour rendering capabilities and flexible beam angles acts in unison, providing optimal lighting and flexibility to best show off the works on display.

In planning the space, the intention was that the Gallery would separate office work and Gallery areas so that entry into the Gallery space becomes a pure experience. As such, staff work areas are easily accessible, yet unobtrusive. As the space narrows towards the back of the gallery, the design signals the more private areas of the Gallery. The Viewing Room and office are located with direct access to the Art Storage Room. On the opposite side of the gallery, concealed by an oversize sliding door, are the receiving area, coffee bar and accessible washroom.  

The design solution considers the needs of all end-users; owner, staff, clients, and artists. The owner noted, “I feel proud – it is a beautiful space. I get relentless acknowledegment from clients. My artists are ecstatic – they think the lighting is fabulous. The Viewing Room is brilliant and clients really like it. It is very private and has a different vibe. When I meet with people there or in my office, they are relaxed so they can be open to talking about art. Sales increased significantly over the same time last year.” The gallery display space is open and inviting with a clear sense of orientation that makes people feel relaxed and welcome. 

The design solution can be best understood as an exercise in confidence and restraint, a neutral yet inviting space that allows the architecture to sit back as the artworks move forward in visual prominence. 

A space for creative ideas to thrive

Artscape Daniels Launchpad is a not-for-profit space for creatives, a marketplace of ideas, and resources where members may build connections, and launch their practices in an inspiring and dynamic environment. Having purchased a 33,000-square-foot commercial condominium space within the new Daniels City of the Arts complex on Toronto’s waterfront, Artscape tasked the design team with creating a facility that would inspire both creativity and professionalism in equal measure. This project was completed in 2019. 

Interior Designer(s): Caroline Robbie, ARIDO

Design Team: Tor McGlade, ARIDO, Stephanie Wiebe, ARIDO

Design Firm: BDP Quadrangle

Photographer: Adrien Williams, Bob Gundu, Catherine Ryan

The design team began developing a plan to coherently organize over ninety unique rooms, suited to an array of wildly different functional and aesthetic needs of Artscape. Accommodating workshops for jewellery, textiles, woodworking, digital prototyping, and black-box studios for photography, audio, video recording, VFX, and editing suites, the commercial condominium would also house meeting rooms and classrooms, a social commons, an event space, and Artscape’s workplace headquarters. 

Image by Catherine Ryan
Image by Catherine Ryan.

Tackling the complex program within an awkwardly shaped interior, the designers strategically situated the sound and vision spaces at the centre of the floor plate to support black-box and acoustical separation, thereby establishing a central spine or ‘street’ which formed a clear north-south connection for organizing services such as data cabling, power, lighting, and air. The street links all workshops, workplaces, and event spaces together, bookending them by the Artscape offices and commons at one end, and the Sugar Hall event space at the other. Along its length, the design team distributed maker spaces with cold-rolled steel-framed glass storefronts at the entrances, drawing light into the heart of the floor plate, and offering views of the variety of items being made as open ‘house’ booths activate the street and encourage easy connectivity between members.  

Minimalistic, yet purposeful, interventions leveraged the industrial concrete and lighting to lend a raw tabula-rasa effect while mixing in pops of colour and pattern. As seen in the salvaged gymnasium flooring repurposed in the ‘boardroom’, and warm natural materials where one comes into contact with surfaces such as the hand-painted porcelain kitchen tile.  

With such a variety of requirements, the designers clustered spaces around function and imbued each with a distinct sense of personality and character. Light-filled studios boast professional quality equipment, as witty and colourful meeting rooms support networking, professional integrity, and calm simple spaces that are interjected for quiet, focused work.  

Glazed meeting rooms have unique personalities as well, with a huge wall of flowers, a luxurious cork and brass cocoon, a crisp black and white design for Launchpad’s partners, HXOUSE. The Commons is comfy, filled with an eclectic mix of modern and reclaimed furniture, even including a mobile faux fireplace, all of which can be easily reconfigured for different purposes, helping the users to feel at home.

With an understanding that oftentimes artists and creative entrepreneurs are accustomed to working in older, repurposed spaces that may not ideally support their practices, the designers acted to elevate the design through a familiar eclecticism within the newly constructed space. Deliberately establishing an environment that blends ideal working conditions with seemingly ad-hoc and playful elements, as splashes of colour and reclaimed furniture economically create memorable interior focal points that make the creative community feel relaxed and at home without distracting from their work.

Portage Design Group creates an Insta-ready exhibit space based on the principle of fun

The Museum of Illusions was opened in late 2018 and is the biggest permanent tourist attraction to open in Toronto since Ripley’s Aquarium in 2013. Located at 132 Front St. East the space is more of an interactive art-gallery and exhibit space than a traditional museum.

Interior Designer: Nick Goddard, ARIDO
Design Firm: Portage Design Group Inc.

There are eight major exhibit rooms such as The Vortex, The Ames Room and the Infinity Room as well as over 70 themed installations ranging from toy displays to visual perspective art.

The first Museum of Illusions opened in Zagreb, Croatia in 2015 and was discovered by our client while on her annual summer vacation. Being of Croatian descent and knowing a good thing when she saw it our client quickly secured the rights for all of Canada and set about the process of finding a location in Toronto. After several frustrations, a 4,500 square foot ground floor retail suite became available in a former condo showroom.

The European franchisors provided specific details about the kit of parts that make up the installations. These are basically the same in each location worldwide. Portage Design Group was retained to provide drawings for Building Permit Application, space planning, coordinate local engineering firms and design services for all elements that were not exhibits.

The point of entry was a major factor in the design. The ticket counter and cash desk are housed behind a gleaming white marble slab. Retail shelving for the gift shop are custom designed, oversized hexagons. Overlapping circular pendant light fixtures provide a welcome relief from the crisp lines of the shelving and architectural context. The interior of the museum itself is a white, teal and dark grey themed thrill ride where the emphasis is not simply entertainment but also a learning experience. Each exhibit is labelled and explained so school groups, leadership seminars and team builders can provide a more comprehensive experience.

A new interior design for this business etiquette school works like a charm

Quartat Lifestyle Management provides well-heeled clients with traditional training in the art of charm and etiquette so they may advance in modern-day business. In this redesign, they sought a modern, inviting space to express their mission, and host a range of etiquette courses, including dining etiquette, personal style development, and social networking skills, with a hint of traditional flair.

Interior Designer: Sue Bennett, ARIDO
Design Team: Janet Ho, ARIDO; Jennifer Torok, ARIDO; Andrea Doak, ARIDO; Riley Short, Intern, ARIDO
Design Firm: Bennett Design Associates
Project Photographer: Jim Sandik

Quartat provided program descriptions which informed the basis of the design team’s concepts. The space was tailored to align with the functional requirements of each course. In this cozy learning environment, students are welcomed at the main entrance by an eye-catching custom millwork element embellished with the company logo.

From there, an open classroom leads into an elegant and modern dining area with glazed partitions that mimic the glass backsplash tiles in the kitchenette.

Technology was integrated throughout to display any course materials. The furniture was selected to the client’s personal taste yet reflects the designer’s vision for the overall design concept: high-end, elegant, and versatile and fun. The client has hopes of expanding their space in future, and the design team’s use of an architectural wall system allows possible relocation of all offices.

History and progress are the inspiration for these university spaces

Ryerson University’s Podium Building, built in the 1970s, houses both the Archives – the university’s institutional memory, with records spanning 200 years – and Special Collections, a treasury of photography, film and cultural history objects. These precious collections formed a single administrative unit, but the spaces were windowless, poorly lit, haphazardly organized, and split between two floors. Similarly, the Library’s Information Technology Services (LITS) group occupied several small, outdated offices.

Interior Designer: Valerie Gow, ARIDO
Design Firm: Gow Hastings
Photographer: Tom Arban

To realize the potential of these collections and services, Ryerson sought bright, dynamic spaces that would invite people in and facilitate research and engagement. For the Archives and Special Collections, they wanted an integrated space with a ‘storefront’ opening, showcasing these previously hidden resources to the community. Some existing finishes and furniture, such as Egerton Ryerson’s original desk, were to be retained.

Reading lounge at archive and special collection with dark green seating and shelves of books stacked horizontally.

LITS’s activities were also to be concentrated in a single large location, linked by a bridge and a new entry to Ryerson’s Digital Media Experience in the Student Learning Centre (SLC) and enhanced with new state-of-the-art equipment.


The design team created a bold and coherent visual identity for these facilities, consistent both with Ryerson’s branding (yellow and blue school colours), and with the sense of historical continuity appropriate for a major archive. We created an integrated work and display space for the Archives and Special Collections, providing room for growth and space for experiential learning activities, and the Collaboratory, a flexible work space, maker-space, and staff work area facilitating research and experimentation.

The dynamic and experimental purpose for the Ryerson Collaboratory is exemplified in the sunny yellow covering the entrance.

To counter the scarcity of natural light, we used a vibrant colour palette throughout -highlighting Ryerson’s brand colours of yellow and blue. Extensive patterned glazing encloses interior spaces and provides a solution to the project’s limited budget.

A blue metal panel with windows provides a storefront display with cutouts where passers by can sit.

Passersby approaching the Archive and Special Collections are greeted by a blue metal panel ‘storefront’ design, with angular geometry framing a view of the displays and activities inside and provides a place to sit. Graphic film on the windows references archival coding systems and the dates of significant historic Ryerson events. Inside, heritage furnishings and finishes, including exposed brick walls, were integrated into a clean, efficient layout. An open area was subdivided to create a quiet study area with black LED pendant lighting, multipurpose teaching/event space, a staff work area, and a customized storage vault.

The Collaboratory – the Library’s newest interactive maker space, with state-of-the-art technology and equipment, facilitates experimental graduate media projects and events. The future-forward facility is designed with sustainable materials and strategies, and boasts the latest presentation technology, mobile whiteboards and tables with writable surfaces, workbenches, and storage lockers for use by research teams.

Quantum mechanics inspires the redesign of this U of T Lab

The first and second floors of the McLennan Physical Laboratories were alienating, institutional spaces, harshly lit with overhead fluorescents. In the classrooms, students sat crowded along long tables; the setup was so inefficient the department was turning away 100 students from a popular course each term, due to lack of space. The space needed to introduce the greater university population to the physics community and showcase science education in the best possible way.

Interior Designer: Valerie Gow, ARIDO
Design Firm: Gow Hastings Architects
Photographer: Tom Arban

The interior design team responded with a complete reimagining of the space, incorporating the latest in collaborative technologies, styled in a sleek new visual identity that, topically, draws from quantum physics. In crafting its visual identity, the design team was inspired by the Davisson-Germer’s experiment, which confirmed that particles of matter can have wave-like properties – a major advancement in the development of quantum mechanics.

In its new form, the McLennan Physical Laboratories project becomes a hive of activity, and a site for greater student engagement. Visually, the vivid colour palette, in a previously monochromatic environment, has become strong brand marker for the department.

At the heart of the new space is the Physics Cafe – a vibrant work/study area with a multi-use video wall, full-height writable wall surfaces, and a felt-wrapped column for posting notices. A feature ceiling below the existing exposed concrete gives the space a more intimate feel. Oversized ottomans can be moved into clusters or rolled away for breakout discussions. Acoustic drywall, rubber flooring, and plaster ceiling tiles all dampen sound for a quieter study environment. Vertical bands of transparent coloured film add a liveliness to the space, while providing privacy for students at work; and are inspired by the particle wave interference of the Davisson-Germer experiment.

New teaching labs facilitate collaborative learning with informal breakout spaces, smart boards, and writable wall surfaces – all encouraging student interaction. A foldable partition allows a classroom to expand and contract as needed, while Corian surfaces ensure durability. The waiting and study spaces that line the corridors now feature seating alcoves for individual students or small groups. Plug-in points for charging devices help make this a good spot to stay and work; pin boards and well-lit chalkboards encourage the sharing of ideas and information.

Creative use of modular furniture earns this school office an A+

After moving into a former commercial building in North York for more than 20 years, the North Toronto Christian School was in need of a facelift on its main office. The new design solution not only re-establishes the school’s image, but also improves work efficiency with several sustainable benefits.

Interior Designer: Shan He, ARIDO/NCIDQ
Design Firm: Phoenix Tree Consulting Inc.
Project Photographer: Phoenix Tree Consulting Inc.

Having a welcoming and efficient main office is of particular importance to the small private school in Toronto with over 400 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 12.  As the school’s key administrative interface for students and parents, the main office was the central hub, which needed to set an image for the school as an open, progressive, and inviting place.  The primary challenge was to modernize the space within the constraints of the school’s administrative working process and limited space.  

School secretary speaks to two young students in a school office with gray floors and long white counter.

The original front desk consisted of two parts with a path in the middle, neither one was to the code or met barrier-free requirements.  The 90’s finishes, non-system furniture with separate storage units, and two worn-out workstations didn’t represent the school’s ever-growing reputation or permit efficient administrative work due to uninvited interaction and conversations. 

We changed the entrance point but maintained the basic layout to minimize the impact of changes and focused on the functionality of the furniture setup and the cohesive design elements applied throughout the space, especially the school image that the new design would represent. 

Behind the counter view of school office showing off added storage and long feature wall of artwork.

Aiming for a vibrant and youthful environment, a set of complementary colours were chosen: blue and orange, which was inspired by one of the school’s outdoor education activities – surfing.  The blues provide the calm and spacious atmosphere for the overall space, while the orange adds vibrance throughout.  System furniture was the first choice to furnish an administrative office for its durability and standard elements.  To minimize the cost while maintaining the desired storage requirements, we custom designed a front counter with two heights by using furniture modules.   

Within the high counter shell lies four metal file cabinets with lockable doors, providing a secure storage for stationery. Underneath the low counter there are open shelves for large-format paper storage.   Low-panel workstations were chosen to provide minimal privacy without blocking off the admin staff.  A 10-year-old student installation art on the feature wall in the waiting area was replaced with new vertical paint stripes in blue, grey, and white that echoes the colour scheme, making a quiet yet unique statement by itself or as the background for framed student artwork. 

Long feature wall of artwork with orange and blue seating and gray laminate floor.

The most successful design solution lies in the new front counter/storage.  By using system furniture elements the project costs were minimized. Furthermore, should the front counter need to be replaced in the future, the four metal cabinets can be reused elsewhere, which is a sustainable solution. The two-colour combination of the front counter provides contrast and a fresh look of a school main office, which is normally considered serious and plain.  The double heights accommodate all visitors, including kindergarten children and wheelchair users.  

Creating a space that invites visitors and inspires future students

As a point of entrance and departure, the University’s vision was to create a space that would entice visitors and prospective students. The success of this project was in creating value through retention and attraction. Secondly, an important aspect of the design was in maintaining circulation through unobstructed views and flow, and lastly, share a connection with the existing architecture.

Project: Discover York
Interior Designer: Tania Bortolotto, ARIDO
Design Firm: Bortolotto Design Architect Inc.
Photographer: Lisa Logan

Discover York is York University’s welcome centre for prospective and returning students. It is a high profile portal and first point of contact for the University students and visitors.

The clients objective was to create a place where the welcome centre will brand York University positively and enhance its reputation. The project involved multiple stakeholders whose definition of project success varied. The space required functionality and flexibility for student services and at the same time a space program that allowed for accommodation of large groups for presentations and tours.

To create a comfortable and calming environment for all visitors, a palette of warm wood, bold red and tranquil greys were chosen. To draw and direct the eye, the bold red is used as a backdrop to the reception desk, where visitors are welcome to receive information and direction.

Natural light finds its way into the spaces through the use of glazed openings. Above a 10’ high plane of glass, a warm but salient wood feature wall swoops one from the lobby area into the seminar space. Soft curves break the rigidity of the concrete structure and adjacent spaces, thus serving to act as a welcoming device for visitors. Whilst in the seminar space, visitors are welcomed to relax and partake in information presentations provided by the university. Here, strong grey accents couple with precise incisions into the ceiling and wall provide an air of confidence. Slices into the walls provide views into the circulation space, maintaining a connection between all occupants throughout the day.

This hairstyling school lets vibrant colour pop against a modern backdrop

The project converted a raw, post and beam loft into ASK Academy by Schwarzkopf Professional, a professional training facility for hairdressing trends, technical skills, and business management. The 7,200 square foot space is also a retail showroom for Schwarzkopf products and a place for demonstrations, meetings, seminars, and launches.

Interior Designer: Valerie Gow, ARIDO

Design Firm: Gow Hastings Architects

Project Photographer: Tuxedo Boutique Marketing

This new space brought the Schwarzkopf academy from a characterless location near the airport to a bustling downtown Toronto neighbourhood. The client wanted the historic warehouse to house a teaching facility with 18 styling stations, washing areas, colour and cutting studios, two theory and colour classrooms, meeting and working space for international advisors, a student lounge, reception and retail space.

ASK Academy, Interior Designer: Valerie Gow, ARIDO. Design Firm: Gow Hastings Architects. Project Photographer: Tuxedo Boutique Marketing.

The space needed a professional and international ambiance that matched the rest of the ASK Academies worldwide. Yet, as the North American Flagship location, it also required some regional character, in a setting that enables it to stand out from its competitors and their teaching salons.

The design team built a new ceiling through part of the space, creating a polished interior for certain spaces, with slices of the raw shell revealed in others. The space is white and bright, and keeps messier parts of the academy, like the hair colouring section tucked away, like the ‘Colour Bar’ where students mix dyes.

ASK Academy, Interior Designer: Valerie Gow, ARIDO. Design Firm: Gow Hastings Architects. Project Photographer: Tuxedo Boutique Marketing.

The Colour Bar consists of stainless‐steel shelving filled with boxed dyes, and visually defines the interior’s identity with swaths of Schwarzkopf signature colours. Shelves located in front of windows vibrantly project Schwarzkopf’s presence to the street, while the open sections at counter level allow students to evaluate their mixes in natural light.

The student lounge is flexible and can easily become a formal presentation space by reconfiguring the furniture and closing floor‐to‐ceiling doors, letting the academy accommodate live events, and on‐line training, while the sophisticate ground floor space encourages walk‐in traffic for treatments and purchases.

ASK Academy, Interior Designer: Valerie Gow, ARIDO. Design Firm: Gow Hastings Architects. Project Photographer: Tuxedo Boutique Marketing.

Valerie Gow, ARIDO and her team were able to design a highly functional and professional space for the varied needs of this hairstyling brand.