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.

Flexibility is the key at this museum restaurant

Open for lunch service, the existing restaurant at the Gardiner Museum was relatively unknown, attracting mostly elderly patrons. Upon entry, spectacular city views were overshadowed by a cold, uninviting aesthetic, and the narrative of Canada’s National Museum of Ceramics was lost. Many people knew the space for its quality event service; with the ability to clear the space and create a spectacular setup for events with off-site rentals.

Interior Designer: Dyonne Fashina, ARIDO
Design Firm: Denizens of Design
Photographer: Larissa Issler

The new restaurant partner – The Food Dudes – provided a clear mandate – create a space that can easily convert between daytime restaurant service and evening events, and engage a new demographic while keeping the existing patronage happy.

Our goal was to provide the flexibility of multi-purpose with the aesthetic of a fixed-in-place restaurant.

The new design reconnects the space to the Museum’s focus while paying respect to the building’s architectural features. This meaningful concept influenced all aspects of the restaurant from the food and plating, to the branding and name. Clay itself is at the root of every detail, with inspiration taken from its properties and the process of clay making.

The minerals of clay tell the colour story, with rich terracotta hues, stoneware neutrals, and vibrant porcelain whites. Turned wood furniture and organic forms make subtle reference to the artifacts and tooling typically found inside a ceramist’s studio. 

Man serving wine behing a modern looking bar

Perhaps the most compelling addition is the custom bar. The front bar is clad entirely in durable commercial grade porcelain slabs, while the back bar integrates display opportunities to further extend the museum’s shop offerings – both a sales tool and an aesthetic choice. Smart planning decisions were implemented to create an optimal layout for the restaurant that could easily adapt to events. Modularity and compactness were key considerations due to the strict one-hour conversion timeframe. Existing storage was limited so locking storage solutions were integrated into the bar millwork.

Furniture and custom elements were strategically selected for optimization of storage space and efficiency of the teardown process. Folding dividers and mobile planters act to provide privacy and delineation within the space without the permanence of fixed partitions. Soft seating in vibrant hues define the bar/lounge area, while a more muted palette is used in the open dining area. 

All chairs stack on dollies, tables are flip-top with nesting legs, and the host and services stations are mobile on casters. These pieces adapt well for use during cocktail parties, lectures, and wedding receptions. It was important to have the functionality of multipurpose furniture, without the mundane aesthetic. The end result is a remarkably versatile space that does not compromise on design.

Symbolism reigns in this Dubai Museum

Situated on Dubai’s waterfront, the Etihad Museum honours the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) conception story. Comprised of the curving Pavilion above ground and a subterranean Museum, the building is adjacent to the historic Union House, where the nation’s Constitution was signed in 1971.

Interior Designer: Chen Cohen, ARIDO

Design Firm: Moriyama & Teshima Architects

Project Photographer: Victor Romero, Felix Loechner

The museum makes an impact with its unique scroll-like form which mimics the parchment paper of the UAE Constitution. The Pavilion’s entry features bronze metal text of the nation’s founding philosophy that seems to rise from a page of marble. Rows of embossed bronze columns recall pens in motion, referencing the signatory act that formalized the Emirati unification.

Marble covered entry to Etihad museum with diagonally leaning columns.

A grand staircase and ramp that echo flowing lines of Arabic script takes Pavilion visitors underground. Once descended, visitors encounter the familiar circular form of Union House through a curving foundation wall, clad in dune-like carved stone. This familiar element becomes the central organizing feature of the museum, a constant reference point for visitors as they navigate the massive permanent gallery and its surrounding spaces.

The flow of movement is further highlighted by billowing white ceiling planes that represent the rippling patterns of the Bedouin winds in the desert sand. Movement is further accentuated by carved wood columns throughout the space.

Marble and white exhibition area with white curving walls.

The museum houses permanent and temporary galleries, a theatre, event spaces, and archival facilities, and the design team placed these rooms strategically, as they have no need of natural light. Meanwhile, two spacious sunken courtyards and four large skylights connect to the ground level plaza, flooding the sub-terranean classrooms, research library, administration offices, prayer rooms, and café with natural light and prevent visitors from feeling stuck underground.

Cafe space at Etihad museum, with view of open courtyard.

The design team worked to ensure the museum is a space that represents the UAE’s past while creating a site for learning and exchange in the present, and progress in the future.

Odeyto provides a home away from home for Indigenous students at Seneca College

Interior Designer: Valerie Gow, ARIDO
Design Firm: Gow Hastings Architects with Two Row Architects
Project Photographer: Tom Arban

Odeyto, the new home for the First Peoples @ Seneca Newnham Campus, is intended to provide a safe and recognizable space for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike while attending Seneca College. Often, Indigenous students have left their home communities for the first time and travelled to unknown urban landscapes to pursue their education. The design of Odeyto (Anishinaabe word for ‘good journey’) reflects and acknowledges this. It was created as a home away from home, a place where students can gather, not only to practice their traditions, but also to find new friendships and family while away from their communities.

Conceptually, the addition and renovation was inspired by the image of a canoe pulling up to a dock — making a stop at Seneca College to gather knowledge before continuing on life’s journey. The addition’s canoe-like form is “docked” alongside the contrasting rigid lines of the existing precast concrete building. As the only building on campus with an organic curvilinear design, the “canoe” has a distinctive presence, announcing its importance through its form.

Exterior view of the Odeyto building.

Striking when viewed from the outside, the building’s curves create a warm, womb-like interior. The structure alludes to the Haudenasaunee longhouse, a traditional reference further reinforced by glass entrances on the east and west, where two red doors, aligned to the summer solstice, honour the missing and murdered indigenous women. The building incorporates aspects of traditional knowledge drawn from many other Indigenous cultures across Turtle Island.

Neon channel sculpture by Joi T. Arcand, 'Don't be shy' in Cree sylabics.

In alignment with sunrise ceremonies common to many Indigenous Nations, the angle of the “canoe” lines up with the rising sun on the summer solstice — an acknowledgement of rebirth, spring, and our connection to the earth. From an architectural point of view, this simple but meaningful move breaks away from the colonial grid that dominates on Seneca’s Newnham Campus.

Wood predominates in the interior, reinforcing the analogy to a canoe. The interior of the building consists of two distinct spaces: The former classroom has been remodeled into a warmly lit work area with a low ceiling, where students can use computers, work with tutors, or speak with a counsellor. Beyond this, in the new purpose-built addition, the main lounge is a generous space for gatherings. Its high, curved ceiling is supported by glue-laminated rib structures. Their connections are visibly expressed, in celebration of the craft and beauty of the building’s construction — much as a birch bark canoe’s beauty is manifested through its construction, not decoration. Thin and light, the 28 glue-laminated ribs resemble the ribs of a canoe or mammal. The number is a nod to the number of days in one cycle of the moon.

The renovation part of this project offers a bridge between the rigours of post-secondary education and the familiarity of culture. It’s a space that provides the necessities of academic life — counsellors’ offices, study space, a place to print — and, at the same time, a safe harbour, a “dock” where a canoe can stay a while.

The design team also worked with advisors from Two Row Architects, a native-owned architecture firm which focuses on “guiding the realignment of mainstream ways of thinking on their journey towards Indigenous ways of knowing, being, design and architecture.“

Panorama of Odeyto interior with students sitting around a table and computers.

Gow Hastings says, “Design features influenced by this knowledge include the structure’s directionality, alignment with celestial cycles, cultural observances, value of materials, tactility, craft, expression of structure, and extension into the surrounding landscape.”