We debuted our swanky new digs at Shops At Don Mills earlier this year, and we couldn’t be more pleased with the design. To understand how it all came together, we trekked to the downtown Toronto office of Navigate Design, and chatted with Ken & Sarah who played a major role in its stylish formulation. Keep scrolling to read what they have to say on creating a playful space, optimizing business through design, and those giant popsicle sticks at our new restaurant!


Front office vestibule at Navigate Design

Hi Ken & Sarah, tell us a bit about yourself and Navigate Design!

Sarah: I initially went to school for creative advertising, and I worked as a copywriter and project manager in advertising for a little bit. Then I moved into interior design, and I worked for a firm that was exclusively hospitality design for about five years. I then moved onto an architectural firm that worked on a lot of restaurant projects, and eventually came here to Navigate, where we work on hospitality projects in general and focus mainly on restaurants. Having dabbled in all of these sectors, I liked hospitality best, and I’ve been working in hospitality exclusively for the last three years now.


Ken: We’ve been in business for three years now, and we’ve had a number of projects in Dubai, and some in Miami, Palm Springs, Calgary and Edmonton. Toronto is our home base so we’ve had projects here as well. As Sarah mentioned, we’re highly focused on hospitality – 90% of our projects are in hospitality with restaurants, hotels, and food & beverage.


Ken and Sarah of Navigate Design

What drew you guys to focus on the hospitality sector?

Ken: My partner and I started this company three years ago, and he has a hospitality background – he owns restaurants. I have a designer background – having worked on design projects for fifteen years – and we decided that this is the space we wanted to get into based on our combined knowledge of operations, design and location within the restaurant business. We thought that our expertise could benefit clients, and it’s a fun space to be in. With a nine to ten month turnaround, you get to see the results quite quickly, and the clients are pretty eclectic. Everyone is timeline and budget driven of course but they also want something exciting, and that aligns with what we’re looking to deliver.


Demetres Shops At Don Mills Interior

The design for our Shops At Don Mills restaurant is so different from our other locations, were there any elements that you kept from some of our older restaurants or did you approach it like a blank slate?

Ken: [laughs] I was thinking that you were going to ask me about this today – about project inspiration. The mandate was that there’s really no theme, purely because the menu designs are seasonal. We were quite inspired by the creativity with the menu and with engaging local artists to do the menu covers. We were inspired by that and made something that’s more neutral that didn’t specifically state a theme like ‘this is Alice in Wonderland’ (as an example). So Don Mills was created purely based on a feeling of elegance, and it’s a little bit more upscale because the demographic at Shops At Don Mills expect something a bit more upscale. There are little elements that we included – the feminine palette, the waffle trim, the popsicle sticks fixtures – that are inspired by Demetres’ menus and the fun way that you create the desserts.


Inspiration board at the office of Navigate Design in downtown Toronto

Speaking of the popsicle sticks, how do you introduce these playful elements without overwhelming a space?

Sarah: I think it’s just looking at the overall design, and then making sure that all of the elements work well with one another without being too kitschy. Because the space is very elegant and clean, it’s nice to have those elements pop up that are more playful. With the popsicle sticks – although there are a lot of them – the way that we approached it in terms of their colouration made them very subtle and they don’t overwhelm the space. I think it’s just striking that healthy balance of playfulness and gracefulness. If we wanted to throw a number out there, I would say 20% of the space should have some sort of playfulness to it.


Is incorporating playfulness an essential part of your approach to design?

Sarah: I think it’s necessary to do that, and I think that if you do it more abstract and are not too literal with it, people enjoy it more. It creates a little bit of a discovery moment, rather than something that’s so blatantly in your face that says that you’re trying a little too hard to be playful. I think the subtleties of how you approach it is the beauty of it.


Ken and Sarah of Navigate Design

What are your favourite aspects about your work?

Ken: I’ve been doing it for quite some time now, so I think what excites me these days is the opportunity to help clients see how design can help them, more than the design itself. We’re creative agency so design is a given, we have to deliver something creative and nice. But for me as an owner now, it really inspires me to see clients who get the design, they love it, they believe in it, and want to execute together. Then at the end when they open after nine months, where they still couldn’t quite visualize it, and then it just clicks for them. That transformation in their head makes me very excited, because now we’re helping their business rather than just giving them a beautiful design. For me as an owner now, that’s my drive. 


Sarah: Ken definitely gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of design, so it’s nice when you run into a client that allows you to exercise that part of your brain as well. But I think one of the most exciting things about interior design is actually seeing something come from the 2D drawing into fruition and become a fully functioning space. You spend a lot of time doing these drawings and detailing things, and it’s just on a flat piece of paper. I think that transformation is what a lot of designers actually really appreciate, and drive at their jobs to see that finished product.


Navigate Design Office Space

What are some of the things you like to do around Toronto when you’re not busy working?

Sarah: We eat at a lot of restaurants… [laughs]


Ken: We love our restaurants and having drinks. Since we pride ourselves as being restaurant designers, we kind of have to know what’s going on. I go out a lot to different neighborhoods to try new restaurants, and just to see what’s the latest and greatest. This helps us because there are a lot of times when a client says ‘I have this new idea for a Peruvian restaurant (for example), what do I do with it?’, and we can tell them to check out all these different restaurants around the city. That’s just kind of my off-work exercise.


Sarah: I would say that it’s quite similar for me – I go out to eat more often than not. And when I do go out into the city, it’s usually to try out a new restaurant. But otherwise in my spare time, I like to go to the TSO. I love all genres of music, but I grew up listening to classical so I have a little soft spot for it.


Thanks for chatting with us Ken & Sarah!

Want exclusive sneak peeks, recipes and DIYs delivered to you monthly?