Ali McQuaid is theteamplayer

Ali McQuaid is an interior designer and the founder of Futurestudio, who believes a dream team can get anything done.

artist

Like many of us, Ali McQuaid thought she knew what she wanted when she studied kinesiology at university, then later landed a job in marketing. But after letting the wind push her in different directions, she took control and found something she loved.  Ali decided to get her interior design diploma in Florence, and is now the founder of Toronto-based Futurestudio, which specializes in restaurant and retail design. She’s designed unique spaces for Piccolo Piano Pizzeria, Dimes, Enoteca Sociale, Crosley’s and many more.

What does community and collaboration mean to you? What role does it play in your practice?

In my work it is everything. There is no way that my projects would get executed without an army of people. They take a little hand sketch that starts every project and turn it into reality - it is amazing. It isn’t like I have a paint brush and can accomplish the whole thing alone. In order for me to accomplish anything, I have to collaborate. I have to meet with the plumber, the electrician etc., and make sure everyone is on board and excited. I don’t know much about certain things and learn on every project. Often, I’m reliant on other people for their help to create something that I’ve never tried before because every project is totally different and it’s important to know where your boundaries are and let the experts do what they’re really good at. So, collaboration and team are honestly essential to my work.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to the “you” that’s just starting out?

Keep doing what you’re doing because you end up doubting yourself in design. You put it out there but you don’t actually know if you’re making good work, especially at the start of your career. But just stick with it, because it’s the practice of doing that makes you get better. We have a few amazing interns and students working with us at the studio, and with younger people, you have to realize that there’s so much to learn in this industry, and you can’t know it all. I’m still learning, and I’ve probably designed like 80 restaurants. So, give yourself and other people a break.

Tell me about a failure you’ve experienced—how did you get through it, and how did it help get you to where you are now?

In the work that I do, there are so many moving parts. You’re sometimes taking a hole in the ground, and there’s like ten thousand decisions and steps along the way. So, it’s about understanding that mistakes are always a part of the process, but it’s how you learn from them as quickly as possible. If you spot a mistake, it’s about identifying it, owning it and trying to fix it. There are always solutions; that’s always what I say on site. It’s not a problem; it’s a challenge, learn from it, and you improve from it. Honestly, everything can be fixed. In the moment, it feels like you failed, but three days later, it’s in the dust.

What is the biggest risk you’ve taken? Did it pay off?

I think there’s a big risk, and then there are daily risks. So, the big risk was realizing that I did have the drive and capability to become an interior designer, although it felt outside of my skill set when I decided to study it. 

In terms of daily risks, one of my goals this year is to push the envelope on the designs. So, before we present to a client now, that’s always in mind. Like, how can we use a material in a different way or source something completely different? It’s like taking those little design risks and not repeating yourself is a challenge. Because it’s easy to do things you know you’ve done and know will work.  

How do you get yourself in “the zone” to work?

I have realized that my creative time is usually between 9PM - 2AM. I know it’s not sustainable, but right now, that’s when my kid is in bed, and nobody is calling me or emailing me. With a lot of creative jobs, you’re only at your best when you’re totally in it, and you’re not distracted by other things.

"...you have to realize that there’s so much to learn in this industry, and you can’t know it all. I’m still learning..."

Tell me about one unexpected place where you draw inspiration?

I probably really irritate people when I travel with them because I take thousands of pictures. For example, a photo of a doorknob or how gravel is impeding into a garden or the subway stairs. I take these photos, catalogue them on my phone and when I need to find inspiration - I search for them. Like, I saw this column in San Francisco in this random wood furniture store. I studied it for a minute, and took 70 photos of it (haha). Then I used the way the column was etched, stretched it out and turned it into the bar front at Enoteca Sociale. It’s also making sure you have a reference library to draw from at the ready. The challenge in our business is that you’re working with very tight deadlines, so you have to move fast. But if you have this vast collection of references that you already love, it makes your life so much easier and the process much more authentic. I may not use direct references, but travel and many photos are essentially how I get inspired.

Designing restaurants and shops is different from a home because you’re not designing for a particular person; you’re designing for everyone who walks through. How does this affect your design process?

It’s completely driven by the client. My ultimate goal is for people to never know that we were there. It’s about listening to the client and drawing out what their style is. A lot of time, when we come to the table, a chef or owner may have had this vision in their mind for about 10 years and we’re just a part of that. So, it’s really about getting to know the client and what they want to present to the space. We never want people to come into a space and be like, “oh, it looks like Futurestudio did it.” It’s almost like design coaching along the way because they may not know about certain materials and little details. Our clients are always so involved, and they usually bring so much to the project. They make us work so much better. It also has to reflect them; it’s their space, so it should always feel like them, not us. That’s one thing I always stress with my team.

When you start working on a project, you may have a specific direction or designs in mind, but things change over time, and clients’ views change. How do you make sure a project stays on track without completely changing the vision?

I think you have to be open to adaptation. We all start with a vision, but things happen on-site. For example, there are things you can’t control, like we open up a wall and there's a duct there, and it’s going to cost 10k to move it so, it’s about being flexible. You have to hold the vision and design close, but you have to be adaptable in the execution. Because if you’re not, you can go way over budget or timeline, and that’s not a successful project even if it looks like it was intended to. So, it has to look like your vision but it must be adaptive. 

"...it’s about understanding that mistakes are always a part of the process, but it’s how you learn from them as quickly as possible. If you spot a mistake, it’s about identifying it, owning it and trying to fix it."

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