We go behind the scenes with Canadian style icon and small space home designer, where she shares her inspiration and source for her designs.
You may recognize Nike Onile as the design expert on Canada’s daytime talk show Cityline, where she helps viewers reimagine their small home spaces into elevated—and multifunctional—interiors. The Toronto-based artist is also principal designer of 800 SQ FT, a design firm that she began 11 years ago as a place to offer her seasoned skills to city dwellers living in confined apartments: Think creative storage solutions, hidden dining options, and convertible furniture executed with an edgy take on the traditional.
With her growing client list, Onile then launched The APT by 800 SQ FT, Canada’s first shoppable apartment, a small modern home space designed with a specific personality imagined by Onile houses everything from the furniture, the clothes in the closet to the food in the fridge are available for purchase. The seasonal pop-up takes places four times a year and allows shoppers to experience a highly-curated home featuring architectural lighting, aromatic candles and abstract art—like an up-scale IKEA (minus the commercialism and claustrophobia).
Although art and design is the world that Onile lives and breathes, it wasn’t always this way. Raised in Toronto, Ontario by Nigerian parents who emigrated to the city, Onile and her siblings were expected to follow the traditional career path to become doctors, lawyers or engineers. But the arts called to her from a young age, where she could be found expressing herself through paint, sculpture and drawing. But shame around this identity would keep her work in the shadows.
“I had stacks of canvases that were hidden beneath my headboard,” Onile says. So, she pursued a specialist degree in biotechnology and worked in the pharmaceutical industry, appeasing her parents and becoming quite successful. That inner artist would eventually catch up to her in a small modern home she designed for herself.
“When I finally got my first place of my own, it became my new canvas where I didn’t have to hide,” Onile shares. “A friend of mine, now a mentor, persisted that I share my design work and home space with more people.
I posted on a blog, and it went really well with people even asking me to design their spaces. I ended up making more money doing this side project than my full-time work, so I had to make a decision if I wanted to make that leap.” Onile committed to the arts and has been deemed a disruptor in the design realm due to her sophisticated taste expressed in minimal spaces.
“I am an artist whose canvas happens to be people’s homes and whose medium, at the moment, happens to be furniture, art, paint and fabric,” Onile says. Yet her ever-evolving identity, and abilities, lends itself to so much more. “We (800 SQ FT) are essentially a design company that touches multiple spaces,” she shares. This includes commercial, residential, like small modern home designs, restaurants, and branding as well. “The brand will encompass everything I do, whether that’s designing physical space, like interiors, public space or virtual online space and campaigns.”
“The things that I tend to gravitate towards are the pieces that have a sense of movement, history and can tell a story all on their own.”
Perusing Onile’s portfolio of work shows an artist that is both cerebral and seeking comfort. Living rooms and dining nooks with mostly neutral colors swept with broad strokes of color, accordion paper dining room tables, feather lamp shades, and bronze and terracotta accents throughout.
When it comes to building a small modern house that feels like home and evokes inspiration, Onile speaks of a concept she calls “returning to ritual.” This idea references the incorporation of one’s personal history and practiced tradition into people’s spaces through thoughtful design.
“The things that I tend to gravitate towards are the pieces that have a sense of movement, history and can tell a story all on their own,” Onile says. Some of her favorite artists across disciplines that she both admires and features in her work, include photographer Bastiaan Woudt, ceramics artist Zhu Ohmu, and performance artist Nana Yaa.
For Onile, projects may range from customizing a sacred home space for some; a place for the inhabitant to drop their stresses and slow their pace, and for others this could mean a dynamic place to entertain or an arena to evoke creativity and commit to their craft. Whoever her client is at the moment, Onile aims to draw out their authentic persona and always finds a way to add “that element of awkward, for the sake of story and intrigue.”
Like any true creator, she stands on the razor edge of the canvas, with a willingness to let everything that once defined her fall to one side and the possibility of everything she is capable of, come bursting through the other.
She is known most notably for her high-end design influence in small home spaces, but she represents a global perspective that is anything but small. This year she seems to be on verge of something new, not just in her work but in her self-exploration, and like any true creator, she stands on the razor edge of the canvas, with a willingness to let everything that once defined her fall to one side and the possibility of everything she is capable of, come bursting through the other.
We had the privilege of speaking with Onile about her love of travel, Nigerian heritage, flare for fashion and her top tips on intersecting design and wellness in a small, modern home.
ICONIC LIFE: You have noted that you don’t want to be put in a box or limited to the confines of what being an interior designer means. So, what are a few ways that you would describe the design work you do?
NIKE ONILE: Contemporary seems too straight-edged, I like mid-century modern design because a lot of the objects themselves are sculptural statement pieces, materials like marbles and woods and mixed metals with great lines.
When you think about it, especially in Western society, we have kind of lost the traditions and ritual with our fast-paced lives, swiping left and right in these microwaveable relationships in life. Everything is disposable and we have lost this sense of rooting and where things come from. It affects the way we interact and connect with people. If you can, in your life, in the things that surround you, include more reminders of grounding and tradition to elevate your experience.
ICONIC LIFE: What is your approach to interior design, whether that is in a new restaurant or a small modern house layout?
NIKE ONILE: My design is very human-centric, and where my work is different is that I focus on the stories that are being told within someone’s space and making sure they are an authentic representation of the end result. I spend most of the time getting to know my clients rather than just observing the physical space.
Because we spend half of our lives in these spaces, our home should be a safe place, where you can feel vulnerable, and its important now more than ever, for these spaces to be a reflection of who we are.
Depending on the story that I am trying to tell for the client dictates what pieces, artists and fixtures I introduce to the space. When it comes to being intentional in terms of the items I am choosing, while keeping in mind accessibility and the client’s budget, I always like to introduce an element of history or tradition. Some of these items can be things the client has already had in their home, items that they love, and even if they feel awkward or don’t match, I will stick those in there and make them work—because that awkwardness creates a story with more depth.
ICONIC LIFE: In your own home space, which in the past has been a small modern home layout, you have maintained a refined environment with little embellishment, how is your journey of self-expression shifting this space?
NIKE ONILE: Up until two years ago, my space has been very clean and straight, and not with very many elements of the ritual I talk about previously, because when I work, I require a blank canvas. So, in my home, I collect paper art, all white, encased in beautiful black cases, all organized in different ways. I also have empty frames all throughout my home, for me, they call me to imagine what could be in them.
My taste has changed and right now I am re-discovering how I can allow myself to be creative with this void that I need to create, but also still have an element of ritual. Asking: What is that middle line? And I am not quite sure if that middle line is something physical, or if that middle line is something rooted in ritual, meaning how I use the space and who I use that space with.
Not even as an artist, but as an individual, I am craving the same grounding elements that I help my clients discover in small modern home design. I found that as I’ve grown, I require now my space to be my studio and my home, valuing the softer elements, and my space now needs to reflect that.
I am being called to change that aspect and introduce things of ritual and things that have true meaning for me, like elements from Nigeria, perhaps framing one of my grandmothers African cloths, elements that speak to who I am rather than just an extension of the way that I create.
ICONIC LIFE: How would you describe your sense of fashion and personal style?
NIKE ONILE: In the past, a lot of what I have worn has been oversized items that give me the freedom to move. The majority of my wardrobe is black, and I don’t generally have any color unless I am wearing a ¾ length jacket with ¾ length arms—that’s my pop! I wear colors that you can see in nature, like rust or dark green or blue, colors of the earth and usually with black and white.
I don’t wear much jewelry but the pieces that I choose are always sculptural. I dress my body the same way I dress my homes. It is this idea of having a blank canvas, and then adding one statement piece of jewelry.
I love picking up items when I travel, like when I went to Spain, there is so much texture there, and I like those elements where the piece in themselves is sculptural, made from strange shapes and cut in certain ways that frame your body completely different.
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When I travel, I don’t go to resorts, I go to be around people, I love to stay amongst people that live in the area; with the locals, to see the culture and architecture of a place. In that I am able to really understand how space dictates the life that people live and vice versa.
ICONIC LIFE: How has travel informed your evolution as an artist, as an individual and as a designer of small modern homes?
NIKE ONILE: I work all year round and then take off about five-to-six weeks and travel to about three or four different countries. Those are my moments of inspiration. When I travel, I don’t go to resorts, I go to be around people, I love to stay amongst people that live in the area; with the locals, to see the culture and architecture of a place. In that I am able to really understand how space dictates the life that people live and vice versa.
For example, when I went to Morocco, I stayed in a riad in Marrakech and when you’re walking through the narrow streets, there are high walls and no windows. Then once you enter into the space, all the rooms have their windows facing inside, over a garden or a pool. You immediately feel the energy change, you leave everything outside because there are physical barriers now. All of your energy is redirected into the family and it becomes this collected beauty.
I am able to take in all of the information while I am traveling and be inspired, so that when I come back here, I am able to change slight things that I do when designing small modern homes within the confines of Western architecture. For example, I have introduced this idea of un-burdening into the entry ways of people’s homes, so that when people step inside, the energy changes.
ICONIC LIFE: As a first-generation Canadian with parents from Nigeria, what has it been like for you to visit their home village in Africa?
NIKE ONILE: We grew up in a very traditional sense, greeting my mom every morning by bowing as a sign of respect, so Nigerian traditions were not new. But going back to these roots in Nigeria let me explore the idea of self, and I plan to go back and do more of that. I was introduced to my extended family for the first time in Nigeria, it was a personal experience, and not work-related. Seeing my cousins and really registering that one small decision that my mother or father made to go to Canada as our home, literally dictated who I was as a person and modern designer.
In Western society, we are taught this idea of possibility, but when speaking to my cousins, that is foreign to them. That is something we take for granted, this idea that we can do anything that we want. I had a security guard full-time, and it felt very restrictive. Everything reminded me that I have privilege, the way that I think is a privilege. What Nigeria did for me was hold up a mirror for me to recognize why I saw myself the way that I did.
The modern design work that I will likely do in Nigeria is about creating a space for people to live in and create incredible lives, while showing them this idea of having a limitless mentality. If I can use design and architecture and the way that I create public space to help that, well, that’s something that has been on my heart for a bit now. I just want to give them the space to create and live the way that they choose to live.