Designing History: a Q&A with Nia Centre’s Interior Designer - Nia Centre for the Arts

Designing History: a Q&A with Nia Centre's Interior Designer

By Nia Centre, p
Posted on January 17, 2023

The journey to building Canada’s first professional Black Arts Centre has been a long, challenging and rewarding one. Over the last two years, many creatives have lent their eyes, ears and talent to envisioning what the Nia Centre could be. One of the creative figures in the project has been interior designer, Robin Fraser, who has combined traditional North American construction with design elements that make Black-Canadian culture special. 

You describe yourself as an “interior conceptualizer”. What does this term mean to you?

“The word ‘designer’ is almost over-used now, but it is a very complex term. Design, to me, isn’t an ego trip. It’s about understanding what the clients want. Fraser continues “I understand design as being about functionality. {the conceptualization] is about walking through the space and feeling the user experience. And it’s with that experience that you understand how to place yourself”.

Design elements were specifically curated to speak to a sense of African and Caribbean sense of history and pride. Can you talk about some of those elements?

There aren’t many spaces in Toronto that are designed specifically for the Black community. We were intentional and careful about placing every element in the space, combining the North American elements that are structural in the building with elements that speak to the community. 

For example, in many African cultures, the baobab represents a gathering space for people. Across the lobby ceiling, we used slatted wood panels from baobab trees. Throughout the process, we searched for a metal that spoke to the continent. We landed on copper, a metal that is found in riches in the DRC, Zambia and South Africa. Around the building, copper appears in wall paneling, door handles and in other subtle ways.

Your work has spanned multiple projects, across continents. What stood out to you about working with the Nia Centre?

Previous projects I’ve worked on have funds put aside and a defined, North American/Eurocentric approach to design. What those projects wanted had almost already been designed for us by history, reading and education. In the case of the Nia Centre, we had to be resourceful and careful in order to best meet the needs of all Black people. Throughout this project, we fought hard for artists to have the best materials, the best space and a state of the art facility.

There are many young people in our youth program who are interested in design. How did you get started in this career field?

 Starting out as a person of color was really difficult. I wasn’t given a lot of opportunities to flourish. When I started my career, the software AUTOCAD was just coming out, and it was new and exciting but nobody knew how to work it. I opened a manual, stayed many late nights in the office and trained myself. Once everyone realized they needed AUTOCAD, I had a skill that was rare and valuable. 

My own journey speaks to the need to create a space for young people of color, where they have the right equipment and freedom to practice their crafts to the best of their ability. 

What advice would you give a young Black creative looking to explore interior design? 

I teach interior design at Sheridan College, and there is something I always tell my students. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I always tell them “you have to be resilient”. This is a hard field to break into. Post George Floyd, more Black interior designers are coming up. It’s important for young people thinking about this field to begin seeking out mentors. Make yourself visible and be sure not to hide. 

Meet the Designer

For over 37 years, Robin Fraser has developed a distinguished, international resume with work spanning Asia, Europe and Canada. Her reputation precedes her as a thorough, informed and relevant designer. Her impressive skills can be seen in her featured episodes on the Food Network’s television series ‘Restaurant Makeover’. 

An animated, colorful visionary, she maintains that not only does she love what she does and she’s good at what she does. Robin prides herself on the ability of bringing the concept into reality, likening her approach to that of a filmmaker who “works in frames”. Robin Fraser challenges space, frame by frame, leaving it simple yet complete.

Learn more about Fraser Design Studios. 

View the interior of the building

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