Here’s the inside scoop: whether through colour, material or form, each of the best interior design projects of 2023 managed to craft an unforgettable sense of place. From a vaulted restaurant that makes any night out feel like a grand occasion to a sex toy shop modelled after a locker room, this year’s standouts impressed us with their thoughtful approaches to building bold spatial experiences and strong brand identities. A couple of them were even ahead of their time in terms of incorporating 2024’s Pantone colour of the year, Peach Fuzz (we’re looking at you, Sydney Modern Gallery Shop and MK&G Foyer).
- ON Running Headquarters, Zurich, by Specific Generic
- Daphne Restaurant, Toronto, by Studio Paolo Ferrari
- Centre Culturel Desjardins, Joliette, by Atelier Tag
- Six Senses Rome, by Patricia Urquiola
- Contact Sports, New York City, by Ringo Studio
- MK&G Foyer, Hamburg, by Besau Marguerre
- Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Center, Washington, D.C., by Rockwell Group and Ennead Architects
- Ca’ Select Distillery, Venice, by Marcante-Testa
- Art Gallery of NSW’s Sydney Modern Gallery Shop, Sydney, by Akin Atelier and Hayden Cox
- Centennial College A Block, Toronto, by DIALOG and Smoke Architecture
While many workplaces were struggling to entice their people back to the office post-COVID, ON was making its Zurich headquarters a place they’d never want to leave. The athleticwear brand’s HQ and flagship retail space is designed to maintain its employees in good spirits — and robust health. In this multi-level interior, created by Specific Generic, working with Spillmann Echsle Architects, the circulation route doubles as a leisurely hiking trail; and amenities, from capacious kitchens and bar counters to workout rooms, abound. The HQ even boasts a stainless-steel laundromat situated on the first-floor landing so that employees can wash their gear at work — proudly and out in the open.
As Anna Roos wrote in our feature about the project, the building is broken down into three-storey neighbourhoods, each of which clusters its meeting and conference rooms at the centre so that open-plan working and informal social spaces benefit from maximum daylight along the periphery. The neighbourhoods are distinguished by their various palettes that reference the natural realms after which they are named — Earth, Forest, Lake and Mountain — to further bolster the emphasis on wellness. And they’re tied together via the recurring motif of the circle cut-out.
A massive, petrified tree is suspended from one of these shapely ceiling excisions to hover over a double-volume space and its dark green sculptural sofa that announces the Forest theme. Bold moves like this can be encountered throughout the space — keeping minds and hearts alert. With the return to the office an ongoing struggle, ON shows how design can make the ultimate difference.
There is no shortage of Toronto restaurants serving up modern American fare, but when it comes to design, Daphne is in a league of its own. Located on Richmond Street West, the eclectic new eatery designed by local hospitality maven Studio Paolo Ferrari offers a contemporary interpretation of the New England prep aesthetic. “We wanted to tap into the spirit of the American bistro, yet create something entirely reimagined,” explains Ferrari. “In designing Daphne, we moved away from the typical wood panelling and a heavy, dark atmosphere, and instead intentionally designed the space to evoke softness and levity.”
The interior is one of seeming contradictions — it feels both intimate and grand, sculptural and experimental, yet classic. Ferrari conceived of the restaurant as a series of distinct rooms, each with their own unique personality, that contribute to a cohesive whole. From an intimate vestibule, guests enter the vaulted Great Room. Elegantly lit to draw attention to its sculptural ceiling, the luxurious and sophisticated space is outfitted with bespoke furnishings (also designed by Studio Paolo Ferrari) and varsity-inspired checkerboard tiles. Though the room boasts an almost residential comfort, it is contrasted by the excitement and energy of the adjacent open kitchen. The cozy Drawing Room, meanwhile, is enveloped in warm red-orange hues, and surrounded by library-like wine storage, while the polished metal edges of the oak tabletops and louvred window coverings nod to nautical references.
The true showpiece is the bar, dramatically separated from the dining room via a long, moody, mirrored corridor that reflects a hand-painted landscape mural. This motif continues along the bar’s undulating walls, which create intimate alcoves within the space. Here, Ferrari draws from cinematic references — the glass-topped bar was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel. From the big moves down to the smallest details, Daphne’s immersive interior encourages deeper exploration.
The more radical the transformation, the more fundamental a truth it might reveal. In the city of Joliette, Quebec, the revitalization of the Centre Culturel Desjardins has restored the essence of a historic theatre by boldly reimagining it. Thanks to a studied yet supremely confident intervention by Montreal-based designers Atelier TAG, a Beaux-Arts performance hall dating back to 1927 is ready for the spotlight once more. Although the room had been extensively altered throughout its almost century-long history, archival photographs of the original space (designed by architects Venne and Viau) revealed an elegant monochromatic palette.
Taking inspiration from the 1927 design, Atelier TAG introduced vivid new colour blocking to the venue. And how about that red? Applied across the ceiling and upper balcony, the bright tone lends the room a thrillingly contemporary flair. Yet, what’s remarkable is how the bold hue enhances the Beaux-Arts details, drawing the eye to the craft and intricacy of the ceiling. And because it translates the traditional colour of theatre seats across the walls and ceilings, it feels surprisingly appropriate.
But the result is much more than a study in scarlet. For starters, the same red tone also extends across the tall curved wall panels that frame the hall, and which were meticulously crafted to improve acoustics by both absorbing and reflecting sound. Meanwhile, the bold red gesture is smartly paired with understated black and grey, ensuring an aesthetically coherent space. It is a remarkable example of thoughtful heritage preservation through assertive, contemporary design.
With echoes of the original 15th-century architecture reverberating throughout, Six Senses Rome takes thoughtful adaptive reuse to an entirely new level. The first Italian outpost for the hotel and wellness sanctuary (and its first urban concept) opened earlier this year in the Eternal City’s historic Palazzo Salviati Cesi Mellini, with Milan-based Spanish architect Patricia Urquiola sensitively — and sustainably — ushering it into its newest life.
Paying reverence to the history and renowned craftsmanship of the country, Urquiola applied a palette of traditional Italian materials mixed with refined modern touches. Cocciopesto (an ancient Roman plaster made from lime with broken bits of pottery, brick or tile) and reams of Travertine limestone line the walls and floors, while a grand 18th-century marble staircase has been restored to its former majestic glory (as have a series of 600-year-old dramatically swirled marble columns). Other classical elements intermingle with contemporary furnishings — some classic Italian designs as well as Urquiola’s own — and cutting-edge in-room technologies. Round rugs (all made from either natural and reclaimed wool or recycled PET) anchor vignettes in both the communal and private spaces, with the curved form repeated on arches, window and skylight cut-outs and serpentine tambour-panelled walls.
The 96 guest rooms and suites share a common neutral and soothing language and are appointed with artworks commissioned specifically for the project (curated by Federica Sala), while the lower two-level spa is replete with authentic Roman bath elements like bas reliefs, mosaic medallions and stone fountains. An abundance of lush greenery and natural sunlight contribute to the unique serenity of the hotel, which also includes a restaurant, a courtyard garden and rooftop terrace. In its entirety, Six Senses Rome harmoniously connects the past to the present while also looking to the future — and is a perfect encapsulation of Urquiola’s signature approach to well-considered design.
Contact Sports seeks to reposition the once-taboo sex toy as just another tool for physical activity, not so far off from a hockey stick or tennis ball. After all, what is sex if not a workout? For its NYC storefront, the brand found the perfect designer in Ringo Studio, which is known for creating shopping environments that are as eye-catching as they are experiential. In this case, the result is a retail space that evokes the same warmth as a wood-panelled change room.
Mimicking lockers, handsome casework creates vertical display niches complete with green-cushioned benches. Top shelves that would usually provide space for one’s personal belongings are instead filled with a curated selection of toys and gear — a casual display strategy that works to make the product offerings more approachable. Sweatshirts and socks from the brand’s apparel line (dubbed its “warm-up collection”) hang nearby on brass clothing rails, while a selection of vintage helmets, raquets and boxing gloves (not to mention old copies of Sports Illustrated) introduce another layer of time-worn texture and add to the store’s athletic prowess.
But the real MVP may be the antique Joe armchair — a 1970s design by Jonathan de Pas, Donato D’urbino and Paolo Lomazzi that is modelled after Joe Di Maggio’s baseball glove — that holds court at the back of the store. As for the front of the shop, a floral counter specializes in ready-to-go rose bouquets. After all, what’s sex without a little romance? Consider us seduced.
Brilliant cobalt blue. Vibrant mustard yellow. Warm terracotta red. These are not the colours that immediately spring to mind when picturing a museum foyer, but if Besau Marguerre’s renovation of Hamburg’s Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe has taught us anything, it’s to embrace the unexpected. The local firm was tapped to bring a new visual identity to the museum entrance while enhancing accessibility, wayfinding, and improving the overall visitor experience — and it has succeeded on all fronts.
After observing visitors in the space, Besau Marguerre reorganized the layout so that the reception desks were logically aligned with the entrance, tucking the cloakrooms and lockers neatly behind. The designers took great care to retain the building’s historic bones, such as the arched doorways and columns, and the new reception desks, furniture and curtain rails echo these curved forms. The interior was then bathed in a vibrant primary colour palette inspired by the original vestibule’s coffered ceiling, using subtle gradations to create an intuitive path through the space.
To the right of the entrance, a media lounge features literature on the themes of ongoing exhibitions and does double duty as an event venue for school groups. Opposite the media lounge, a sitting area decked out in the same bold hues utilizes warm materials such as wood, wool, and hand-tufted carpets to foster a cozy atmosphere that encourages guests to linger. Curtains, ceiling, and wall panels work to improve the acoustics in this high-traffic space.
While the MK&G is known for its extensive collection, the new entrance serves as a gallery in its own right: The lounge will host rotating works by the Fund for Young Design residency program, while at the center of the foyer hangs Stuart Haygarth’s “Tide 200” chandelier, a commissioned work made from found beach plastic.
From the historic lawns at Christ Church and Merton College in Oxford to modern meeting places like Arthur Erickson’s Simon Fraser University, the quadrangle remains the heart of campus culture. It seldom changes much — an open central green space framed by buildings remains the collegiate norm throughout much of the world and across the centuries. In Washington, D.C., however, Ennead Architects and Rockwell Group have translated the college quad into a welcoming interior setting.
An adaptive reuse of the shuttered Newseum complex (itself designed by Ennead predecessor firm Polshek Partnership and opened in 2008), the 10-storey, 40,400-square-metre building’s understated exterior retains the stately, institutional face that befits its setting — next door to Erickson’s Canadian Embassy and across the street from the National Gallery of Art. Inside, the educational complex unfolds a rich and surprising inner world. Organized around a reimagined central atrium, the multi-use hub combines 38 classrooms, a library, multimedia studio, and study rooms, as well as a three-storey conference centre, banquet hall, fitness studio and a 375-seat theatre.
Introducing a floating volume of suspended rooms — including classrooms and study spaces — into the heart of the atrium, the designers facilitated improved circulation through the building, replicating the sociable tangle of multiple, intersecting pathways through a college campus. Warm wood finishes, soft lighting, and ample seating and sunlight define the varied interiors, which invite study sessions and impromptu encounters in equal measure. The result is an energetic, welcoming new educational hub that nonetheless celebrates the institutional elegance of the original building.
Marcante Testa has become known for its elegant multi-layered interiors — and the new Ca’ Select distillery in Venice feels like the apotheosis of its unparalleled refinement. In an unusually spacious former warehouse, the duo kept the wooden ceiling trusses and the essence of the city’s sotoportego passages (a long, tiled entrance hallway sets the scene) and then wove into it their charming palette.
As Josh Greenblatt wrote in our story about the space earlier this year, the firm arranged an aperitivo production facility, visitor centre and bar across two floors. Fabrics and lamps by Mariano Fortuny adorn the spaces and WonderGlass was commissioned to craft the bar countertops, made of wavy blue fused glass that evokes the wonders of nearby Murano. The bar’s lighting installation, which reproduces Select’s tall-goblet logo, is actually made of Murano glass; and the terrazzo floor is embedded, here and there, with red glass chips.
If a single project can evoke both a brand and the city it calls home, Marcante Testa has accomplished just that in this jewel of a project in one of the most enchanting places on Earth.
Responding to its immediate surroundings — both the built and the natural — the Gallery Shop at the Entrance Pavilion of the Art Gallery of NSW’s Sydney Modern building (designed by SANAA and completed in 2022) turns the conventional giftshop into an immersive and luminous space that toys with perspective and expectation. A collaboration between local studio Akin Atelier and renowned surfboard designer Hayden Cox, the shop was conceived as a “bubble within an architectural landscape,” one that effortlessly converses with the complex’s glass, sandstone and rammed earth volumes while also introducing a new material to the palette — bio-resin — that captures and reflects shifting daylight and the exterior landscape.
Chosen for its unique texture and refractive qualities, the bio-resin wraps the fluid contours of the installation’s perimeter to create a somewhat hazy boundary between structure and display. Akin Atelier and Cox spent more than two years experimenting with and pushing the limits of the bio-resin in order to successfully apply it at a large scale, while the studio calibrated a precise orange gradient that was influenced by both the original gallery building’s sandstone construction and the rammed earth walls of SANAA’s subterranean exhibition spaces.
It was no easy task. For 109 consecutive days, a dedicated team at Akin hand-poured sintered layers of micro-weighted pigment into 12 tonnes of bio-resin to create 29 modules (weighing between 300 and 500 kilograms), each of which were then hand-sanded and hand-polished for three weeks by the specialists at Cox’s Haydenshapes to achieve the desired glossy translucency. Inside, the bio-resin walls feature integrated shelving that, along with separate metal plinths, display the museum’s wares in a clean and accessible manner. Essentially a walkable sculpture, the gallery shop is a destination unto itself and makes exiting through the gift shop a truly delightful experience.
One of the core tenets of many Indigenous teachings on Turtle Island is reciprocity; How can we take care of the land so that the land takes care of us? The Mi’kmaq principle of “Two-Eyed Seeing” — in which one eye sees through a Western perspective and the other eye sees through an Indigenous perspective, uniting both — is at the core of Centennial College’s new expansion. Designed by Dialog Architects and Indigenous-led Smoke Architecture, A Block is a marvel of both sustainable architectural practices and Indigenous-based design.
As Canada’s first LEED Gold and WELL-certified, mass timber, zero-carbon higher-education establishment, Centennial College A Block is impressively environmental — but it also contains carefully crafted interiors. The heart of the building is the Indigenous Commons, a sustainably sourced wooden dome interior inspired by the Anishinaabe Roundhouse — or Nimii-Idiwigamig — and the sweat lodge, as a space for drumming, dancing, smudging, and more. With a slight rise in the floor that follows the natural lean of the land outside, it naturally balances indoor and outdoor space. Fanning out from the Commons is a ring of functional Indigenous spaces including a central courtyard with Indigenous plantings and outdoor classrooms, Wisdom Hall (a student atrium designed on principles of the Midewigan as an open-frame bentwood teaching lodge), the Balance Centrestone (featuring Haudenosaunee wampum and Anishinaabe Grandfather — or Mishomis — teachings) and more. In the spirit of “Two-Eyed Seeing”, A Block is a vision of success.
The best restaurants, retail spaces and other interior design projects that inspired and delighted us throughout the past year.