Many of Paolo Ferrari’s childhood days were spent playing with woodworking tools alongside his father or fiddling with leather scraps in a family friend’s Toronto workshop. It was this immersion that propelled him down the path of design, which landed him at Yabu Pushelberg. He spent six years there before launching multidisciplinary firm Studio Paolo Ferrari, known for such boundary-pushing projects as the colorful yet sleek Alchemy cannabis dispensary in Toronto.
When did you know you wanted to be a designer?
Paolo Ferrari: My parents moved to [Toronto] from Italy in the late 1970s, shortly after my older brother was born. We traveled back to Italy frequently, and I fell in love with the adventure of travel. Growing up, I was exposed to a great deal of creativity. My father was a carpenter and furniture maker, and we had a family friend who was a seamstress specializing in leather. I would spend my weekends either by my father’s side in his workshop or with our family friend in her leather atelier. Ever since I can remember, I was drawn to architecture. To me, it was the ultimate [form of] expression.
What are your early hospitality memories?
PF: We had a family friend that owned a restaurant in Toronto. When I was a kid, I would often visit on Saturday mornings. It was the only context I had for a restaurant. The owners would make me a cappuccino, which was 100 percent milk foam, and I was allowed behind the bar to use the soda gun. To me, this was the absolute height of luxury, and I loved it.
Why did you decide to launch your own firm?
PF: It was always a longterm goal. The further along you get in your career, the harder it gets to start from scratch. I made the leap with the confidence that I would be able to start small (on the kitchen table small) and go step by step, brick by brick, and build the studio of my dreams.
First work-related reality check?
PF: Having our first major project go on an indefinite hold. At that point, our two major projects were with the same client and both in Dubai. We were designing a nightclub as well as a 10,000-square-foot office. We had a small team, and these projects were demanding and fast-paced. I had put business development on the backburner, and one day we were asked to stop work on the office project because our client’s lease fell through. It was a scary moment. That experience taught me how important keeping a diversified client and geographic network of projects was. A big part of being an entrepreneur is being comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Project you are most proud of?
PF: Desert Rock in Saudi Arabia is a remote resort surrounded by a mountain range. We designed, detailed, and coordinated the entire project remotely during the height of COVID. It has led to other major commissions with the same client. We’re now working on an ocean resort with Foster + Partners and an avant-garde overwater resort with Shaun Killa [of Killa Design].
Most rewarding part of the job?
PF: Seeing built work. It’s absolutely the best and often kind of surreal. It’s magic every time.
What do you collect?
PF: Nerdy response: books. Not sure how many, but probably 1,000. In case AI ever takes over the internet, I’m covered.
PF: It’s embarrassing to admit, but I love a Hallmark Christmas movie. Maybe it’s because I’m always stressed out at the close of the year and need mindless predictable entertainment, but maybe it’s because to be a designer you need to be a little bit of a romantic.
What can’t you live without?
PF: My better half, Courtney Lauderdale. She’s my partner in both life and work and is very patient. Every day she brings the best out of me.
Best piece of advice you’ve been given?
PF: Someone once told me: ‘No one ever went bankrupt because of the rent.’ This helped me take the leap and sign our studio’s first lease.
What will it say on your tombstone?
PF: I’m going to quote my favorite show of the moment The Bear. ‘Every second counts.’ Life’s too short to be doing something you’re not passionate about—or to be spending time with people that don’t excite or inspire you.