Toronto-based interior designer Nike Onile’s foray into design was quite unusual. At one point, she had planned to follow a path in the medical field. Although after enduring several years at an unsatisfying job, she decided to translate her life long love for the visual arts into a career in designing for interiors.
At the beginning of her design journey, Onile was interested in designing for small spaces and founded the company 800 SQ FT, aimed at curating beautiful living experiences for spaces under 1000 square feet. However, as time went on, she found that her design focus went beyond just space and encompassed health and wellness in general.
Onile cites the natural world as one of her primary inspirations, as is apparent in the colors and spacing of her work. Her work reminds the individual how connected they are to their surroundings, and how even the slightest change can have profound effects on their experience.
Throughout her design career, Onile has consulted with numerous clients, has been featured in print publications, and has appeared on daytime television. Despite her success, Onile has felt that as a Black woman, her aesthetics are often less appreciated than Eurocentric forms of expression.
The Folklore interviewed interior designer Nike Onile about her design process, philosophy, and how she designs with a wellness focus.
How did you get into design, particularly designing for interiors?
My journey to design was unconventional. Though I am an artist to my core, I followed an academic career in Life Sciences and got a specialist degree at the University of Toronto in Biotechnology. Most first-gens are familiar with parental pressures to select a career path that are most likely to end in success. As a child raised in a traditional Nigerian household, there was not much room to deviate from “the honorable 3”––doctor, lawyer, engineer. In my quest to find the most artistic specialization in medicine, I decided I was going to be a plastic surgeon. Thus began my journey on the road to a very unfulfilled life in the healthcare industry, I found myself years later working as a regulatory affairs professional at a natural products consulting firm with a deep knowing that this was not the life that aligned with who I was meant to be.
I found momentary relief through painting and sculpting, so when I bought my first place, I did what I did with all my canvases – capture inspiration and fill the space with meaning. This was the start of my interior design career. I didn’t go to school for interior design, but for me, the artistic principles are the same when it comes to creating something that moves people. Zone in on what story is worth telling – and tell it in the simplest way. In this case, my pages just happen to be three-dimensional.
Having transitioned from a career in pharmaceuticals to design, what was your experience making such a drastic career change?
For me, that drastic change was like taking a breath after a deep dive. I had been so conflicted and felt as though I was slowly dying, so able to create daily in the way I did was a recalibration of sorts. It brought me to life and that strong contrast between the unfulfilled life I was living and the art I was creating made things very clear on which direction I was supposed to go. Of course, there were challenges, as there are when a change in direction occurs, namely – the imposter syndrome, learning curve etc. However, I just gave myself room to play and grow. I was blessed that my clients just liked what “my play” produced.
What do you find most intriguing about designing with wellness in mind?
I think what is important to understand is how connected we are to the spaces we surround ourselves with. Think about it, we spend most of our lives and an incredible amount of our energy in the spaces we live and work in, so it is only natural that we create space that supports us in a way that makes us feel brilliant. When designing, there is a magic that happens in that place where beauty and design meets wellness. It is as though you can almost get lost in it, and often I do. Now more than ever this couldn't be more relevant (or needed) with the global purge we are all going through. The value here is creating safe space that pours back into you. One that is not only functional but is set up to foster health, inspiration and rich life.
Where do you get your design inspirations from?
My inspirations come from many places depending on what I am working on and for whom, but if I had to draw two common threads through it all, I would have to say: Us and Nature. When it comes to people I am fascinated by the way we live, what makes us feel alive and most like ourselves, and how we relate to each other. The relationship we have with ourselves, those we have with others and how that translates to space is a fun place to get to work in every day.
Recently though, I have been drawing a lot of inspiration from nature. She has a way of answering all questions by simply being and it is just for me to be silent, attentive and open to her knowledge. There is so much she has to teach - her expansiveness; her ability to evoke emotion and willing surrender; and just her immense beauty! I mean, have you ever walked so deep into a forest that it’s fullness insulates you from all sound but its own? And notice how all your worries just seem so insignificant? And then get physically and mentally lost and captured by the beauty of the life that surrounds you? There is so much inspiration to be found in that and one of the best parts is that she (mother nature) lets me hone in on that essence and borrow it in my work.
What is your process like when you are designing a space?
My design process is very much tied to whom it is I am designing for, especially when it is a residential project. When I first meet a client we speak very little about design beyond the scope of work they are looking for. Rather, I spend the time sitting, talking, and getting to know them. We always do a house tour, even if it is not the portion of the home we will be working on. It is incredible what language lies in the body and how it speaks when I am watching people interact with their homes.
People tend to light up and give full attention to the things they love – body facing and animated; while they gloss over or turn their backs to areas they are unhappy with or deem insignificant. It is through this process of watching, digging, and telling stories that my design work begins. I move walls and furniture around in my mind, highlighting the pieces that evoke joy and correcting the places that need more attention, so usually by the end of our time together I have a really good idea of what the finished product will look like.
You recently transitioned from designing for small spaces to a wellness-based design focus. How did you go about this change?
When first started in design 11 years ago, I was just excited to explore this new medium that I had stumbled upon. My canvas was much larger than the four by five-foot canvases I was painting on and they were in three dimensions. Who could resist? Starting with a small space just seemed logical to me. They were bite-sized and could be consumed all in one gaze. It wasn’t until later that I realized the powerful niche I found myself within the small space movement.
However, like any artist, you grow and evolve and it became more clear that the work I actually had very little to do with the size of the space. It was much bigger than that. I help transform people by transforming their surroundings and the breadth of my work included interior, public and online space so I just needed to better align my message with the work I actually did and had been doing for quite some time.
How does collaboration factor into your design work?
My work flourishes in collaboration. I actually have a really hard time creating when I don’t have a clear picture of who the persons are that will occupy this space; and that goes for all kinds of space – physical, public or virtual. I do my best design work when I can interact with the people and draw points and vital information about how the space will best function for them and how to best align “the spirit” of the space with theirs.
Black women tend to be underrepresented in the design industry. Has this impacted your experience in the design world as a Black woman?
The easy answer is yes. What is more difficult is to pinpoint how and to what degree because, like everyone, the only lived perspective I have is mine. By observation, I know that I haven’t seen many like me celebrated in the design industry outside of Black History Month or in time of civil unrest.
Beyond that, it has been a point of note that the types of styles that are widely promoted have been those that stem from euro-centric expression. So navigating an industry where you are not seen, and the texture and color of your aesthetic are not taken with much regard until it is made mainstream by someone who does not look like you, is a difficult place to create within. It is the equivalent of being inspired to paint a stunning vision you saw in a dream but no one sells or manufactures the colors.
Words by Natalie Jarret