Leadership / Mardi Najafi, Director, Retail Design

MARDI NAJAFI
THE DISRUPTER OF RETAIL

“I love retail because of the strategy behind
it and that the outcome of our design
influences behaviour.”

For Mardi Najafi, it’s taken a world of experiences to get him to where he is today. As the son of a diplomat,
the first two decades of Najafi’s life involved a fair amount of moving around from one city to the next,
primarily in Europe and the Middle East. This instilled his love of travel, which he believes to be the
best educator.

“It broadens one’s horizons and offers new perspectives,” says Najafi, the director of retail design at Figure3.
“Having interacted with the world and being exposed to diverse art and culture, I’ve unconsciously picked
up inspirations, possibilities and references, which reveal themselves over time in my sketches, between my
lines and in the shadows of my concepts.”

Najafi describes himself as an urbanite, which is why New York is one of his most-loved cities. Its density,
energy, the sounds and movement is what attracts him to The Big Apple.

“My childhood dream was to be a pilot or an architect,” says Najafi, who is a true adrenaline junkie. “I just
love speed and height. Whenever I get stuck and there’s a problem to solve, I hop in the car and just drive.”

Having moved around a lot in his earlier years, Toronto has been his home-base for the past 20 years,
which to him is a calmer, tranquil New York. When Najafi isn’t travelling, he enjoys observing people on
how they interact with their environment, which has proven to be a useful skill over the course of his career.

With a degree in Industrial Design, Najafi started out in office furniture design, then quickly changed niches
and moved to a firm that designed exhibits. The fast-paced process of micro architecture excited him,
which ultimately led him to explore the world of fashion events and runway design in cities like New York,
Paris, London and Tokyo. The hustle and bustle of the fashion world opened up the world of retail, which has
become Najafi’s realm for almost 30 years.

“I love retail because of the strategy behind it and that the outcome of our design influences behaviour,”
he explains. “At Figure3, we design spaces for people and as part of the design process, we embed
ourselves in the spaces we need to design to observe the target group – be it the customers or the staff.”

While retail design isn’t just about aesthetics, the minimalist, “less is more” approach to Danish and
Scandinavian design has inspired a lot of his work. When asked about his views on the current retail
landscape, Najafi says that “retail is not dead but boring retail is.”

The focus in retail is moving from a purely transactional exchange to an integrated customer experience,
which is why retail designers have to help brands create more powerful customer-centric experiences that
stir emotions, prompt conversations and create lasting memories.

“I believe the modern human being has gone too far. Modernity has introduced technology that consumes
energy and leads to such things as air pollution and climate change. Another impact has been the
breaking up of social ties that bind people together in traditional societies,” he says. “This pandemic
dramatically reminds us that we are social beings.”

I love seeing designers grow,
I try to pull the best out of them and push
them out of their comfort zone.
That’s my approach to leadership.”

While retail and hospitality are Najafi’s main focus, the cross pollination between the different studios and
design fields at Figure3 allows for him to bring designers together and feed ideas off one another.
Being a mentor and educator comes as a natural trait to him. Najafi has taught in Tehran, Paris, Eindhoven
and Toronto, and continues to wear his teaching hat while at the office.

“I love seeing designers grow,” he says. “I try to pull the best out of them and push them out of their comfort
zone. That’s my approach to leadership.”

Najafi believes that as a leader, trusting employees instead of moulding them to think, behave and solve
problems a certain way is vital. The same goes for emotional intelligence, which is why he never designs a
retail space from a designer’s point of view, but from the angle of the user.

“Solving problems and creating something that hasn’t existed before is very exciting,” says Najafi.
“Once you’ve been bitten by the design bug, you’re hooked for life.”

Leadership / Suzanne Wilkinson, Principal

SUZANNE WILKINSON
THE EQUALIZER OF FIGURE3

“My favourite aspect is being part
of a team of entrepreneurs and drawing
ideas out of everyone”

Having grown up on a farm with five brothers and sisters, Suzanne Wilkinson was raised in a very
traditional household where each member of the family played their part and were treated as a unit.
Today, she is a partner at Figure3 and seems to have a similar outlook on her leadership style.

“My favourite aspect is being part of a team of entrepreneurs and drawing ideas out of everyone,” says
Wilkinson. Since Figure3 works in various sectors, from high-rise condominium development to corporate
offices, there’s a lot of cross pollination. This is where Wilkinson’s strength of bringing together the
best in the business and pulling each individual’s expertise comes in handy to get the best results for
each project.

“People inspire me,” she says. “I’m fortunate enough to work with a lot of amazing talent. I get really
driven by working with a group of people with endless creative ideas.” Dominic De Freitas, a partner at
Figure3 describes Wilkinson as “the equalizer”. “Suzanne’s greatest ability as a leader is to instill trust
and independence. She guides you to discover the right answers without giving them to you,” he says.
For Wilkinson, the pre-planning stages of a project is the most important, which is where a lot of the
fusion of different people comes into play.

“The way I like to inspire my team is by really seeing what sparks that light in their eyes when they’re
working on a project,” she says. “If I see a designer that’s really interested in one aspect of the project,
I’ll encourage them to dig more, research more, go find new and exciting ways of solving that problem
and then bring it back to the team.” She describes her job as the conductor of those ideas to ensure
that there’s one cohesive design coming out of the team.

Wilkinson had an interest in interiors since she was a little girl. Her first exposure was in high school
where she took a woodshop class and had the opportunity to work with materials by hand. “It really got me into understanding forms and objects, and working with materials such as wood; it sparked my interest in further exploring design,” explains Wilkinson, who originally was thinking of pursuing a
business degree. Her father was a big influence on her choosing to pursue interior design and learning
the business first hand as she continues her journey in the industry.

Wilkinson is one of four partners at Figure3, and the only woman. When asked what her experience
has been like as a woman in design, she gracefully responded with: “I don’t really focus on specifically
being a woman in business or this industry. I focus more on what I have to offer as a business person
with my partners and as a leader in design with my designers. I see myself as an equal to all genders
that I work with.” Even outside of the office, Wilkinson continues to design – this time a passion project
of her own. “Design is really something you live and experience – you breathe it all the time,” she says.
After purchasing a property in Roncesvalles, where she lives with her husband and three kids, the
opportunity to build a laneway house arose, and the couple jumped at the challenge.

“It really got me into understanding forms
and objects, and working with materials
such as wood; it sparked my interest in
further exploring design”

Design is really
something you live
and experience –
you breathe it all
the time”

A laneway house is a home built in your backyard off of a driveway. Wilkinson says it’s a very
unique opportunity and it’s a way for her and her husband to leverage her design experience
and his construction experience to build this custom home for their family.

“This is a passion project for my husband and I,” she says. “We really love urban dwelling and
the idea of finding new and innovative ways of living in our growing city.” The couple decided to
engage architectural firm Williamson Williamson Inc. to realize the vision.

“One of the luxuries I’ve allowed myself to have is to be a client for once,” she says. “And have
our own personal visions listened to by a professional to help us along.”

She describes her own design style to be very clean and simple, but well executed. This will be
evident in her laneway house, which she says will be very modern but with a twist. Natural,
locally-sourced materials will be incorporated into the design. And in order to integrate the
house seamlessly into the neighbourhood, Toronto-made red brick was chosen for the exterior.
“I’ve really enjoyed the process of being a client and working with others,” she says. “Again, it’s
about drawing upon other people’s expertise to create the best result possible.”