The Collective: All Together Now

There are qualities both tangible and intangible that set design-focused co-working spaces apart from the WeWorks out there.

A couple of years ago, Rocco Verrilli and Carly Nemtean, co-founders of Carriage Lane Design-Build, realized their Mississauga office was no longer suitable. The bare-bones industrial space was originally a fabrication shop and didn’t reflect their colourful, modern aesthetic (a trademark seen on HGTV shows such as the Property Brothers and Love It or List It). Plus, their team had grown from two to six, crowding out the desks, and most of their clients were in downtown Toronto, not the ‘burbs, making meetings a trek.

Finding a new setup wasn’t easy. “Everything we looked at was so expensive,” says Nemtean. “And we heard similar complaints from other designers, too. Friends would tell us they wanted to move their businesses out of their houses, but they didn’t want to spend $60,000 to lease and outfit an office. That’s a huge chunk of money for an independent designer.”

Rather than take the easy way out (you know: stay put, be miserable and keep complaining), Verrilli and Nemtean decided to find a solution. Not only for their problem, but their friends’ problem as well. “We figured that if we could pool our resources with other designers, we’d all be better off,” says Nemtean. “We didn’t have a receptionist or space to receive packages. But we thought if there was a bunch of us together, maybe we could have those things.”

The result, which launched in late 2019, is called The Collective, a 15,000-sq.-ft. co-working set-up. In a converted factory in Toronto’s Castlefield Design District (around the corner from many furniture and finishing suppliers), it has similar attributes to the shared offices that have been popularized by New York City start-up WeWork over the last decade. Beyond the bright reception area, there are dozens of so-called “hot desks” in a big open room for people who only need a work station a few hours a week (costs start at $99 per month), as well as a mix of more private offices for those who need dedicated desks (starting at $499 per month). There’s also playful perks, such as a soundproof, blue-walled booth for people who want to record their own podcasts, a mindfulness lounge with yoga mats and a kitchen dispensing limitless lattes from a fancy Italian coffee machine.

But instead of being geared to millennial tech entrepreneurs — WeWork’s target demographic — The Collective is both by and for interior designers, as well as related professionals like architects, landscape architects and builders. The tenants are reflected through the space in both big and small ways. All the meeting rooms are named for celebrated practitioners: there’s a Kelly Wearstler room aptly decorated with a mirrored credenza and squiggly, eccentric wallpaper; as well as a white-walled Eames Room with moulded plywood chairs. The materials library is over 2,000 square feet, with floor-to-ceiling shelves organized by supplier and displaying samples of tiles, upholstery fabrics, paint chips and more. There’s even an on-site librarian who keeps it all orderly and regularly connects with vendors to request their most current products. For those who want to bring in their own samples, there’s a loading bay where large packages, including furniture, can be dropped off.

Although The Collective is Canada’s largest and most ambitious co-working space by and for designers — Verrilli and Nemtean raised about $1 million from investors and have capacity for up to 350 professionals — it is not the first or only endeavour of its kind. Other examples include Toronto’s Studio Workshop, started by architectural designer Nathan Buhler (founder of BLDG Workshop), and Calgary’s Seventy Seventy Design headquarters, started by interior designer LeAnne Bunnell. In Vancouver, interior designer Tara Lavoie has opened her office to co-working, offering relatively low rents (dedicated desks start at $575 per month with a six-month commitment) and pooled resources, for example tenants can sit in on her lunch and learns, share admin staff and access her product library.

According to designers who use such spaces, the benefits go beyond having amenities tailored to the particularities of their professions (though that helps a lot: WeWork locations don’t typically have large-format printers, but designer-focused spaces offer them as standard because the tenants regularly need to print floor plans and construction drawings). Such facilities can also help shape their practices, providing a sense of comradery, even when someone is sitting amongst potential competitors.

“We help solve each other’s problems,” says Yvonne Popovska, who runs DPo Architecture out of Toronto’s Studio Workshop, sitting at a table next to two or three other firms. “Nathan, from BLDG Workshop, has given me advice about zoning issues that I’m facing that he’s already been through. Sometimes we talk about business problems such as billing. You don’t get that kind of support working alone at home.”

“We don’t just run the space, Carriage Lane are tenants here too,” says Verrilli. “It’s a huge bonus to be surrounded by our community, to be able to have spontaneous conversations and exchange ideas with other creative people.”

Not everyone likes a hyper-social environment. “There’s a dichotomy in design between those who are really into collaboration and those who are more private and protectionist,” says Buhler. “I’m very open to other people, so co-working suits me well. Those who are more quiet tend to filter out from our space fairly quickly.”

For co-working tenants, there is another bonus beyond forging new friendships. Because businesses such as The Collective can have so many designers all in one place, they get special attention from suppliers. Studio Workshop got a free kitchen from Greek manufacturers Centro with the expectation that lots of people will see the install. The Collective has had a lot of support from vendors, because “they know they can capture a large audience by being here” says Nemtean. “Sescolite supplied us a lot of great fixtures for our boardrooms and Caesarstone supplied us with surfaces for our boardroom tables.”

Every product is labelled so designers can quickly reference the sourcing, and most of the supplied items at The Collective will change over time. “Our plan is to meet with vendors semi-annually, to see what they want back, and what can be swapped out for new items to refresh each space,” says Nemtean. “Designers are visual. We know that as designers ourselves. So we always want to have something new for them to look at, something new to inspire them and keep them engaged.”

Photography by Stephani Buchman