Creating Engagement: Mason Studio

How a community focus can help foster innovative thinking, encourage an exchange of ideas within and outside the studio, and be the place that people want to come back to.

Being part of a community is an essential human need. It gives a place for belonging, the feeling of identity and creates meaningful human experiences and connections. Studies over the past decades suggest that social connection and interaction are directly linked to happiness.

Operating as a gallery space, community library, fabrication hub, non-profit and experimentation space, and coffee bar, Mason Studio’s new design and cultural hub located at 91 Pelham Avenue in Toronto provides a venue for exhibitions and events and is open to participation from other designers, artists, architects and the general public.

Businesses have discovered the value of creating working spaces that focus on community culture. Today’s office is no longer just for work, but a dynamic place for conversation and discourse, inspiration and rejuvenation, and a space for community to get involved, gather and share knowledge. As we evolve from the pandemic’s effects on the social fabric, more companies recognize the importance of creating an environment where the needs, well-being and experiences of employees are a top priority. We are rethinking how we want to live our lives and what can be done to build a better future.

Integration of Family and Children into the Workplace

The concept of a family-friendly workplace is not new. Due to rapidly changing attitudes, priorities and values within society in recent years, the trend towards integrating family and children into the workspace has gained greater prominence, and the momentum for change is growing.

The hub’s programming and amenities include a Study Garden, which is an indoor green space where staff and visitors are encouraged to “rejuvenate the mind and body,” a book exchange library and a workspace for post-secondary students.

The benefits this type of workplace can offer are numerous. From an improved work-life balance to increased employee satisfaction and higher levels of productivity and motivation, a workspace where families are integrated – in some respect – creates a more positive and supportive work environment, which in turn benefits both employees and the company as a whole.

This integration also results in stronger bonds and relationships within a team. The more they know each other, as individuals with different experiences, the richer the collective knowledge is. The work of an interior design studio considers many demographics — from differing ages, cultural upbringings and social expectations — and bringing in people of diverse backgrounds and their life histories is critical to a more empathetic place.

Earlier this year, as part of the DesignTO festival, Mason Studio transformed its space into an all-ages cafe playhouse for its exhibition “2033: An Optimistic Future.” With the goal of activating a sense of belonging, giving parents and caregivers an opportunity to bond with their children, and just making space and time for play, the firm introduced studio-led storytime sessions for the little ones of their team and community members. This experiment was a reminder of how vital play is as a tool to socialize, learn and focus, even in the workplace. ⁠

For the DesignTO festival in January, Mason Studio worked with collaborators on an exhibition that explored the theme of “an optimistic vision of the future.” The building’s entry hall was turned into a shoppable Market Gallery space featuring products promoting people, and elsewhere a hands-on materials workshop.

Hands-On Programming and Introduction of New Amenities

Engagement and collaboration with industry and community members whose vision and mission align can be a powerful instrument for achieving shared goals, creating a more effective force for change, and making a meaningful impact in the world. In addition to cultivating stronger ties, collaboration with like-minded partners can also help foster innovation and creativity and generate novel ideas and approaches.

This can take many forms: from introducing new amenities that benefit the local community; to creating hands-on programming that provides opportunities for education and skill-building; or developing partnerships with community and non-profit organizations to reaffirm your commitment to social responsibility. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer as to what the workplace of the future will look like, community engagement has the potential to be the focus area for forward-thinking organizations seeking to reimagine their human-centric workplace.

For one of the latest exhibitions in the gallery at Mason Studio’s design and cultural hub, the firm showcased market goods of local vendors and designers, and celebrated the people and processes behind them, giving visitors a deeper understanding and appreciation for the products on display. The exhibit also functioned as a shoppable retail space that was open to the public, and visitors were able to take home a piece of the experience and support the vendors directly. To give back to the community, while also providing a unique and accessible experience for visitors, the studio set up a temporary pay-what-you-want cafe, with donations going to local non-profit organizations. These types of new amenities not only stimulate local economies but also contribute to the cultural vitality of the community.

The hub also included a book exchange library and a workspace for post-secondary students.

Additionally, to help foster creative thinking and collaboration among the local design and architecture community, the firm’s studio houses a community give-one-take-one book library, which provides space to explore different ideas, perspectives and knowledge. Eliminating the traditional desk and chair model encourages more dynamic and interactive brainstorming sessions, where designers can move around and engage with each other and share new ideas they learn about from the library.

Meant to be a continually dynamic and evolving experiment, the programming of Mason Studio’s community hub also includes initiatives like art exhibits of emerging and underrepresented artists, public talks, lectures and tours of the space for the students and aspiring designers. The studio will also offer space to local food and beverage (F&B) companies to make Pelham a destination not just for design and culture, but also for socializing and enjoying local fare.

Designing An Engaged and Thoughtful Workplace

Using design as a tool to engage with employees can be an efficient way to help them be more involved and engaged, motivated and productive, and create an environment where everyone feels welcome, valued and seen. Customizing the workplace in a specific way that considers the needs, personal preferences and diverse cultural backgrounds of employees is essential for creating a truly inclusive and engaging work culture.

Designing a workplace also requires a thoughtful and holistic approach and involves a range of strategies. Some of them include incorporation of natural lighting in all spaces, and biophilic design elements into the built environment to create a sense of safety, or introduction of spaces that are dedicated to rest. Another example is offering quiet nooks to those who prefer to work in a more private and focused environment, opposed to an open workspace.

Created for the rejuvenation of mind and body and as a place to be present and have a personal moment, the Study Garden is one of the latest additions at the Pelham cultural hub, where one can surround themselves with dozens of plants to study, read, meditate, or just be. The greenery and natural elements of the garden create a sense of tranquility, which helps reduce stress and improve overall well-being.

Full Moon Reflected on the Ocean At 01:34 was the very first installation displayed while most of the office was still under development. Made from commonly found materials such as foil thermal blankets and desk fans, the moonscape setting was a metaphor for how we reflect on normally universal encounters when experienced at a time of isolation.

Experimentation, practice and hands-on learning are part of the firm’s ethos, and the installations at the cultural hub are a tangible example of employee engagement, where everyone on the team has the opportunity to contribute their unique skills and ideas and be involved in the process. One such example was the inaugural art installation in the new Mason Studio gallery dubbed Full Moon Reflected on The Ocean At 01:34. As a result of a collaborative effort, the installation explored the idea of inspiring human connection through shared experience and transported participants into an ethereal moon-lit ocean-scape using commonly found materials. The use of fans undulating mylar film mimicked the movement and sound of waves to create a sense of calm and reverence while the “moonlight” danced on the “ocean.”

Stanley Sun and Ashley Rumsey are co-founders and creative directors of Toronto-based Mason Studio, known for its commitment to experimentation, education and collaboration.

Photography by Scott Norsworthy