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A Boyhood of Globetrotting Prepared Him for a Life in Retail Design

An award-winning creative shares his unique journey and career-defining projects




A Boyhood of Globetrotting Prepared Him for a Life in Retail Design
Mardi Najafi
He leads the retail design studio at Figure3 in Toronto, calling on his experience with exhibit design, and a boyhood of international travel.

You had an international upbringing.
As the son of a diplomat, my life involved a fair amount of traveling around the world and being exposed to various cultures. I speak four-and-a-half languages – Farsi, English, French, German and a little bit of Russian. I graduated high school in Moscow. This exposure instilled my love of travel, which I believe is the best educator and had major influence on the designer that I am today.

What about your background prepared you for this retail design life?

As a teenager, I had a love for heights and speed – dirt biking, jumping off cliffs, skateboarding. But in my head, I also had a passion for creation. I wanted to be an architect or a pilot – part creative, part adventurer.

📷: Arash Moallemi
A flight of poppies

What did you pursue?

After my undergrad studies in industrial design, I continued my graduate studies at the Design Academy of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. At the time, industrial design was a young and futuristic niche. I loved its broad approach, an opportunity for me to explore who I was as a person and as a designer. My bachelor’s degree was in product design, and my master’s focused on environmental design.

What experience put it all together for you?

At Studio 5eme in Paris, we were creating the D-Day celebration installation in the atrium of Galeries Lafayette, the elegant Parisian department store. My concept was hanging a bomber plane with its back hatch open and filled with poppies – the symbol of war in France, from the World War I poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ – which would spill out of the plane and pour over the cosmetics department directly onto the Kenzo kiosk located in the center of the atrium.

Our creative director said, ‘Are you nuts? How would we hang an airplane in the store?’ I said we could borrow the shell of the plane from the NATO air base near Paris, and maybe Kenzo would even pay for it – which they did!

But what I remember most was a Galeries Lafayette executive who didn’t talk about cost or ROI. He asked me, ‘Mardi, will this installation stir some conversation?’ I assured him it would. And there it was, on every local TV news program and on every newspaper cover.

Where did that lead you?

I began my career in furniture design, and quickly learned I didn’t want to design chairs all my life! I moved to Studio 5eme in Paris, focusing on exhibit design and fashion runways, which is taken very seriously in Europe. This practice was a form of micro-architecture blended into branding and also connected back to my need for speed.

This exposure led to the exciting world of retail design. My passion is distilled in considering every step of the customer journey, creating memories through unique moments and unexpected details, enabling people to connect with brands at an emotional level.

When did you get to Canada and Figure3?

I moved to Toronto in December 2002 and joined Perennial Design, a reputable retail design consultant. This collaboration led to award-winning projects for corporate brands such as Loblaws, Home Depot and Royal Bank. I was exposed to a new world that I had never experienced in Europe, yet very soon I wanted to move on and continue to push the envelope.

I joined Figure3 as a Senior Designer in 2013 and now I’m the Director of Retail Design. The past eight years has led to numerous award-winning retail experiences that reflects breakthrough innovative thinking and consumer-focused design excellence. I get goosebumps thinking of what we have achieved. Projects such as Virgin Mobile, Surterra, Penguin Shop, Division Twelve showroom, Epic Cycles and, recently, the Grand Central Mimico Experience Center.

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