Nadia Di Donato
Vice President / Creative Director, Liberty Entertainment Group
Nadia Di Donato has played an integral role in the Liberty Entertainment Group since its inception in 1987, by creating the individually unique design approaches and creative themes for each of the company’s venues and properties. She also oversees production for Liberty Group’s signature events, gaining international accolades and recognition for her showstopping work.
Trained in visual communications at Toronto’s Ryerson University, Nadia’s design vision is to create synergy between form and function. Recently, she was awarded the prestigious LIV Hospitality Design Awards 2021 for BlueBlood Steakhouse (Interior Design–Historic & Heritage category) and for Don Alfonso 1890 (Interior Design- Pop up Bar & Restaurant, and Historic & Heritage categories). Nadia was nominated by design et al magazine’s International Hotel & Property Awards 2021 as Hospitality Designer of the Decade (shortlisted) in addition to International Hotel & Property Awards 2021 for Xango restaurant and Arcane (Bar/Club/Lounge: shortlist), and in 2020 for BlueBlood Steakhouse (Restaurant, Americas and Caribbean: winner) and Don Alfonso 1890 (Restaurants Global: shortlist).
1.) Tell us how you got into interior design?
I’ve always been creative. For me it wasn’t learned, it is innate. I see the world through a visual scope so I believe I didn’t choose my career path, it chose me:) I actually started my career in graphic design and worked in print for years. I worked as creative director for several magazines, most influential was an interior design magazine, Azure. I was introduced to the industry on so many levels…interior designers,manufacturers, etc etc. I was in love with the industry.
I think the combination of my graphic design background and passion for interiors gave me a unique way of approaching spaces. I design a space as an art palette. I don’t conform to the limitations typical in construction. I’m always thinking out of the box.
The pivotal point in my career was Joining my husband in the hospitality industry as creative director of the company. It was a natural transition from 2d design to 3D design at a time when the design industry itself was seeing revolutionary changes allowing innovation at lightning speed. Today my responsibility spans from conceptualization to implementation. I still consider every venue a new design palette 🙂
Don Alfonso 1890
2.) Tell us about your business and what sets you apart.
We started The Liberty Entertainment Group from the ground up, with one restaurant and one administrative employee in our office. We now employ more than 1,400 people in every aspect of the hospitality industry. Throughout the growth and expansion of our company (and still today) we’ve always been very hands-on working side by side the individuals that have helped us create what Liberty Group is recognized as today … the leader in the hospitality industry.
What sets us apart?
The Liberty Entertainment Group’s portfolio of venues established in some of the most significant and historic landmark properties in Toronto. We continue to scout out areas and locations of distinction.
Every new venue is a unique project with its own identity. For the past 30 years we’ve been creating experiences, fusing aesthetics, cuisine, art and appointed service to create an experience for all senses. From rustic casual to fine dining from nightclubbing to a wedding in a castle.
In addition, our diversity in the hospitality industry. From nightclubs, to restaurants, to event spaces to tourist destinations — throughout the years our portfolio continues to morph. We are in constant touch with industry shifts and try to stay ahead of the curve. Our motto: change to stay the same.
3.) Tell us about your best work
There have been three recent works garnering global award recognition by the UK’s design et al’s International Property Awards. One notable example is Blueblood Steakhouse in Casa Loma, which was awarded Best Designed Restaurant,Americas, 2020. Its opulent interior design, is a prime example of preserving the integrity of the old, using contemporary design within an architecturally traditional space. Another interior design work is Don Alfonso 1890 awarded Best Design, Americas, 2023, which seamlessly integrates its exterior backdrop and interior detailing, emphasizing organic design principles. Our latest contemporary work for DaNico, recently shortlisted for Best Design Global and Americas, 2024, pushes boundaries to evoke intended mood and drama. Darker rich colours and materials influence the perception of space in this 30 foot ceiling height, historical architectural space.
4.) What inspired you to get on this journey and open your own design firm?
Designing Liberty Group properties exclusively came out of a deep love for design and creativity. I wanted the freedom to work on projects that allowed me to truly have creative control. We wanted to create a personal and unique approach to our design projects. Not only designing the interiors but transcending design to every element of the project down to tableware and wardrobe details.
5.) Where do you get your inspiration from?
My inspiration can come from several sources:
An art piece is often the starting point for my interior design, it is the catalyst to creating a space that not only looks visually appealing but also has a deeper, emotional connection to the art and its significance. The chosen art piece often guides the placement of lighting, framing, and the overall layout of the space.
Also, traveling the world. Experiencing different cultures, architecture, and interior spaces during travel is a major source of inspiration. I often incorporate elements from places I’ve visited into my work either actual artifacts or inspirational components reimagined.
Lately, advancements in technology have directly inspired innovation in our projects. Smart technology from lighting to audio to temperature control to automatic doors. It’s a fundamental component influencing the design approach. Then, at times, inspiration simply arises from solving design challenges or addressing specific spatial or functional needs.
6.) What would you say is your biggest and most memorable accomplishment?
Design is a highly subjective field. As a designer of over 30 years, the biggest accomplishment is producing visually stunning and impactful venues that receive prestigious design awards and critical acclaim. Our recent 3 restaurant projects, Blueblood, Don Alfonso 1890, and DaNico have consecutively received recognition, nominations and awards from global platforms in the design industry.
On a personal note, one of my most memorable experience as a designer was collaborating with French-born, Los Angeles-based artist, Thierry Guettta — aka Mr Brainwash — to create two original works for our Blueblood project. These original oils on canvas remain one-of-a-kind pieces never to be reproduced again. Working hand in hand with such a renown artist had its challenges along with incredible reward.
7.) What were some of the challenges you had to overcome as a new entrepreneur?
Specifically regarding the design and construction of our venues… initially as a female in a primarily male-dominated industry, my biggest struggle was in establishing the self-confidence to assert my design approaches and being comfortably accepted as a peer on job sites. In addition, my background training in graphic design rather than interior design is extremely unconventional and non-conforming to traditional construction approaches, therefore at times requiring a significant amount of convincing! When I started in the industry, balancing a demanding design career with family responsibilities was, at times, extremely challenging.
How did you overcome these challenges?
With the execution of one project after the other I believe I organically gained confidence through continuous learning. The more confident I became in my skills and knowledge, the easier it became to assert my ideas. I had to hone my communication skills to be able to articulate my ideas clearly and assertively to gain respect and acceptance in the construction sector. Building a strong professional network of trades, manufacturers, and craft people who provided guidance, support, and insights, also helped me to navigate challenges and gain acceptance. I realized that my unique perspective and approach to design was a valuable asset. Over time, as I continued to assert myself and prove my abilities, i found that my peers became more accepting and respectful of my contributions. Showcasing my design skills through my work and allowing projects and designs to speak for themselves, helped to break down stereotypes and biases.
8.) Tell us about your team and the people you work with?
The process always begins with the inception of a concept and location brought forth by president and CEO Nick Di Donato. We immediately set the wheels in motion to create a unique beautifully designed space. This cannot be accomplished without the expert team of tradesmen and craftsmen that we work with every day. Our special crew of craftspeople from millwork to upholstery to lighting to artisans and artists, work tirelessly to bring the design vision to fruition. In all of our projects our team is very artisan, very grassroots, from conception to design to execution. As a passionate designer of hospitality there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing people enjoy a space that was carefully crafted by some of the most talented people in the industry whom most often don’t get enough of the recognition.
Nadia and Nick Di Donato
9.) What is your advice to other female founders?
Overcoming the challenge of asserting yourself and gaining acceptance as a female in a male-dominated industry can be a grueling process. My advice is to constantly build a strong trustworthy network of people who can provide guidance, support, and insights. This can help you navigate challenges and gain acceptance especially in the ‘subjective natured’ design industry. And never be discouraged by setbacks or resistance. Persistence is key. Lastly, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Creativity cannot flourish without taking risks.
10.) What is next for you?
Next up? Currently well-underway in its construction phase is an 8000 sq ft jewel in the crown of the city, at the iconic Union Station, Blue Bovine Steak and Sushi House is set to open in early 2024. We’re going to infuse and incorporate a lot of those little details that Union Station is notorious for but give it an edge. Honoring the integrity of local and natural elements, the restaurant’s ethos is expressed both through the commitment to local manufacturers and artisans and natural material honesty in the design.
For over three decades, LEG has redefined Toronto’s restaurant, nightlife, and special event experience and as developers and operators of landmark establishments, is recognized as one of the most successful and innovative companies in the industry. Its impressive roster of unique venues includes Toronto’s premier special event facilities, Casa Loma, and Liberty Grand Entertainment Complex; restaurants include BlueBlood Steakhouse, Don Alfonso 1890, DaNico, three Cibo Wine Bar locations (King West, Yonge St and Yorkville). Currently underway is Blue Bovine their newest venue inside Union Station opening in early 2024. With over 500,000 square feet of hospitality space, LEG caters to a diverse clientele including A list celebrities, sports personalities, and industry leaders.