Filling the gap: One company’s ambitious vision to bridge ‘old’ Hamilton with new


Published December 14, 2020 at 1:00 pm


If you were asked to describe Hamilton, what would you say?

Would you start by saying, “it’s about one hour outside of Toronto?” Would you still refer to Hamilton as “Steeltown” or would you call it a health sciences hotbed that’s undergone an artistic and culinary renaissance?

Hamilton has transformed over the last decade, mostly out of necessity, but the city’s identity still feels like it’s caught between a paintbrush and a hard hat. Sure, for a city to be a desirable place to live, work, and go to school, it has to encompass a little something for everyone. So why does “identity” matter?

Take a look at the gap that exists in Hamilton City Council. Over the years, fresh, progressive voices have been elected to represent the city’s evolution. But they’ve been met with staunch resistance from some members of council’s “old guard,” who have enthusiastically voted against bike lanes, public Wi-Fi, and free menstrual health products in some municipal washrooms (one female councillor said she was “uncomfortable” with the topic altogether). You know, young “hipster” things.

Hamilton City Council represents a city on the brink of shedding its old skin. All it needs is someone to come along and give it a little tug.

Modern Design Studio is a Hamilton-based company founded in 2016 by Dao Nguyen. The business specializes in interior design and is expanding into events. Recently, Modern Design Studio moved from its space at Ancaster Business Park to 215 Locke St. S by purchasing the old NaRoma Pizza property.

“(Ancaster) was just so far from the action,” Bella Dietrich, Managing Director for Modern Design Studio, told “We wanted to be more centralized, so it just made sense for us to relocate.”

Bella and her sister, Dao, and the entire Modern Design Studio team grew up in the Hamilton area. They have some ambitious plans to try and bridge that gap between old and new.

A little tug on the old skin, if you will.

“Whenever we think about going somewhere fun, why do we have to think about Toronto?” asked Dietrich. “We want people to think of Hamilton, instead.”

Modern Studio Design has talked with the City about using underutilized space for trendy marketplaces and pop-up events. They’re also working on partnerships with Mohawk College and McMaster University with a focus on young entrepreneurs.

“Let’s say you have an idea for a business or service and don’t want to take a huge risk — you just want to test it out. We want to provide spaces that people can use to test out their ideas and build their brand.”

Modern Design Studio says its business model for events is versatile and efficient due to its focus on using reusable and portable shipping containers. They can be used to create and accommodate almost anything, from a fancy large entrance to a concert stage.

“During the day, our pop-up event could host yoga workshops and fun things for the whole family,” said Dietrich. “At night, you’d have restaurants, pubs, concerts, and other live entertainment.”

“Hamilton’s arts and culture scene are strong, it’s just kind of tucked away. We want to bring it out into the open.”

Bella splits living and working between Hamilton and London, England — where she puts her Ph.D. in engineering to use in the public sector. Dietrich says she was inspired by how European communities utilize their space for pop-up events and markets.

“Germany, for example, is world-renowned for its Christmas markets. I’d love to see something like that here on Locke Street, for example, where the entire street is closed for weeks, and people come from all over to see this incredible Hamilton Christmas market.”

The most glaring hurdle for Modern Design Studios’ ambition is rooted deep in our culture. Hamiltonians — and most Ontarians, for that matter—are not as willing to give up their roads. Heck, implementing a single bike lane can create angst in a neighbourhood, let alone a month-long road shut down for something that isn’t construction-related.

But attitudes change, and the cultural demographics are clearly shifting in Hamilton.

Bella acknowledged that the company’s ultimate vision is years away from being a reality, which is why Modern Design Studio is planting new roots on Locke.

Consider it market research, if you will.

“We want to take our time and build relationships with the community. So being on Locke Street, we feel like we’re on the ground floor. We want to get a feel for the community’s needs, and then we want to deliver them,” continued Dietrich.

“This isn’t about us trying to make a lot of noise and create all this change. We want to build partnerships and work collaboratively to make Hamilton a truly unique destination where, on any given day, there’s something fun for everyone.”

Hamilton has been the self-described “Ambitious City” for more than 170 years. If history has taught us anything, it’ll take young, spirited visionaries to execute that ambition.

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