World View: Letter from Canada
The World View series shines light on the creativity and resilience of designers around the world as they confront the challenges wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. Working with our international contributors, we reach out to creative talents to ponder the power of design in difficult times and share messages of hope. As Laura May Todd discovers in Toronto and Montreal, designers are staying connected digitally, setting up home studios, and finding new appreciation for tactility and self-reliance
Looking in from the outside at a country as large and diffuse as Canada, social distancing already seems built into the geography. But in reality, for the designers who call the country home, the lockdown measures have been disorienting, necessitating logistical gymnastics and strategic adaptations. Despite the upheaval, the overall attitude of those we spoke to is one of resilience and good humour, predictably Canadian traits.
‘It’s isolating enough to be a Canadian designer trying to interact with a community that’s primarily in Europe,’ laments Toronto-based Jamie Wolfond, who spent the past year designing a new collection of shelving, lighting and flat-pack furniture planned to launch at Salone Satellite. The cancellation of Salone was a blow; it’s the moment the design industry becomes real for us.’ Without that platform, Wolfond has utilised his healthy social media following to drum up interest, trickling out prototypes and hoping brands will bite.
He’s also launched The Basket Club, a cross-continent weaving society connected through Instagram. He sees the lockdown as an opportunity to keep up with friends he was hoping to see in Milan, while returning to the more tactile elements of his craft: ‘I hope designers who are at home, who might be used to cranking out renderings all day long, are picking up a pair of scissors and a piece of paper,’ he says.
George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg of Toronto- and New York-based Yabu Pushelberg are currently holed up in their Moore Park neighbourhood home, having missed the cut-off to return to New York before the border closed. Due to a normally hectic travel schedule, the pair are well accustomed to the digital commute. They are busy as ever with several international projects: final touches on The Londoner and Pan Pacific London hotels; finishing up the interiors of the La Samaritaine department store in Paris; and developing a second location of the Raffles Hotel on Singapore’s Sentosa Island, a large-scale project that is shedding new light onto the intricacies of their multidisciplinary firm.
‘Three design disciplines are working on this project: architecture, interiors and branding, and they all have a different workflow,’ explains Pushelberg of the challenges they’re facing, ‘so we’re seeing how the rhythm and nature of teamwork changes depending on the discipline. Now more than ever we feel like conductors of an orchestra, but our orchestra is scattered across the world and playing at different tempos.’
Also in Toronto, Jessica Nakanishi and Jonathan Sabine of M-S-D-S have found themselves particularly well situated. Despite a growing profile, the couple made the prescient choice a year ago to relocate to a home studio and limit the volume of projects to dedicate more time to their young son, Francis. They continue to work from their home in the lakeside community of Etobicoke, just west of downtown Toronto.
The decision was one of many that left them relatively unscathed by the pandemic. ‘We made a point to diversify our studio,’ notes Sabine, who intentionally sought out clients in a range of markets, so when lockdowns swept across Asia, Europe, and then North America, not all of their work was on pause. Upcoming collaborations include American furniture company Dims, Danish design brand Skagerak, Ace Hotel and Chinese children’s furniture startup Pupupula, which recently restarted production. ‘Since we work together we knew all our eggs were in one basket. We were aware things could be volatile.’
Over in Montreal, lighting designer Samuel Lambert of Lambert et Fils was able to quickly reorient his business to at-home production, with his sprawling team of assemblers swapping their studio workbenches for kitchen tables. ‘It’s funny, because productivity is actually going better like this,’ quips Lambert of the change, which has him working with his team over FaceTime from his basement. ‘I’ve recruited my 18-year-old son to be my at-home CAD modeller,’ he adds. But it’s not all rosy; a long-planned American showroom destined to launch during New York Design Week has been put on hold.
Interior designer Zebulon Perron has long been an integral figure in Montreal’s nightlife scene, designing restaurants, hotels and bars across the city. This was the year Perron was poised to break through internationally, having planned a collaboration with Italian shoe brand Tod’s in Tokyo, a hospitality project in New York, and furnishings for the Canadian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, many of which are on pause until lockdowns lift.
But despite his global ambitions, Perron sees this moment as an opportunity to think locally. ‘One of the reasons why I’m so involved in the restaurant scene here in Montreal is because the people are so passionate. We even bought a small farm to grow our own produce, with enough surplus to sell at a weekly market. This crisis has uncovered a lot of weaknesses in the Canadian supply chain; we’re so dependent on goods from abroad. As designers we need to start thinking in the same way — about how we can produce as much as we can here, at home.’